There are three types of toddler bad behavior that go beyond the "annoying" category and need to be stopped with discipline: dangerous acts, aggression, and breaking key family rules.

When your child is engaged in these red-light behaviors, I recommend two "take-charge" consequences you can use to put on the brakes: time-out and giving a fine. Let's look at each of them in detail...

Toddler Discipline Tactic #1: Time-Out

Time-out is a "take-charge" consequence where you very briefly deprive your child of two precious things: freedom and the privilege of being with you. Time-out requires one piece of equipment—a timer—and has three simple steps (Note: For dangerous or really bad behavior you can skip right to step 3):

  • Step 1: One last warning. If your 2-year-old is having a meltdown at the dinner table because you won't let him play with the sugar bowl, clap-growl (a toddler warning technique—clap your hands three to four times and grrrrrrowl), frown and shake your head "no" (even do a double take). Once you have his attention say, "Mad. Mad. Jamie's mad at Daddy. Jamie wants the sugar, now! sugar! No sugar! But you know what? Daddy's gonna let you hold something else. Do you want to hold a piece of bread or your police car?"

  • Step 2: Count to three. If your child ignores your warning, put on a serious face and calmly echo his desire; then say "No," and count to three. You want your child to learn that the time-out is something he's doing to himself (not something you're doing to be mean). If your child stops the misbehaving before you get to three, don't do a time-out. Reward his cooperation by playing the boob. Later on, compliment his good listening with a bit of praise and gossip, and a little bedtime sweet talk before you turn out the lights.

  • Step 3: Put your child in isolation. Now the time for talking is over. Calmly lead him (or, if you have to, carry him) to the time-out place.

It's a good idea to pick your time-out place ahead of time. A chair or bottom step may work with some tots. But young ones, and feisty toddlers of all ages, usually need to be confined—in a playpen if they are under age two, or gated into their bedroom if they are over age two.

Time-outs should last one minute per year of age. You'll want to buy a timer with a loud ring. Timers are great to let both you and your child know when the time-out is over. Introduce the timer to your tot as Mr. Dinger and let him hear what it sounds like. It will allow your child to hear when the time-out is over, and it also gives you a good answer when he begs to come out ("It's not up to me, it's up to Mr. Dinger.")

Once the fit is over and your child is free to go, don't talk about the time-out for 30 minutes or so. Just join him in some play or give a bit of attention. It's time to let go of your anger and allow your heart to forgive. If he's still mad, connect with respect, but then let him be on his own. Many kids need to sulk a little after being punished.

Awhile after a time-out, express your regret for having had to do it. Later in the day, talk to him about what happened and gossip to his toys about the incident (and the lesson you want him to learn). At bedtime, reinforce the lesson by telling a fairy tale about a little bunny who misbehaved and what happened to him.

Toddler Discipline Tactic #2: Giving a Fine

If time-out is like going to jail, giving a fine is like, well, being fined. It's a "take-charge" consequence that targets your toddler's growing love of freedom and ownership. This tactic is best used for toddlers two and up (especially three and up).

Giving a fine penalizes your tot by removing a valued privilege or toy. Make the punishment related to the misconduct. In other words, if he defies you by playing basketball in the house, remove the ball for a while. (Penalties that connect the punishment to the misbehavior are also called logical consequences.)

When you take away a privilege, tell your child you know how much she wants it, but what she's doing is not okay. For example, if your three-year-old refuses to stop tossing crackers to the dog, remove the crackers and say, "You like to see Rusty eat crackers, but crackers are for people...not dogs. Mommy said, 'Stop, no, no, no!' but Eleanor didn't listen to Mommy's words, so...bye-bye crackers. No crackers for dogs. Now you can get down and play."

Sometimes the "prized possession" you remove It's time to use the kind ignoring technique (give a teensy cold shoulder to nudge a tot to cooperate): "Mommy doesn't like it when you say those words. They don't make me laugh. They hurt my ears. I'm going to the kitchen and I'll be back in a little bit when you remember your nice words."

Once your child stops the negative behavior, do a little something that is fun to show him that good things happen when he follows the rules. Later, you might gossip to Daddy on the phone about when he did good listening and stopped when Mommy said stop.

How Not to Punish a Toddler: Spanking

When you're angry, clap...don't slap.

Violence is a huge problem in our country. And it has its roots in the home. After all, our toddlers imitate most things we do. If we eat with our fingers, they'll imitate. If we whistle while we work, they'll try to do that. So if we hit them when we don't like their actions, what do you think they learn from that?

Hitting children teaches them that it's okay for big people to hit little people and that it's okay to vent anger through violence. Is that really what you want your child to learn? And what sense does it make to spank kids to punish them for hitting? We don't teach children not to spit by spitting at them, do we?

What to Do If Your Toddler Won’t Listen

It’s quite common that toddlers won’t listen, and these little cave-kids may need some gentle discipline to learn right from wrong. We recommend reserving the above discipline tactics for “red-light” behaviors. If your toddler still won’t listen, try communicating with them in Toddlerese (aka their native language!):

  • Speak in short phrases: One- to two-word phrases are bite-sized enough for a toddler’s stressed-out brain to understand when in the middle of a tantrum.

  • Use repetition: If your toddler is upset, words may whiz by their brain too fast to understand. You may need to repeat the same phrase twice...or three, four, maybe even eight times just to get your toddler’s attention!

  • Mirror your toddler’s feelings: Make your toddler feel understood by mirroring their feelings with your own voice and gestures.

  • Connect with respect: Keep a cool, respectful tone and avoid hurtful words—even if you are feeling really angry.

  • Get on your child’s level: Squat or kneel down so you’re just below your child’s eye level. This shows that you respect her and you care.

  • Praise ‘green-light’ behaviors: When you catch your child listening—or performing other good behaviors—be sure to praise it! Praising a child’s positive actions throughout the day can help reinforce the kind of behavior you want to see. 

Have you tried everything above and is your toddler still acting out? Then it might be time to get a copy of The Happiest Toddler On the Block. In it, you’ll get even more tips for how to get your toddler to listen, behave, and be the best kid they can be—straight from Dr. Harvey Karp. Click here for more information on The Happiest Toddler on the Block.

About Dr. Harvey Karp

Dr. Harvey Karp, one of America’s most trusted pediatricians, is the founder of Happiest Baby and the inventor of the groundbreaking SNOO Smart Sleeper. After years of treating patients in Los Angeles, Dr. Karp vaulted to global prominence with the release of the bestselling Happiest Baby on the Block and Happiest Toddler on the Block. His celebrated books and videos have since become standard pediatric practice, translated into more than 20 languages and have helped millions of parents. Dr. Karp’s landmark methods, including the 5 S’s for soothing babies, guide parents to understand and nurture their children and relieve stressful issues, like new-parent exhaustion, infant crying, and toddler tantrums.

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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.