If your child is over a year and a half, they seem to understand everything you say and will already display their independence whenever possible. And it’s very possible that the “terrible twos” has begun prematurely…If you hear lots of “no’s” and are faced with explosive tantrums, fury and physical disputes, you should be wondering how can you impose limits. Is a timeout effective at this age? Does the baby already understand verbal reprehension? Is the timeout corner even an option?

Before anything else, it’s good to know that discipline is different from punishment. And, starting a fight over who’s boss isn’t the role you want to take as a parent. Remember that hitting a child is a crime and out of question: they will only learn to respond the same way, with aggressive behavior, and will fear their parents. Studies show that slapping and yelling (yes, these are also forms of aggression) only makes the child more prone to pushing back against the rules. This doesn’t quite build a healthy and emotionally stable environment, right?

And yes, if you were physically reprimanded as a child, perhaps this kind of reaction might come to your mind more often than you’d like. Don’t blame yourself, simply work to curb that initial, violent response of yours. Walk away, take a breath and come back when you’re calmer.

Will they really understand being reprimanded?

At this age, children are unable to control their emotions, therefore every response is intense: the anger, crying, but also the happiness. Whenever the tantrums start, it doesn’t really matter what you say since they most likely will not listen to you. So, the most important thing you need to keep in mind is that, by maintaining your temper, you can calm your child. It’ll only be when the crying or the screaming subsides that you’ll be able to catch their attention.

In order to do so, remove them from the area or situation, if necessary. If they’re hitting and biting someone, take them somewhere else and wait for them to calm down to then tell them what they did was not ok and that they shouldn’t behave that way. If you’re calm and collected, it’ll motivate your child do act the same. If you’re nervous, it’ll take the child longer to quiet down and be calm.

There are experts who recommend staying near the child during these situations and others who will tell you to turn to the “timeout corner”, which is different from the timeout to think about what they’ve done – the child will sit there for as long as it takes for them to calm down. This time should be proportional to their age (one minute for every year, for example). If your child is throwing themselves on the floor, try not to give a lot of attention to their tantrum.

When you do get their attention, explain that you understand that they may have gotten mad or upset, but that responding in the way they did is not acceptable. Help them name their feelings so they don’t have to turn to aggression to prove their point. Show that you understand them, but there are other ways to deal with the problem – and them point to alternatives. Explain that is what you expected them to behave like. At this age, you won’t need to go too in depth with your explanations, just make it clear what is and what isn’t allowed – “this makes mommy and daddy very sad”. And, be prepared to repeat yourself over and over again: children learn by repeated exposure to the rules and what they mean.

If your child is doing something wrong (and potentially dangerous), but without crying or throwing a tantrum, you can eventually resort to verbal reprimanding, which the child begins to understand and assimilate around two years of age, or a little bit beforehand. But, know that it is different from yelling and it only works if you do it sporadically.

Does the timeout corner help?

Putting them in a little timeout corner is not helpful or efficient at this age, mainly because children can’t yet make that many in-depth connections – experts say that this kind of thinking only starts to happen after the six or seven year mark, on average. On top of that, you’d also have to physically restrict the space to force the child not to leave the “punishment zone” – in the crib or the bedroom, which can also lead them into associating those places with something bad.

It also won’t work if you ask them to put themselves in other people’s shoes, asking them how they’d feel if the roles were reversed – that is a level of empathy and emotional intelligence they are still unable to process.

Does punishment work?

Experts are torn when it comes to punishment, as the small child is still incapable of making the connection between the punishment and what they did wrong. It’s up to the parents to decide what kind of disciplinary action should be applied so you’re both on the same page.

This way, you can both work together to, say for instance, take away a beloved toy and keep it away from the child for a short period of time, like for a day, but always highlighting and reminding them why you’re doing this. Or, you can end playtime prematurely and go home from the park, for example. Be careful not to punish the entire family, however: “If you hit your brother one more time, you won’t go to the beach,” when, in reality, plans have already been set; or “we’ll leave this party if you keep behaving like that.” Keep true to your word.

Be cautious with your word choice and attitudes

A child isn’t “ugly” because they did something wrong, they just “did something ugly.” That means, you should make it clear that just because they did something wrong, that doesn’t mean the child is a bad person, especially with words that point to their appearance. Also make it clear that, while you did not approve of what the child did, that doesn’t mean you love them any less.

Reprimanding your child should always be sequential to the act, and preferably, in private. The idea is not to humiliate your child, but to educate them. No one likes to be called out in public, right?

Food as a reward

Do not mix food with discipline. Food should not be associated with a certain kind of behavior. Do not promise to give them ice cream or chocolate if they behave. These things cannot be a part of a sort of blackmail nor be seen as a reward, as you risk your child developing a certain reactive attitude towards food in the future.

Positive discipline

Whenever your child acts the right way, congratulate them. They need to understand what are the good and bad ways to deal with a given situation. Besides, your child will be happy for being congratulated and will try to appease you more often.

Be coherent and patient

Children need repetition and they will test your patience. If you give them contradicting answers to similar conflicts, they will choose whatever is most convenient for them at that moment. If one day you said that spitting their food was wrong and in another situation you either don’t say anything or just laugh at the situation, you’re not being clear about the rules.

And know how to understand what is part of this phase and what is a joke that doesn’t take right or wrong into consideration. Every child will throw themselves at the ground in public, they will jump on the sofa and will bite someone when they begin struggling with anger and frustration. You don’t have to rationalize it. But don’t give the episode more importance and power than it already has: your child isn’t trying to test your patience all the time and isn’t doing everything in their power to annoy you, as much as it might seem that way a lot of the time. They are simply trying to understand what it means to live in society, and it is up to you to establish their limits.