Distraction is a method of toddler discipline that is related to redirection. Redirection involves disciplining children by choosing activities that may serve as an outlet for them. Distraction involves disciplining children by choosing activities that are unrelated to the behavior children exhibit. Both methods are suitable for toddlers, but parents should elect to use them at different times or to accomplish different purposes.
Suppose your child repeatedly tries to get under the sink at a friend’s not-so-child proofed home, you should stop whatever you’re doing and find a safe activity for the child, such as reading a new book or handling play dough in a high chair. As the child engages in this activity, you can get the kitchen gated off or figure out how to keep the cabinet locked.
When else might distraction come into play? Say you just cleaned the living room and you’re about to have company. Your child comes in and starts dumping buckets of toys. You can quickly give your child a task (“Will you go get your hairbrush, so I can fix your ponytails?”) that requires her to leave the room. You want her to stop what she’s doing and get her moving in a completely different direction.
The goal here is not to replace throwing rocks (inappropriate) with throwing balls (appropriate), as with redirection.
Instead, you want to take your toddler’s mind and energy completely away from the inappropriate activity. Sure, you could just tell her to stop an unwanted behavior, but many times with toddlers, this just isn’t enough. Telling her “no” can just lead to a battle of wills, more defiance or a tantrum.
There are certainly times when you might want to work through that tantrum or defiance so that your child learns that certain activities are always unacceptable (like biting or hurting a pet). In those cases, distraction is not the best method of discipline. But for those times when you just want a behavior to stop or don’t have the time or energy to deal with a meltdown, distraction is a quick way to handle the situation.