Two No-Joke Techniques to Control Your Toddler

There are so many different methods out there that claim to have the magic sauce that will help you become a more patient and effective parent. The theories always seem to work so well in our minds, and when we read the quick tips and tricks, they seem so alive to us; thinking to ourselves, “That makes so much sense, I’m going to do that the next time [insert child’s name] acts out.”

I’ve read countless parenting books, some better than others, but only a couple have really stood out in what methods have worked. I have the luxury of testing these methods on not only my four children, but hundreds of other children as part of my vocation as a school behaviorist. I work with children ranging from severely Autistic, to children with Down Syndrome to high schoolers with ADHD. I would try to apply these seemingly iron clad methods to the children I worked with and quickly learned that, as soon as the child starts acting out all bets are off. The situation simply does not fit the context of the techniques we read about. Yes, those catchy and witty methods seem to work in this limited and seemingly identical situations. However, as parents we know that no two situations are the same, nor are two children. Therefore, for a technique to truly work, it has to be three things:

  • Easy to Learn
  • Quick to Apply
  • Effective Across the Spectrum

Ok, so here it is are you ready? Spank Them! Actually, I’m just kidding, of course not. We know from years of concrete and universal research that spanking (or any punishment for that matter) is never as effective as positive reinforcement. But, how do we apply that? What does it look like? Even the techniques that have been shown to be so effective, such as Behavioral Modification, are not easy to apply, nor do they come natural.

What does come natural is saying “No! Don’t touch that!” How about, “If you don’t get down right now you’re going to get a time out!” You can predict what happens next. For example, don’t think of the color of your first car. See how hard it is not to do something we point out. Children are not mentally developed enough to utilize the brain resources needed to control their impulses. When they see something they want they want it now, right now. The frontal lobe, or the “brakes,” region of our brain does not fully develop until a person reaches the age of about 25. So how can we expect a toddler to stop doing what they can only focus on.

Here are two effective ways to help you help your child feel understood, comforted, and become compliant. First, you need to realize that engaging in a power struggle with your child is never a good idea. First off you don’t win, in fact you lose. You may be thinking, well, how do I loose, I got them to do [fill in the blank] eventually, but at what cost. You did loose. You lost your patience and time. Chances are you toddler will get upset about one of two things:

  1. I want that….
  2. I don’t want to do this (or that)….

Your child may feel upset because they aren’t getting what they want or they feel forced to do something they don’t want to do, or are about to do. So what techniques can you use? Here’s two that work, and are pulled from a few books that have been very beneficial in my vocation and own home (links below).

Say “Yes” “And” these two words are very powerful. They convey both that the child will likely get what he or she wants, but there are also some strings attached. But there is more, you need to show the child you understand their situation. Children won’t listen to you unless they feel they’ve been listened too. Imagine you’re trying to confide in your friend after you’ve just lost someone in your family. You tell them, “I’m feeling really down today, and don’t feel like doing much of anything;” and your friend responds with, “That’s ok, were going to the city to have some fun, so you’ll cheer up there.” At no point did your friend really empathize and listen reflectively. They should have said, “That’s totally understandable, I’d feel the same way, how can I support you.” Additionally, we want to ensure that we follow the empathy with direction, and try to break things down for them into smaller parts.

For example (three different age groups), let’s say your child says, “I want to watch Paw Patrol,” or “I want to go to the mall,” or “ I want to play soccer;” and you are in the middle of trying to make dinner, or feeding the baby. You can say “YES [with emphasis} AND I know you want to [insert wanted activity] because you like [show you know why they like the preferred activity], let’s do this, help me with the dishes, and then we get to [insert wanted activity].

It’s important to do a few things during this process. Stop what your doing, get at eye level, close proximity, get them to say yes, then start moving.

If your child resists, redirect them to the reinforcer they presented to you [the activity]. You want to do [activity] right? Child will likely respond, “Yes” and then you start immediately moving, gesturing them to the area they need to be at, provide them with an item, in this case a sponge, and simply resume what you’re doing.


“Yes you can go outside, and I know you really enjoy the fresh air, let’s do this, knock out 5 problems for me, then we get to go outside.”


“Not right now, you need to finish all your homework first.”

It’s important to use language that shows you’re in it with them, such as “let’s and “we.” This method is also largely effective for situation #2 where the child says, “I don’t want to do [this or that].” You simply skip to the part that states, empathy and understanding, and then resume the technique. For example, “I don’t want to do the dishes anymore.” You might say, “I understand you’re over doing the dishes, let’s do this, help me by finishing the dishes, then we get to do [A] or [B], which would you prefer? As soon as your child makes a choice between the two options, they’ve agreed to doing the rest of the dishes, remember to drop what you’re doing and to get into their close proximity to communicate. It’s hard to apply these techniques across the room.


Connect before you redirect.

Children will not listen unless they feel they’ve been listened to.



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