The Best Discipline for Toddlers

Children want to be like their parents: If you can regulate your own tension, the children will learn to do that too. If you put your feelings into words, once again, your children will learn to do that.
07/08/2013 12:52 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

Hitting, spanking, pinching, squeezing, paddling, whipping, swatting, smacking, slapping, washing a child's mouth with soap... It's frightening to think about those things happening to a child, especially a very young one.

We don't allow a husband to hit his wife, we certainly don't let one stranger do that to another stranger and an adult who is not a parent can never lay a hand on a child without fear of prosecution. But when it comes to one's own children, too many people still think physical punishment is the most effective -- and entirely acceptable -- way to get a child in line.

Surveys reveal that more than 60% of adults in the U.S. think it's OK and 50% still hit their child or inflict some type of physical punishment/abuse in an attempt to correct or change their child's behaviors.

I can't stress strongly enough how damaging -- and unnecessary -- it is... 100% of the time. If hitting a child is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. Let me explain.

Your professed goal when you hit (I use hit to mean any of the actions described above) is to teach your child a lesson, to make sure he or she doesn't do something that is rude, dangerous or disrespectful.

But hitting does not work, it makes things worse, and there are effective alternatives. Research shows that children who are hit by their parents are more likely to develop antisocial behaviors and act more aggressively toward their peers. Hitting scars the child-parent relationship, and can lead children into depression, anxiety, drug use and excess drinking, among other issues. When children who have been hit grow up, they are more likely to abuse their own children or spouse and get in trouble with the law.

What Does Work?

  • Step one is to be good to yourself. You need to do whatever it takes to make sure you are not so stressed, overtired, angry or frustrated that you lash out at those nearest and dearest, including your children.
  • Get regular exercise -- it can help dispel stress and tension.
  • Avoid drinking or drugs to ease your moods (they backfire).
  • Ask for help and advice from friends, family -- or professional counselors, if you're overwhelmed. You'll be surprised at how willing people are to lend a hand.
  • Take time to understand how children are constructed: that is, learn about infant and child development. Children are a delightful combination of adult abilities (to understand and share emotions and ideas) and childish behaviors, like wandering attention and emotional outbursts. But come on -- they're just children... and that's how they're made!

So, you want to help your child learn how to tolerate frustrations, regulate tension, behave in socially acceptable ways, develop appropriate ethical and moral standards and improve self-esteem. Can you do this without using physical punishment? Absolutely, yes!

Try These Four Points:

1. Use Listening, Talking and Explaining. Listen to your child. When your child expresses feelings such as interest, enjoyment, surprise, distress, anger, fear, shame or disgust, label them with words. Let your child know you are aware of the emotions he or she is expressing. One Mom said: "My 3-year-old can get very frustrated. But if I just take time to listen carefully to him, we end up finding a solution. Now I'm trying to get my husband to listen better to him!"

Use words instead of actions. That's how children develop tension regulation (awareness of feelings and ability to tolerate them without having to act out), self-awareness and thoughtful decision-making. Explain your reasons.

2. Know Your Audience. Take time to learn about your child's developmental stages. Then you will have realistic expectations about how your child will behave and what your child can and cannot be expected to understand. You'll be a lot more patient -- and that makes it less likely you'll feel like hitting.

3. Use positive reinforcement to encourage good behavior. Using reward and praise for appropriate behavior works wonders! Using fear and shame doesn't improve behavior in the long run.

4. Teach by Example. Here we are, back to you. Children want to be like their parents: If you can regulate your own tension, the children will learn to do that too. If you put your feelings into words, once again, your children will learn to do that. So, set a good example, and help your child grow into a happy, successful adult.

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Paul C. Holinger, MD, MPH, is Dean of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, Training/Supervising Analyst and Child/Adolescent Supervising Analyst, and a Founder of the Center for Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy at the Chicago Institute. He is also Professor of Psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Dr. Holinger is Board Certified in Psychiatry by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and Certified in Psychoanalysis (adult and child/adolescent) by the American Psychoanalytic Association. He is a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. His best selling book, What Babies Say Before They Can Talk, has been translated into several languages. For more information visit