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How and when to start disciplining your child

Toddler discipline

As responsible parents of the future generation, we desire to raise well-adjusted individuals who will be able to tackle what life throws at them. So when do you start to teach your child to understand right from wrong, how to follow some rules, cope with disappointment and work through frustration?

How do you discipline without squashing his desire to explore his world, work out for himself the social dynamics of a given situation and make mistakes he can learn from?

“Your child’s developmental stage, as well as their own unique sensory and emotional personality, are crucial in deciding what type of discipline tools to use,” says Lourdes Bruwer, Occupational Therapist, “However, there are some general guidelines you can use as you get started on this journey.” Lourdes views the goal of discipline as “teaching and learning in order to inform behaviour and decision making” and not blindly following a set of rules and expectations.


A crawling baby may be old enough to make mischief, but not old enough to learn the difference between right and wrong. At this stage simply distract his attention to another person or substitute with another toy and he will quickly forget what he was engaged in and move on.


Once your baby starts returning to the same action even after distraction; an alternative to “no” or removing them from the area may be to use “hold and count”. If, for example, your baby is turning your stove knobs, hold his hand (the one that was doing the touching) firmly and count slowly to 10. At first, he may think this is a game and try it again. Repeat this process until he realises that this game is not so fun and he stops.

“This process can initially be very frustrating for you as a parent as you may feel it is not having an immediate effect, but the key here is consistency and repetition. This method gets more effective with time as your little one starts to anticipate what the counting means,” says Carly Tzanos, Occupational Therapist.


This can be used together with the “hold and count” technique initially and later, as your toddler’s understanding improves, you can use it together with the “consequence” technique. The next time your little one is reaching for the stove knobs, say a firm “no touching” and follow through with the “hold and count” if he does touch.

Try to use these two tools for a select few items in your home (e.g. stove knobs, plug sockets) or social situations (e.g. grabbing hair, snatching toys, throwing food). Carly reminds us that “Your baby wants to (and needs to) explore his environment, so try to help him to do this safely rather than stopping him from exploring.”


As your mischievous little treasure gets a bit older, you can include a consequence to his behaviour. Make sure that the consequence is immediate and directly related to the behaviour you are trying to teach him to change. For example, “no pulling hair” and if he does not stop, take him off your lap and put him on the floor, saying “no pulling, it hurts, no sitting on my lap if you pull hair”. The consequence may also be to clean up a mess made or apologising to a friend. Do this with your child to help him (but not for him). The aim is to assist him to “make right” what has happened due to his behaviour and not to have a perfect end result.


Your amazing toddler can understand so much more than he is able to say. Although he wants to make his needs known, he is often unable to. To help him manage the related frustration and to teach him to be able to express his feelings and desires better, you can provide the words for him. By saying “it looks like you are sad because you wanted the blue truck” your child will feel understood and they will start to develop a vocabulary of words they can use to describe how they are feeling in the future.


Many toddlers can start to develop a temper, hence the “terrible twos”. He will also tend to act before he thinks and this impulsive behaviour can lead to accidents and conflicts. But don’t worry; this is completely “normal”, stage appropriate toddler behaviour! Lourdes explains that your toddler “is working very hard on becoming more independent and having some control over his world, which are qualities we will come to admire later on.”

Little girl covering eyes

It is helpful if you can identify any triggers or aggravators, e.g. tired, hungry, not able to express himself, struggling with sharing, not having choices. Then you can start to “catch” a tantrum before it starts or before it becomes a full blown meltdown. By knowing your child is hungry and offering a choice of snacks, you will get his blood sugar up, and he may be a little more reasonable. The offering closed choices where possible (e.g. do you want to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt, would you like to eat a yoghurt or an apple), will help him to feel like he has some say over his day and feel a little more independent.

With all these tools, use short, simple and consistent sentences. The aim is to teach and guide your child so that in the future he can use these tools and the resultant thinking processes on his own.

The best form of discipline is to catch your little one while they are doing something right and praising them for that. Children want to please and to get things right, so use that to your advantage.

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