By Michelle Linkous, DO, Wake Forest Baptist Health – Brenner Children’s Hospital

The well-behaved toddler. You might think it’s an urban myth, but it’s actually an achievable goal—even for your child. Yes, your child. The one who is yanking at your laptop and yelling as you try read to this blog post.

Now, I’m not saying it’s easy. I have a toddler myself, and I’ve found that helping him improve his behavior has been one of the most challenging—even maddening—parts of parenting thus far. But, if you can maintain a few consistent strategies, the effort will pay off.

Here are some techniques that have helped me effectively correct my son:

Praise Positive Behavior: It’s easy to think of behavior modification in terms of discipline, but the most frequently recommended method is encouragement. So if your child is doing something positive, like playing quietly, cooperating or listening, you should make a big deal out of how good he is being.

Another way to praise your child’s behavior is to play with him and provide one-on-one time. Children crave attention, and positive attention gets results for them and for you.

Ignore Negative Behavior: This is harder than it sounds. Your first instinct is to do whatever you can to make tantrums and fits stop. But unless it’s a dangerous behavior, you should not react. Otherwise, you’re giving your toddler the attention he craves. And even though it may be negative attention, it’s still attention.

My son went through a stage where he would whine all the time. I soon learned that telling him to stop did nothing to end the behavior. So if you, like almost every other mom on the planet, find yourself constantly telling your child, “Quit that!” or “Get up from that floor!” you might actually be prompting more kicking, screaming and tantrums.

Use Timeouts for Worse Behavior: While it’s fine to ignore most negative behavior from your toddler, you shouldn’t overlook dangerous or unacceptable actions. It’s at this point, you need to let your child know there are penalties for behaving badly. In such situations, my husband and I use timeouts for our son.

Introducing the concept of a timeout to a toddler can be tricky at first. The keys to establishing this method of discipline are to keep the timeout periods short and to explain why they’re necessary.

At the end of timeout, your child will probably still be screaming. That’s OK. The goal isn’t necessarily to stop or prevent a tantrum, it’s to teach him that there are consequences to his actions. So what I usually do is re-enter the room after a minute or so and say to my son, “Are you finished crying?” When he stops, I’ll say, “I put you in timeout because you hit your cousin (or whatever the undesired behavior was).” After timeout, don’t belabor the point or talk about it for an hour. Just explain why you were displeased, and then move on.

Remove Temptations: Child-rearing is really about picking your battles. You don’t want to have to tell you child no all the time; you want to spend about 80 to 90 percent of the time praising and encouraging him. So if there’s something that keeps getting him in trouble that you can make a non-issue, do it. For example, if you ask him to stop touching the vase on the coffee table, and he continues to do it and get in trouble for it, just move the vase somewhere where he can’t reach it. Don’t expect a toddler to behave perfectly all the time.

Be Consistent: The Dog Whisperer always says he doesn’t train dogs, he trains owners. That philosophy kind of applies to parenting, too. To really effectively manage your child’s behavior, you have to train yourself to enforce the rules all the time.

For example, maybe you have become used to ignoring your child when he misbehaves at home, but you falter with that method in public. In order for behavior modification to work, you have to put it in action in every situation. So, say you are stuck in the grocery store with a screaming toddler. The best thing to do is to distance yourself from him. Walk to the end of the aisle where you can still keep an eye on him and see that he’s safe, but make sure you do your best to avoid acknowledging him during the tantrum.

Another area where consistency is necessary is bedtime. For most toddlers, their behavior goes down hill very quickly when they’re tired. So make sure you stick to regularly scheduled naps and early bedtimes as much as possible. Sometimes this means working your schedule around your toddler’s, but it’s important—and it’s something that can have a positive effect on his behavior.

Give it Some Time: Once you become consistent with teaching and disciplining your toddler, slowly (over a period of weeks and months) his behavior will start to improve. But you do have to be patient and give it time. Don’t expect an 18-month-old to act like a little adult; he’s still a very young child, after all.

If you have given these methods time, and they haven’t had the desired effect on your toddler, talk to your pediatrician. We’re trained to address common behavioral issues in children. And, if you’re faced with a problem that has become serious, we can refer you to a child behaviorist. Whatever you do, don’t give up. As challenging as the toddler phase is, you will survive it—I promise!

What other tips can you share?