Giving Consequences to Young Kids and Toddlers

Posted July 17, 2009 by

Ever get stuck trying to give the right consequences to your young child or toddler? Know that whether they’re 18 months or five years old, you should always try to do the following three things when giving consequences:

  • Instruct your child appropriately
  • Work to understand their temperament
  • Help your child learn from their inappropriate behavior

Remember, teaching accountability by giving consequences can start at the beginning, when your child is still small — in fact, it’s one of the most important things you could ever teach them. The key is to do it as effectively as possible!

Here is one simple rule of thumb: When instructing your child, use a matter-of-fact tone. It’s hard for children to pay attention to exactly what you’re saying when they sense that you’re upset or angry.  Besides, you want to model the behavior you want them to learn.  Give instructions in such a way that it tells the child that you expect them to master self-control at some point.  Experiencing a consequence in the moment is important for this age, but take time to calm down first if you’re feeling frustrated.

If you find yourself at odds with your child a lot, maybe scratching your head and wondering where they’re coming from, take a minute to consider their temperament. It may be different from yours. Notice your child’s attention span, activity level, how they react toward people or any sensitivity to their environment, and pay attention to their moods and the intensity of their emotional responses. Here are some examples of things to look for:

  • Really energetic kids may have a hard time stopping themselves, could be more impulsive and will need a lot of “hands-on” coaching from parents.
  • Children who are withdrawn may need more encouragement and time to respond, and might rebel if pushed. They may also need tasks broken down for them: “Here’s what to do first. Now do this.”
  • Emotionally sensitive kids may feel too responsible or overwhelmed.  Make sure you’re focusing on behavior and skills and not “why” they did something inappropriate.
  • Environmentally sensitive kids need to have the over-stimulation reduced.  When they’re over-stimulated, they might not hear you when you’re talking to them. They might do best after taking a calming time-out.
  • Those with short attention spans might have trouble carrying out a request with a lot of steps. Break the request down to one instruction at a time for them.

It’s very important to understand your child’s temperament along with their skill level.  James Lehman says, “Start where your child is at and coach them forward.” This means you should try to understand their capacities and challenge them to do just a little bit better. For example, one of the best ways to help them learn skills is to do tasks with them. Also, it’s important to realize that it’s not necessary at this age to require a child to do their “chore” on their own.

Most of the time, when your young child is acting out or behaving inappropriately, just redirecting them will be enough. If the child clearly understands that the behavior is not acceptable and yet does it anyway, try to keep the consequence directly related to the behavior. Consequences that are too harsh or that take away an unrelated possession or privilege will not help your child understand the connection between what he has done and the consequence.

To increase your child’s understanding, connect his behavior to a result or a consequence with the words you use when correcting him.  “If you keep throwing that toy, it will break and you won’t have it to play with anymore.”  [Consequence: time-out the toy.] Here are some other examples of appropriate consequences — and how to give them:

  • “If you can’t calm yourself down, you’re going to have to go to your room and rest for awhile. You can calm down in there.”
  • “If you don’t help clean up, it will take longer and we won’t have as much time to play.”
  • “You could get hurt. I’m going to stop you from doing that.”

Giving consequences to a young child and holding them accountable takes a lot of energy and patience, because your child will need a lot of rehearsal and repetition at this young age to learn to cope with his feelings and master skills. But take heart — you will eventually be rewarded with better behavior!


Carole Banks, MSW holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Social Work from the University of New England. Carole has worked as a family and individual therapist for over 16 years, and is a former 1-on-1 Coach for Empowering Parents. She is also the mother of three grown children and grandmother of six.

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  1. Fido Report

    Thank for sharing! That’s geat article. I think we have to play with them as much as we can. We can play some kid games, watch kid videos with them. There are a lot of interesting video in youtube. Our children can learn a lot and enjoy.

  2. D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor Report

    To “Worried Mom”: Thank you for sharing your story with us. It can be very frustrating when children start to exhibit attention seeking behavior. At her age, the capacity for dealing with feelings effectively is fairly limited. Problem solving and coping skills develop over time as we are faced with different incidents. You can help your daughter with this by talking with her about what is happening at school and suggesting what she might be able to do differently. I would encourage you to continue talking with her teacher about these situations as well. This may give you insight into what problem your daughter is trying to solve. Here is an article that may help you with this The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: “I Can’t Solve Problems” .
    Consequences for her behavior at school may not be effective. The praise and reassurance you give her is a valuable tool in reinforcing the positive behavior. You might consider implemeting an incentive plan or behavior chart. One benefit of this plan is it puts the focus more on the appropriate behavior as opposed to the behavior you’re trying to stop. A great article about behavior charts and how to implement them is Child Behavior Charts: How to Use Behavior Charts Effectively . I hope this is helpful. Good luck to you and your family as you work through this.

  3. Tina Report

    My daughter who is 5 has had a great first two terms at school. Having returned to school after the Easter holiday her teacher has noticed that she is attention seeking, she also cries each morning going into school for no apparent reason. She is academically very capable. Her return to school coincided with an incident whereby her teacher said she threw her folder at the teacher to which her teacher had to reprimand her and my daughter got very upset. I don’t know if this is at the route of her behaviour change. Her teacher reports that recently she doesn’t want other children to be in the spotlight ie another child won a trophy and my daughter clearly did not want her to share in her joy.
    Now that I am taking a step back to examine her behaviour at home she often does not like to share our attention. She has a three year old sister and an 18 month brother. She can be quite demanding and is emotionally insecure. She needs a lot of praise and reassurance. Help, worried mum.

  4. debba Report

    thank you for affirming my paretning. I often put toys in time out when two children are fighting over it. I had antoher parent disagree with me, stating that that wasnt teaching the toddler how to problem solve.

  5. Carole Banks Report

    Dear ‘Lisa222’:

    In James Lehman’s Total Transformation Program, consequences are only one part of a larger system that changes behavior. More important then a consequence is teaching your child how to problem solve.

    The good news about your daughter’s behavior is that she only is acting out this way with you–she is able to control herself otherwise. Since the problem lies in your relationship, take a closer look at the interactions between you and she to discover what changes will be helpful for her. For example, notice your own tone and the look on your face in addition to the words you’re saying when setting limits on her behaviors. If you are getting really anxious and feel like your in a power struggle with her—trying to ‘make her do what you want right now’—take a break and allow yourself time to calm down before you work with her. By taking a break you’re role modeling for her how to handle yourself when you’re really upset—this is something you want her to learn how to do.

    Help coach her to find a way to calm herself down when she begins to get upset. Let her know that it’s okay to have strong feelings—we all do—and we all have spent time learning how to manage those feelings in ways that don’t hurt others. Start by helping her to learn to recognize and name her emotions and how they feel in her body. “You look like you’re feeling frustrated.” Don’t try to talk her out of these feelings by telling her why she should not be frustrated—instead, tell her what she can ‘do’ with those strong feelings. “Try taking a few deep breaths. It should help you feel better.”

  6. Lisa222 Report

    Thank you for this blog. My daughter is almost 5 and I’m wondering about appropriate consequences for behaviour which has started recently. As soon as she gets frustrated or doesn’t get what she wants, she lashes out at me and hits or kicks or scratches. She only does this to me, not to her dad or other children. I tell her that it hurts me and I remind her to apologize, and if I feel very frustrated or legitimately hurt, I leave her for a minute or two and don’t play with her or give her any attention. Since the behaviour is not stopping, I obviously need to do more. Can you help? Up until a few months ago she was not violent at all, she never even had tantrums. She switched to a new daycare a few months ago, and she enjoys it there a lot, and she is starting kindergarten this fall, just to give you some background on what is going on in her little life. Thank you!

  7. Carole Banks Report

    Dear ‘katieg2001’:

    When you begin to interact with your child’s teachers, assume that they want to be helpful and patient with your child. This assumption will affect how you say things and what information you present. Ask to meet with teachers early in the year and tell them ‘what works’ for your child at home in addition to letting them know where he struggles. Learn everything you can about ADHD so you understand what supports are needed for your child and are able to advocate for those supports to be provided. Keep the communication open between you and the classroom teacher so that you understand the work she is asking your child to do and you can let her know your child’s performance during homework time. Consider volunteering at the school. It’s one of the best ways to build relationships between yourself and the school personnel.

  8. katieg2001 Report

    I am really grateful for these suggestions and it is appharent from the artical that the author understands children with adhd. While reading the artical I was encouraged to be more calm and positive with my two and a half year old, appharently adhd, son and felt validated in some of the things I am already doing. My concern, however, is that his future teachers won’t be as cooperative and patient as I, his Mother, am with him. Any suggestions?

  9. Jawillde Report

    This article is helpful for new or soon-be parents like myself. One of the many things I am constantly thinking about is what will I do to my young child to teach obedience.

    Every child is different and will need a different approach and articles like this are nice reminders not to blow one’s top at a difficult child (Not saying I’m like that but I’m sure I will get frustrated at times).

    Only 4 months left and then the family gets 50% larger.



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