As your little one progresses through toddlerhood, you will find that some of the more challenging behaviours come as a result of your little one knowingly testing boundaries and “Acting out”.
Generally, these will occur from 3.5+ years of age and as your little one continues to grow and develop, so too can our expectations for behaviour.
During early toddlerhood, many of your little ones meltdowns and tantrums will come from a place of “communication frustration” and being overwhelmed with thoughts and feelings. Throughout this period, we as parents want to try and avoid “punishing” our little ones and instead provide them with understanding, patience and tools to navigate through these trickier stages.
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As your little one grows and begins to be able to communicate their wants and needs and regulate their emotions, we can also begin as parents to implement rules, boundaries and consequences for behaviour that isn’t acceptable.
While we still need to leave room for mistakes and trials, we can also expect for your little one to begin to understand that deliberate “bad” behaviour can have consequences.
But what about punishment? Shouldn’t we be punishing the wrong behaviour?
It can be tricky to know the difference and it is really normal for parents to be unsure about what path to take when their little one is misbehaving. However there are some clear differences between punishment and consequences, as explained below.
While the terms punishment and consequence are often used interchangeably, there are some distinct differences.
The definition of punishment is to cause suffering, pain or to “get even”.
Now, some parents may use the term punishment and simply mean consequences for their little ones actions, so while the term itself isn’t so important, the response, behaviour and direction that a parent takes, is.
Typically, punishment involves a parent responding to a behaviour that they deem as wrong. However, the responses used, typically follows a more physical and aggressive means for gaining “control” or as a means for retaliation.
Example: A little one is acting out and hitting and kicking. A parent then goes over to their child, yells at them for hitting and kicking and then smacks them. This would be an example of punishment.
Example: A little one is hitting, kicking and acting out. A parent then goes over to the child and explains that hitting and kicking is wrong and that if they continue to act out, they will then have to leave the party. The child then continues to hit and kick so the parent removes the child from the party. This would be an example of a consequence.
The idea is that punishment doesn’t actually teach a little one WHY what they are doing is wrong, doesn’t provide them with a chance to correct and also doesn’t provide them with a longer-term consequence for this behaviour.
While the initial “smack” or “yelling” may startle the child and they may stop these behaviours, the only deterrence that is being formed is pain and fear. As this cycle then continues and your little one gets older, this pain and fear will no longer be a deterrence and as such the behaviours are likely to continue or increase.
Another issue that can then occur, is that smacking and yelling at your child then takes away the child’s responsibility from the initial behaviour.
What I mean by this is, that when a child knowingly does something wrong and there is a consequence, then child is then able to see that their behaviour then has a direct effect on something they want or like, being taken away from them.
However, when a child does something wrong and there is punishment, the child doesn’t make these same connections and instead responds out of fear, rather than a desire to do the right thing. Often, the child will see the smacking and yelling as a response of their parent being angry or upset, and not because of what the child actually did.
It is also common to see that the child may seem compliant, but only in the presence of the parent or “punisher”.
This punishment doesn’t help to develop a little ones self-regulation or self-control, but instead leads to the idea that “Physical retaliation is okay when I feel someone has done something wrong”.
Recent studies have suggested that the use of punishment, smacking and yelling can lead to:
A decrease in self-esteem
A decrease in self-regulation
Decrease in the quality of sleep
Consequences, on the other hand, aim to teach a child that there are actions and responses to everything that they do, whether good or bad.
The goal for giving a consequence is to encourage and teach little ones about positive choices. By providing consequences, you are encouraging your child to become self-aware, to think ahead and to take responsibility for their actions.
It provides them with the ability to understand actions and responses and how these are dictated by their behaviour and not by other forces (such as a parent yelling or smacking). Consequences can be both positive and negative and as a parent, it is important to try and find a balance between the two.
While we want to address the bad behaviour, we also want to praise and encourage the good behaviour.
Once a little one begins to notice that they receive more benefit from acting positively, this will create positive reinforcement and help to reduce the urge to engage in negative behaviours for attention purposes.
Positive consequences are a reflection of your little one doing something well, good and appropriate. These are a great way to encourage positive reinforcement and help to let your little one know that these are the types of behaviours that you want to continue to see.
These positive consequences don’t need to always be something physical (such as treats or new toys), but verbal encouragement and praise can be incredibly beneficial!
During the toddler years, it is easy to focus and redirect the bad behaviour. However by providing lots of attention to the good behaviours, little ones are able to gain a better understanding of right from wrong and are usually more inclined to do the right thing as a way of getting attention, as opposed to the wrong thing.
When you see your little one doing something positive (such as sharing or using their words in times of frustration), praise your little one and let them know you are noticing this behaviour!
This response differs from “bribery” as instead of you saying “if you do this, you will get a reward” you are saying “because you have done this, I am proud of you”.
There are of course times where you can give your little one a special treat or reward for behaving and this is something that will differ between families.
While it is important to focus on the good, little ones will make mistakes and do the wrong thing from time to time and we do want to ensure that we are addressing these behaviours as well.
In relation to negative consequences, there are two different forms, Natural consequences and Imposed consequences.
Natural consequences operate in the real word and are a direct and logical consequence for not doing something.
Being cold due to not wearing a jacket
Being thirsty due to not drinking water
Falling over in the bath, because they kept standing up
Tripping over a toy, becuase it wasn’t put away
A toy being broken, becuase it wasn’t cared for
Being hungry, becuase they didn’t eat dinner
Natural consequences are a great way to help your little one understand actions and responses.
We of course want to always keep our children safe and I wouldn’t encourage any parent to actively place their child in a dangerous environment, but sometimes stepping away from the argument and battle and allowing natural consequences to follow, can be beneficial.
These are also helpful as the child knows these consequences haven’t come directly from the parent, but instead as a direct result of their behaviour. It can be easy for parents to try and avoid natural consequences at all costs, as we never want to see a child upset or hurt. However, sometimes by avoiding all natural consequences, we are limiting our little ones ability to think ahead, make mistakes to learn from and can contribute to an increased reliance on the parent, as opposed to the child’s abilities.
Children will always need our help and as parents it is our duty to guide and support them as much as possible, but responsibility and self-regulation are incredibly important tools for your little one to learn and develop.
When you are allowing a natural consequence to occur, it is important as a parent to talk through and “debrief” with the child about what is happening and why. This isn’t a time for a parent to say “well I told you so” and belittle their child, but I would instead encourage parents to allow this consequence to be connect with the child’s behaviour or decision.
Example 1. You are going to the park and it is cold outside. You ask your child to put their jacket on, but they don’t. You then remind your child to place their jacket on, otherwise they will be cold. They don’t. You go to the park and your child complains they are cold. You can then say to them “ I can see you are cold, because you are not wearing a jacket. Jackets help to keep us warm so we can play longer”.
Example 2. “You are bathing your child and they are standing up. You ask your child to sit down as otherwise they could fall and hurt themselves. You sit your child down, but they then continue to stand up. As a result, your child accidentally slips and falls over. After ensuring your child is okay, you explain to them they fell over becuase they were standing up and the bath is slipperily. You ask your child what they should do next time, to avoid this”
Imposed consequences are selected or chosen by the parent or caregiver. These are best implemented when the consequences for your child’s action are a direct issue for you, place your child or another child in danger or at a risk for getting hurt.
Where possible, all imposed consequences should reflect the behaviour, be enforceable and address the issue.
With older children, you may like to involve them in creating a consequence, while for younger children, you and your partner or other careers may need to determine what you feel is appropriate.
Example: If your child hits another child, there may be both natural and imposed consequences available. One natural consequence may be that the other child no longer wants to play with your child. One Imposed consequence may be that you leave the play date.
However, becuase hitting another child inflicts pain and that child no longer playing with your child is unlikely to be a strong deterrence, I would encourage parents to provide warnings before then enforcing an imposed consequence.
When imposing a consequence, it is important to explain why this consequence is a result of their behaviour. It is also important to allow for a chance for your child to correct their behaviour, before following through with the imposed consequence.
Example 1: Alex (5) has gone to the shops with his mum to get an dinner and a after dinner treat. Alex’s mum as told him that he will need to hold her hand when walking across the road as this will keep Alex safe.
When getting out of the car, Alex refused to hold his mums had. Alex’s mum gave him one warning “ Alex, you need to hold my hand so I can keep you safe as we cross the road. If you aren’t able to hold my hand, we won’t be able to get a special treat for after dinner”.
Alex continues to refuse to hold his mums hand. His mother gives him one more chance to change his behaviour, however Alex doesn’t. Alex’s mother than picks Alex up to go into the shops, however she does not purchase an after dinner treat.
Example 2. Jody (4) and her father are going to a party. At the party, Jody begins to act out and pushes another child. Jody’s father, explains to Jody that it is not okay to push people as this hurts them. If this happens again, they will need to leave the party.
Jody then pushes another child. Jody’s father then explains to Jody “ Because you have pushed someone again, we have to leave the party. Pushing is not okay as it hurts them.” Jody and her father then leave the party to go home.
It is incredibly important to create a consequence that can be enforced sooner, rather than later, where possible. There is little benefit in saying to a younger child “ If you do this, you won’t be able to go to the party next week/month/year”.
Consequences that you are able to enforce then and there, where the behaviour is fresh in your little ones mind, is beneficial.
For older children, around 5-6 years of age, you can begin to introduce “distant” consequences, such as not being allowed to go to a sleepover, party or other. It is important that these consequences match the behaviour and that you follow through.
When following through with a consequence, you are still able to be nice to your child, love them, hold them and play with them, however you need to be firm in keeping to your consequence in place. If you tell your child they aren’t allowed T.V that night, be firm and consistent.
If you then don’t follow through, your little one will begin to realise that these “consequences" are empty threats and they will no longer be a deterrence.
If your child starts to behave well and apologises for their mistakes, this is great! Thank them for communicating this with you and commend them on their good behaviour, however once you have implemented the consequence, you should follow through with this regardless.
It is important to not continue to drag out the consequence or continue to throw it in their face, as this will only breed resentment and will likely result in further acting out from your little one.
I would also avoid using food, water or comforters as a means for a consequence. Although your child may have been naughty, they still need to remain hydrated and fed. You don’t need to punish your child throughout the day constantly and there is no need to remove breakfast, lunch or dinner as a means for retaliation. Being hungry and dehydrated often leads to a decline in behaviour and it is important to teach your little one that they have a chance to make up for something they have done wrong.
You can, however, remove “special treats” as a consequence when appropriate. For some, this may be that unless their little one eats all of their dinner, they won’t get dessert.
If your little one has a comforter, dummy or teddy that acts as a form of security, avoid using this as a means for deterrence or as a consequence. Removing something that your little one is attached to is following a line of punishment and can increase anxiety and isolation for a little one.
Instead, find another imposed consequence you can implement that is appropriate for the situation. Below are a few different age appropriate, consequences you can implement with your little ones.
Younger Toddlers (12 - 30 months)
Removing the child from the environment
Removing the object from the child
Picking the child up as opposed to letting them walk
Throwing food on the ground, it isn’t returned
Standing up in the bath, falling over
Climbing up on furniture, falling off
Throwing an item out of the cot, it isn’t replaced
Older Toddlers ( 2.5-4+ years)
Fighting over a toy, it gets taken away
Being silly with a drink and it spills, the child cleans it up
A toy isn’t packed up, it is removed from the play area
Not eating dinner, no dessert
Acts out at a party, is then taken home
Acts out, not allowed to watch movie or T.V show that day
Doesn’t get dressed, can’t go to the park
Being silly with juice and it spills, no more juice is offered
A toy isn’t put away, it breaks
Not eating what is offered for a snack, is hungry before dinner