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How to discipline a 1 year old – tested and effective

how to discipline a 1 year old

My daughter is incredibly mischievous, cheeky and wonderful. She now fully knows what she’s doing, when I ask her “why are you doing that?” she’ll respond with “I’m being cheeky!” That being said she’s now nearly 21 months. When it comes to how to discipline a 1 year old, you really need to consider why you want to discipline them and what they’ve done to deserve being disciplined. 

Often we discipline for the wrong reason, this could be that we find a behaviour annoying, they haven’t done what we’ve told them to do right away or even our patience is thin that day because of lack of sleep. We really need to take a step back and consider why your 1 year old may be responding the way they are. The truth is, a 12 month old, isn’t bad, they don’t know what bad is, they’re just performing actions that we find undesirable.

When it comes to disciplining a 1 year old, you really need to think about their intention and their level of understanding. At this age, they do not fully understand the consequences of their actions. This is what we did and it has had a lasting effect on our daughter.

  1. DO NOT HIT!
  2. show them what they’ve done wrong
  3. tell them what they’ve done wrong 
  4. explain why it’s wrong
  5. tell them how it made you feel
  6. demonstrate how to do it properly
  7. lead by example

Many people reading this may disregard it, but they’re selling themselves short. There is real merit to this method, as you are beginning to teach your child right from wrong and developing understanding over time. You have an opportunity to positively engage with your child at the point of their life when they’ll need it the most. Instilling an understanding of right and wrong will teach your child why it is important to choose a specific action over another. For more information on this, there are many great chapters in ‘The Whole-Brain Child‘.

You may be thinking that your child won’t understand what you’re saying. You’re right, they may not – especially if you don’t spend much time engaging with your toddler and talking to them like a person. But the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll have a toddler that listens and is able to follow instructions. You can find out more information on how to talk to your children on our blog post. 

Toddler not listening

Before we look at how to discipline a 1 year old, let’s look first at why your 1 year old may be playing up or not listening.

I’m not always the most patient person. In fact, in my early teaching days, I would lose my temper if teenagers didn’t stop talking the instant I asked for silence. I’m ashamed to say that perhaps my ego was a little inflated. The truth is, even most adults won’t be silent the moment it’s asked of them. Many people take a little time to stop what they’re doing, especially if they’re in the middle of something; I myself am guilty of this, sometimes I may not even stop what I’m doing if I’m fully involved. 

Your toddler, who isn’t really aware of your expectations, and quite frankly isn’t that interested anyway, has more pressing things on their mind. If your toddler is playing, this is their version of learning, even working. When you call them to do something or to stop what they’re doing, the likelihood is they’re so focused on what they’re doing, they can’t manage to listen to you at the same time. You can find more information about this in ‘‘The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read’.

At this point, don’t get irate and lose your temper, take a step back and just observe what they’re doing. Intervene if they are doing something that could cause them harm, as we have a major duty of care to our little ones. But if they’re not, just watch them learn for a moment, take a picture to show little developments. Then go over to them, kneel down to be on their level and let them know they have x amount of time before they need to stop and do what you’ve said. You’ll find these results to be magical; it even works on teenagers.  

Toddler playing up

Your 1 year old is learning boundaries, your boundaries. They are trying to figure out what they can do before you start to get cross. At this age, for most toddlers, it is subconscious, they are not going out of their way to being openly defiant, some can’t even comprehend what defiance is. They may be naturally resisting because they want something and you won’t let them have it. Again, try to explain to them why they can’t have it, making sure you’re using language accessible to them; keep it short and sweet, just a few words.

If however, you have a child like ours, she has been throwing tantrums from 12 months old. She is incredibly independent and would usually get annoyed if she couldn’t do something, or we wouldn’t let her do something she wanted to do, usually because it was dangerous i.e. taking pans out of the cupboards…

We would always come down to her level and explain why she couldn’t. Let’s say 7/10 times she would calm down.

How to discipline a 1 year old

There are 7 areas we should consider when it comes to how to discipline a 1 year old, or any child for that matter. With these in place, as their understanding increases, so will their willingness to do the right thing and avoid trouble. 

1. DON'T HIT

At this age, you child is a sponge, they are taking in so much of what you say and do. If your child does something you think is wrong and you hit them, they are creating associations. When they learn cause and effect, they’ll understand that when someone does something wrong, it’s ok to hit them.

Another problem with this is when they do it to someone else, it will likely be for a reason that they think is acceptable i.e. like when I hit a kid over the head with a rolling pin in nursery for playing with the water when I was… 

You have to think carefully about the actions we are showing our children. If you make an effort to not swear in front of your child, as you know they’ll pick up the words, they’ll just as easily pick up your actions. 

This is often why children with alcoholic or abusive parents often see these behaviours as normal. As a result, more than 51% of adults who were abused as children experience domestic abuse in their later life. We really need to be careful about what we display as the norm in our households. 

2. Show them what they've done wrong

Toddlers around the age of 1, haven’t got a real grasp of cause and effect. The likelihood is that when they’ve dropped a cup of water and the water spills on the floor. They see the water is on the floor but don’t know why. They may know the cup has fallen, there is water on the floor, but may not quite understand that their actions have caused this to happen. 

Show them, by demonstrating the action that caused the cup to fall. Go through the steps with them so they can see what happens. Often, unless their action causes some kind of shock or jolt to the child, they’ll not learn straight away. For example, if they touch the hot oven, they’ll generally figure out that they don’t want to do it again… oven gives ouchy!  

3. Tell them what they've done wrong

Demonstrating the wrong action is incredibly important to show them what they’ve done wrong, but telling them at the same time will really get the point across.

Toddlers should know a word associated with something they’re not meant or allowed to do. For this, we opt for ‘Aaat’, or ‘Nooooo’. These drawn-out words start out with the tone of the first letter raised and then the following letters lowered towards the end. 

For example – if your toddler is hitting the tv with a toy car, first use your word, then explain to them that hitting the tv is not good behaviour, especially with a car. 

4. Explain why it's wrong

Now that you’ve shown and told them, it’s to time explain why their actions are wrong. This step will require patience and repetition overtime for them to understand. Often we are guilty of having expectations of our children, way above what they are capable of meeting. It is sometimes hard to comprehend how and why a child doesn’t understand the simplest thing. i.e. going to sleep if they’re tired, to avoid being overtired.

When explaining, make sure you go down to their level, I imagine it can be quite daunting to feel like you’re being told off by someone towering above you.

A great example of this happened yesterday, we were out at a pub and my mother-in-law was told she couldn’t walk around the pub with our daughter because of Covid-19 restrictions… My daughter was plopped back into her chair unwillingly and unhappily. The manager came over, told us he was sorry, but the rules are still quite strict. He then knelt down and explained the best way he could using short words to our daughter, who then stopped being a wriggle. Turns out he had a daughter the same age.

This is a fantastic tactic when trying to figure out how to discipline a 1 year old or a child of any age really. It really helps when you’re being told off or told you can’t do something, to know why.

5. Tell them how it made you feel

Empathy is an important part of positive parenting, especially when you’re trying to raise a calm, caring and compassionate child. In the book ‘The Whole-Brain Child they talk about the two different sides of the brain, the left being logical and the right being emotional. When a child is acting out and doesn’t necessarily know they’re acting out, perhaps even throwing a tantrum or responding in a way that doesn’t make sense to you. Using your logic to reason with them isn’t always the best way to tackle it.

Instead, try to empathise with your child and even use physical contact, such as a reassuring touch. Let them know that you can see that they’re frustrated and that that’s ok, sometimes mummy or daddy get frustrated as well. When they have calmed down a little, try to explain how their actions have made you feel. i.e. it makes mummy really upset when you throw your food on the floor because it makes a big mess, please don’t do it.

If your child isn’t experiencing a meltdown, you can skip the above steps. Tell your little one that their actions have made you feel upset or cross, or whatever it is you’re feeling (try to mince your words, don’t say you’re pissing daddy off right now…). Make sure your sentences are short and easy to understand. 

Unlike talking to an adult or older child, this will likely not be the last time you see this behaviour. Just keep repeating the process and eventually, when their understanding improves, you’ll see a massive improvement in behaviour. It will seem like it happened overnight. For more information on how the smallest consistent changes can make the biggest impact on your life, in all areas, check out the book – The Compound Effect

6. Demonstrate how to do it properly

From before the age of 1, our daughter has demonstrated a HUGE desire to be independent! She wants to do everything by herself, from climbing the stairs to holding her own cup of water. With most things, starting out, it’s just a bad idea to let them be independent. 

If you’ve told your independent child time and again to hold their cup still otherwise they’ll spill their water everywhere, sometimes it’s important for you both to see the outcome of their decision. If the water falls on them and makes them cold, talk to them and empathise as expressed in the point above. 

After this, they’ll likely be receptive to help, show them how to hold their cup and not make a mess; demonstrate the action of drinking so they’re fully aware. Then let them try again and show you. Tip – don’t get annoyed if they still do it wrong or get frustrated that they can’t do it and end up throwing the cup, remember, they’re only 1 and struggle to control their emotions. 

There may also be other reasons that lead your child to act in a negative way or be silly, these will be explained later in the post

7. Lead by example

One of the best ways to discipline a 1 year old or instil discipline in them, is to lead by example. If you are well mannered and behaved in front of your toddler, then these are the things they’ll pick up. 

Demonstrate in your daily activities, how to be caring and compassionate, when someone is hurt, show empathy. Teach your child tolerance by being tolerant of the people around you. Perhaps you have an older child who is really getting on your nerves, the way you respond to that child and their behaviour will teach your child how to deal with conflict in their own lives.

Not only will this show them how to act, but it will also foster a great deal of respect from them to you. No-one really respects the parent that says “do as I say, not as I do”. A foolish mantra to live by and it aggravated me so much when I was told this by adults growing up. Let’s change that to “do as I do and listen to what I say”, this will really help your child thrive – give it a try, you’ll be surprised at how powerful this is.

Other things to try

Positive reinforcement

When trying to figure out how to discipline a 1 year old, it is important to note that this doesn’t always have to be with punishment.

One of the most powerful things to try is rewards for positive behaviour. Children of all ages love rewards, hell, I love rewards and so probably do you! Don’t see this as bribery, it’s positive reinforcement. 

This could be as simple as putting a sticker on a chart. The sticker is a reward and something to be excited about, you could either stop there or when they get a certain number of stickers, it equals a bigger treat, like a small meal out or going to a place that they like. 

This is a fantastic tool, it works fantastically well with multiple children as well! Some children really thrive when there is some competition; you’ll have multiple children doing the right thing often to gain a sticker 😉.

You’re probably thinking how does this work with a 1 year old?

Implementing positive reinforcement

Remember, this isn’t bribery, you are reinforcing good behaviour. For example, when you’re toddler does something well and you’re pleased with them, praise them immensely! Pick them up and give them the biggest hug and tell them how proud you are. If you’re using stickers, take them immediately over to the sticker chart and let them choose the one they want. 

Repeatedly tell them well done, this will train them to know their action was desirable and gets them rewarded. 

This could be for small things like following instructions, putting toys away, and our personal favourite – for letting us brush her teeth!

Routine

Often, our toddlers will misbehave because they’re tired, have too much energy or lacking a good routine. These can all be easily remedied by taking the appropriate actions. If your child isn’t sleeping, check out our top 10 reasons why your baby won’t sleep

If your baby is lacking in a good sleep schedule, why not download our FREE Sleep Schedule below?

If your child has tons of energy, you really need to find good healthy ways to expend it. Our favourite at 1 year old was to take our daughter to a soft play. The one relatively close to us is called Bertie and Boo Adventure Island, or even create a space at home for sensory play.

This works really well, especially if it’s wet or you really don’t feel like going out. Other things for expending energy is creating games to play together like hide and seek. At this age, there’ll need to be at least three people playing and you’ll be on their team. Or even going to the park and getting them to walk loads if they can, or the playground.

If you’re interested in activities for boosting resilience check out our post outlining a number of things and activities you can do with your little one. This FREE download is another fantastic place to start.

If however, you and your child are struggling with routine, we have created a great day and night routine that can be applied to children aged from 4-18 months. For more information, check out the link below. 

baby routines

You’ll get:

  • Our Sleep Philosophy
  • Sleep Training Vs Sleep Comforting
  • Daily Activity Template
  • Daily Routine Schedule from 4 – 18 months
  • Night Time Routine Guide
  • Troubleshooting Tips
    FAQs
  • Downloadable App Suggestions
  • Final Thoughts

Summary

When learning about how to discipline your 1 year old, you will need the patience of a saint! But it will be worth it in the long run. Just try your hardest, keep your cool and employ all the strategies listed above to be as successful as possible. 

It may seem at some points like you’re going nowhere or just going round and round in circles. Just remember, small incremental changes, made consistently over time, will make the most beneficial changes in your child’s behaviour. 

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