Emotional Intelligence and How to Discipline a Toddler Without Time-Outs


Emotional intelligence begins in infancy when babies bond with caregivers and learn that people will respond to them when they cry or smile. As your baby grows, he or she will become more aware of emotions, gaining the ability to name them, respond to them, and eventually regulate them. 

Disciplining a toddler might seem like a nearly impossible task, but as the saying goes — the best defense is a good offense. By nurturing their emotional intelligence at this early age, parents lay a strong foundation for toddlers to practice self-awareness and eventually, the ability to manage their emotions, even when big feelings like frustration and/or disappointment strike. 

Remember the Goal of Disciplining a Toddler

how to discipline a toddler: child playing with parent outside

It can be hard to remember in the moment, but the goal of effective discipline with your toddler is not to punish bad behavior. Instead, discipline is leading and guiding children by example in a way that helps them learn and grow.

We do not strengthen children’s emotional intelligence through punishment. In fact, research shows punitive parenting methods including spanking and/or putting children in forced isolation (aka time-outs) does not lead to cooperative behaviors, but instead, motivates children to avoid getting caught next time, even if this involves lying or withholding information from their parents.

It is important for young children to feel safe in order to learn and grow from their mistakes. As parents, we can provide a safe space for this to happen. Toddler discipline can be clear and firm without being punitive. Positive discipline strategies build emotional intelligence, providing both tools and relationship-based life experiences for young children to learn about and begin to express/manage their emotions. 

Teach Your Toddler to Recognize Emotions

upset little girl

The first step in developing emotional intelligence at any age is the practice of recognizing our emotions. It’s not until a child can identify emotions and respond to the feelings of others that she can also begin to control her own feelings. This may seem like a tall order for a 2-year-old, but studies show that even babies as young as 18 months can recognize and respond to emotions

Toddlers are too young to fully manage their emotions on their own, but they can begin to co-regulate emotions with the help of supportive adults. The good news is that there are plenty of play-based, child-led ways parents and educators can help children in this process. 

How to Model and Nurture Emotional Intelligence

By modeling how to recognize and respond to our own emotions and to those of others, our toddlers can learn to do the same. Even as they become more independent, children are innately wired to seek connection, particularly with caregivers. When we model important emotional intelligence skills, they are watching and will soon follow. In all things child-rearing, our actions speak louder than our words.

Here are some things you can do at home and/or in an early childhood classroom setting to nurture a toddler's emotional intelligence. 

  • Name emotions and talk about how we identified that emotion.
    Example: That little girl is crying and kicking her feet. I bet she is feeling mad. What do you think?
  • Let our toddlers know that all kinds of emotions are okay to feel. 
    Example: It looks like you are feeling frustrated that you didn't get to choose a treat at the store today. I get frustrated, too, when I am expecting something to happen and it doesn't. It's okay to feel frustrated. 
  • Model empathy.
    Example: It looks like your little brother is feeling sad, and I think he might feel better if I snuggle up and read with him for a bit on the couch. Would you like to join us? 
  • Talk about feelings. Often.
    Example: It seemed like the little boy in the story we just read was feeling lonely. Did you think so too? If you were friends with this little boy, what do you think you might have said or done? 
  • Offer tools for managing big emotions.
    Example: I can tell you are feeling very angry right now. Sometimes, when I'm feeling mad or sad, I take three big deep breaths. And sometimes I go to a place that feels safe and cozy to practice calming my body until I'm feeling better. Let me know if you want a hug.
  • Talk about how to help others with their big emotions.
    Example: Today I saw a mom leaving the store with a crying baby. She looked like she might cry. I helped her put her groceries in her car and after talking with her for a bit, we hugged. She thanked me for the help and said she had been having a hard day.
  • Demonstrate how you control your emotions, even in times of stress. 
    Example: I am rushing to make dinner, the baby is crying and you are pulling on my leg. I am feeling stressed. Mommy is going to take a minute to bounce the baby and to breathe until we are feeling better. I can finish cooking dinner when I feel calm again. Do you want to stand up, bounce and breathe with me?

Replace Time-Outs With Time-Ins

how to discipline a toddler while being supportive: mother kissing daughter

Of course, even when you teach children to name their feelings, temper tantrums and meltdowns are still inevitable. During an outburst or meltdown, we can help young children develop self-control by giving them permission to feel, a safe place to express their emotions, and the opportunity to practice calming strategies. 

The Problem With Time-Out

Temper tantrums can be stressful for everyone, and it might be tempting for you to control the situation by implementing a time-out or sending your toddler to a different room. This approach may give you as a grown-up a chance to calm down, but for a toddler, it can be scary and isolating.

When young children feel overwhelmed with emotions, they benefit from connection and understanding more than isolation and loneliness. Time-outs don’t build the social and emotional skills necessary to help children avoid overwhelm in the future, and some studies have found that when a child feels rejected, the same area of the brain is activated as when the child experiences physical pain. 

How to Discipline a Toddler Using Time-In

The next time your child has a meltdown, remember that these big emotions are a cry for help. Replace time-outs for a time-in.

What does this mean in practice? 

  1. Instead of sending your child to sit someplace alone, settle in with her and offer comfort. 
  2. If your child is ready for a hug or a snuggle, offer one. If not, simply sit next to her so that your toddler knows she doesn't have to be alone. 
  3. When your toddler is ready to talk, have a conversation about the feelings he experienced and how you might be able to help him when it happens again. 
  4. Talk about how to recognize big feelings in the body. Ask the child, "How does it feel in your head when you get mad/sad? In your tummy? Etc". Practice calming strategies like counting to ten and taking deep breaths when toddlers are feeling calm so they can use them when they are not.

Around 3 years of age, children can use a calming corner, stocked with favorite pillows, stuffed animals and age-appropriate, enrolling activities to practice playing with and learning about their feelings. This designated place in a home or early childhood classroom helps children grow in self-awareness free from shame when they are needing help regulating their emotions--- a cozy source of comfort and a safe place to practice, learn and grow their social and emotional skills. 

Used effectively, practicing Time-In's can address and meet the needs that exist behind meltdowns and tantrums before they begin. they can also help adults keep their own triggers in check, encouraging parents to respond instead of reacting when toddlers are acting out and to see misbehavior as simply an unmet need. 

Given tools and support, young children from even the most challenging of circumstances can begin to practice basic social-emotional skills, learning how to notice, understand, express and manage their emotions for a lifetime of healthy relationships and well-being.

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Generation Mindful creates tools, toys, and programs that nurturing emotional intelligence through play and positive discipline. 

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