Little Kids

An age-by-age guide to disciplining your kid

What's the best way to discipline a toddler? And what do you do when your kid won't listen to you? Here is an age-by-age guide to discipline your child.

By Cheryl Embrett
An age-by-age guide to disciplining your kid

Photo: iStockPhoto

As kids grow and change, so does their behaviour. The child who doesn’t throw tantrums at two may sass you at seven, and give you major attitude at 12. The best way to understand your children’s behaviour is to understand what they’re going through developmentally, say the experts. This knowledge will help you with disciplining children without resorting to yelling, threatening or having a meltdown yourself. “Discipline is about guiding and teaching our children — it’s not about punishment or anger,” says Scott Wooding, a child psychologist in Calgary and author of The Parenting Crisis. “It’s simply a way of helping kids learn right from wrong, and keeping them safe.” Here are some strategies to keep your kids on track at every age and stage.

How to discipline your toddler

Where they’re at: Your little guy isn’t whining, fussing or having temper tantrums to manipulate you or make you angry, says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Discipline Solution. “Mostly toddlers misbehave because they can’t express or control their emotions. They also tend to be very demonstrative. So when they’re happy, they’re very happy. And when they’re upset, they’ve very upset.” Your tot is naturally inquisitive, so it’s only normal for him to get into everything. His job is to test his new sense of independence; yours is to set limits.

Typical trouble spots

Tantrums: These emotional blow-ups are usually the result of your child’s anger and frustration at not being able to say, do or get what he wants, says Pantley. He also has a very short fuse when he’s tired, hungry, bored or frustrated. Tantrums are a surefire way of letting you know: “I really need a drink/snack/toy/nap — right now!”

Contrariness: Offer your two-year-old an apple and she wants a banana. Dress her in pink and she wants to wear brown. Your toddler is in the early stages of forming an identity separate from you, and part of the process may be deciding if you want it, she doesn’t. Her favourite word: NO!

Discipline tips worth trying with toddlers

Offer choices: Toddlers are all about independence and control, so you can avoid a lot of problems by giving them a little more say in their lives, says Pantley. Two choices are enough for this age group, for example, “What do you want to do first: brush your teeth or put on your PJs?”


Keep your cool: Toddlers thrive on attention — positive or negative — so if you overreact when your child intentionally dumps her cereal, or has a meltdown in the grocery store, you can bet she’s going to do it again. Calmly let her know that we don’t pour our food on the floor or scream when we can’t have another cookie. Keep it short and simple (no lectures, please) or you’ll just confuse her.

Nip tantrums in the bud: Minimize meltdowns by finding out what triggers them. If your tot always loses it when she’s hungry, make a point of having lots of healthy snacks on hand. If she gets upset when she has to leave the park, give her lots of warning (10 minutes, five minutes, two minutes) before you start packing up. And limit visits to notorious trouble spots, such as the toy store.

Take a time out: By the time your child is two, time outs can be an effective discipline tool, say the experts at the Canadian Paediatric Society. If your tot angrily whacks his playmate over the head, take him to a designated time-out area where he can calm down and get control of himself. Explain to him what he’s done wrong, using simple words like “no hitting.” Time outs should only last for one minute per year of age, to a maximum of five minutes.

How to discipline your preschooler

Where they’re at Your preschooler’s memory and communication skills are developing and he’s better able to follow instructions and understand explanations. This age group is busy figuring out tricky social skills, such as sharing, manners and getting along with friends, says Pantley. “They’re learning so much more about the world, but as their horizons expand, they have a lot more to deal with and they don’t know quite how to handle everything.”

Typical trouble spots

Whining: “It’s as painful to listen to as nails being scratched on a chalkboard — and it’s effective because you just want the noise to stop,” says Ari Brown, a paediatrician and author of Toddler 411. When whining becomes a habit, your child may not even realize she’s doing it.


Not listening: Your preschooler is glued to the TV, ignoring your repeated attempts to call him to dinner. “Asking a child something three, five or 10 times makes raging lunatics out of all of us, and a child learns he doesn’t actually have to respond until you’re hysterical,” says Sarah Chana Radcliffe, Toronto author of Raise Your Kids Without Raising Your Voice.

Discipline tips worth trying with preschoolers 

Never ask more than twice: Here’s how it works:

• Ask once nicely (“Please put your toys away”). • Ask a second time, but warn of a negative consequence if your child doesn’t listen (“I asked you to please put your toys away. If you haven’t done it by the time I count to five, I’ll have to keep them from you until tomorrow evening”). Avoid making unrealistic threats like “Slam that door and you’ll never watch TV again!” • Apply the negative consequence, if necessary. “If you don’t make good on your promise of discipline,” says Radcliffe, “you lose credibility.”

Catch them being good: Your preschooler really does want to please you, so make a point of encouraging him when he answers the first time you call him or shares a favourite toy. “We often pay attention to the behaviours we dislike and pay very little attention to the behaviours we want to see more of,” says Terry Carson, a parenting coach in Toronto.

Model the behaviour you want to see" Children learn a lot more from what we do than what we say. If you lose your cool when you’re upset, expect your preschooler to do the same. If your child is a champion whiner, he may just be mimicking how you sound when you ask him to clean up his messy room.

How to discipline your school-aged kid


Where they’re at: “Big kids” are now better able to express their feelings and to demonstrate self-control, so this is a prime time to lay the foundation for future behaviour, says Radcliffe. “Whatever happens between the ages of five and 10 tends to have a major impact on what’s going to take place in the teen years.”

Typical trouble spots

General compliance: “At this age, discipline is all about trying to get your child to do what he’s supposed to do — clean up, make it out the door on time, get his homework done,” says Radcliffe. “While preschoolers can be challenging that way too, it’s a lot tougher with this age group since you can’t just pick them up and put them into bed or carry them out the door.”

Discipline tips to use with your school-aged kid

Take a coach approach: Coaches use questions beginning with what and how to help team members reach their goals, says Carson. If your son has a fight with a friend, ask him, “What could you do differently the next time?” Your goal is to help him learn from the mistakes he made this time so he can do better the next time.

Push the rewind button: When possible, give your child a second chance. Explain what she’s done wrong and remind her of the behaviour you’d like to see. And thank her when she gets it right, says Carson.

Use logical consequences: Otherwise known as cause and effect, these should be directly related to your child’s behaviour. If your eight-year-old is late for school because she had trouble getting up in the morning, make bedtime earlier the next few nights rather than revoking her TV privileges. The best consequences are the ones whereby your child learns something.

How to discipline your tween


Where they’re at: “Tweens are starting to spread their wings and they want to go further, stay out longer and do more with their peers,” says Radcliffe. That can be scary for parents (especially with the first child) who don’t want to give up the control. The result? A seismic power struggle.

Typical trouble spots

Backtalk: These are prime years for backtalk as tweens gain independence and want to see how you respond if they exert control, says Michele Borba, author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. This is also the stage when kids want to “fit in” and appear “cool,” so they may copy their peers’ behaviour.

Contrariness: Preteens are ready to argue, debate and take you on every chance they get, especially if they think you’re being unfair. “Typically, problems with preteens revolve around privilege and freedom issues — how much time they can spend on the computer, whether or not they can have a cellphone, a later curfew or are allowed to text,” says Radcliffe.

Discipline tips worth trying with your tween

Don’t dictate: When you’re setting rules and limits, involve your young debater in the process. Explain your position, listen to his, and then compromise where you can. If your 11-year-old wants to bump up his bedtime to 10 p.m., but you’d rather he go to bed at 9, for example, tell him you’ll try out 9:30, provided he isn’t nodding off at school. “A willingness to be flexible and negotiate with your kids will garner you more co-operative behavior in the future,” says Carson.

Negotiate later: Parents often try to reason with their tweens when they’re in the middle of a hissy fit, says Carson. “What we’re teaching them is that as long as they complain loudly enough, we’ll be flexible.” Be firm in the moment, then negotiate later when everyone has calmed down.


Use when and then:When you’ve finished your homework, then you can play computer games.” “This is a phrase that works well for this age group, since you’re still giving your child free will,” says Radcliffe.

Have clear expectations: “I will not tolerate rudeness,” may be number one on your list. Whenever your tween uses a sassy tone (or engages in yelling, name-calling, put-downs or insults), call her on it immediately, says Borba. “Make it clear that you expect respect, and that telling you to ‘chill out’ when you talk to her is unacceptable.”

How to discipline your teen

Where they’re at: “Parents need to realize that brain changes are taking place, hormonal changes are taking place,” says Wooding, “and kids just aren’t in complete control of their own behaviour.” The drive for independence becomes a dominant force in your teen’s life, and his peer group rules.

Typical trouble spots

Major attitude: Your child may not be an adult yet, but don’t try telling him that! “Teens want to make all their own decisions, and they’re trying to do things they’re not quite ready to do,” says Wooding. “The trouble is teens don’t always make good decisions since they’re based on emotion rather than reason or logic.”

Discipline tips worth trying with teens

Don’t take it personally Your teen is not trying to find ways to make you angry, even if it seems that way, says Wooding. Stay calm and tell yourself it isn’t personal (“My child isn’t attacking my authority, she isn’t attacking my parenting — she just isn’t getting what she wants right now”). You can’t have an argument if only one person is arguing.


Keep setting appropriate limits: Teens feel more secure when they have clear boundaries on issues like homework and curfews, says Wooding, but don’t make them up on the fly. Sit down with your teen in late August and hammer out the rules for the upcoming school year. Remember as well to build in more freedom and responsibility as your child grows.

5 golden rules of discipline

1. Stand firm. We all hate conflict, but if you don’t stick to the rules and consequences you set up, your kids aren’t likely to either, says Wooding.

2. Pick your battles. Give the small things small attention and the big things big attention, and you’ll be happier and calmer — and (bonus!) your children will be happier, calmer and better behaved too, says Pantley.

3. Praise, don’t punish. Try to practise “good feeling” discipline most of the time, says Radcliffe. “Simply put, your tone of voice, your behaviour, the words you’re using, should all feel good to your child 80 percent of the time. If you can do that, you can do no wrong.”

4. Set clear rules and expectations. A carefully selected bunch of age-appropriate rules can make family life a whole lot smoother and easier, says Radcliffe. For example, the “no cookies before dinner” rule prevents regular arguments about snacking before supper. The “no computer after 10 p.m.” rule stops a nightly dispute about shutting down the PC.


5. Provide unconditional love. Yes, it’s a no-brainer, but children need to know you love them, every day, even when they’ve done something bad.

This article was originally published on Jun 08, 2020

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