Toddlers are cute. They can also drive you crazy with their screaming and obstinance.
But what’s a parent to do? These kids don’t have full control over their behavior yet. Maybe you wonder if disciplining your toddler does more harm than good.
Our friend Dr. Matt Breuninger knows a ton about the toddler brain. Here are his tips on whether you should discipline your toddler and — if so — how to go about it.
Remember that we are developmental creatures
Many parents know that their toddler isn’t fully developed mentally and behaviorally. Still, some don’t appreciate just how underdeveloped a toddler’s brain is compared to theirs. A toddler isn’t just a little adult.
The prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that controls inhibition and planning — won’t be fully developed until the child is between 21 and 23 years old. This means it’s constantly firing, rewiring, growing, and making connections. Any information the toddler’s brain receives from you may quickly be swept away. This is where discipline comes in.
You DO need discipline
In answer to the question “Am I expecting too much from my toddler?” the answer is always yes — in a sense. You should have expectations, but not the same as you would have for an adult. A three-year-old is not going to walk up to their mother and say, “Greetings, Mother. Would you like me to clean my room today?” That’s something you should expect from a teen — although that’s another battle to discuss another time.
But you do need to have rules and structure. There absolutely should be discipline. Through repeated acts of discipline, you’re helping to shape your toddler’s growing mind.
You need patient repetition
You can’t expect a toddler to master a rule or behavior after being disciplined once or twice. Repetition is key. Toddlers struggle to learn without repetition. They can’t abstract or do long-term planning, and their memories are REALLY short-term.
For example, you may tell your toddler to go upstairs and clean up their toys. If you ask them to repeat those instructions back to you, they may respond with something completely different. But as you patiently repeat this assignment over time, they’ll start to remember.
Avoid giving your child an assignment you know they won’t be able to complete
But what if you just can’t get your toddler to clean their room? Then start small. Break the job down into smaller tasks. For example, instead of telling them to clean their whole room, teach them to put their shoes away in the closet.
Don’t be surprised, though, if your toddler fails even these simple tasks the first ten times or so. Don’t let this make you impatient. Remember, your toddler has a brain that still has a lot of developing to do. And they’re literally having to learn EVERYTHING: speaking, grammar, how to treat people, etc.
Expect failure. We don’t mean to settle for failure, but expect it so you can approach your child with patience and love. And be patient with yourself, too. You’re a loving but imperfect parent. Do a gentle examination of yourself each night to see where you can improve.
When you feel tempted to let it all out on your toddler, remember we adults are like toddlers in relation to our heavenly Father. How many times do we make the same mistakes? For most of us, a lot. But our Father still loves us and is patient with us as He gently guides us to become the people we are called to be.
Let’s imitate His love with our own kids.