Discipline is one of the most important but challenging responsibilities that a parent might face.1 There are no shortcuts or quick wins. Discipline is a consistent and developmentally appropriate response to a child’s behavior that helps them learn how to fit in with the world around them effectively and happily. It is not about obedience but about helping and guiding children to understand what is unacceptable or unexpected, postpone their own pleasure or needs, be considerate of others, be assertive without aggression, and learn to tolerate and manage their discomfort.1 That sounds like a tall order, right? No wonder parents feel pressure to get things right but are equally confused about the most effective ways to discipline their child.
The risk parents run is that the end goal (behaving in socially appropriate and expected ways) can leave them feeling pressured or overwhelmed themselves, potentially resulting in harsh or punitive discipline. As with all other parenting strategies, your child should always know that you love and support them. Discipline should not break trust. Using forms of physical punishment (smacking, hitting) or verbal dominance (shouting, threats, put-downs) are not only ineffective,2 but they erode trust. Instead of learning the error of their ways (through natural consequences or building of empathy/compassion), children learn to comply to avoid being hurt and can develop secretive behavior to avoid being caught. Children don’t learn to be emotionally mature adults; they learn how to hide their misdeeds.
Here are some effective ways to discipline your child.1, 3, 4
Show your child what positive and appropriate behavior looks like. You are your child’s first teacher. They watch everything you do, so show them and demonstrate what you expect from them. Want your child to use their manners? Then make sure you use your manners with them and with other people in your world. Do you want your child to respond to anger by not shouting instead of using other positive coping strategies? Then show them by not shouting yourself and by sharing how you manage big feelings.
If you set a rule or an expectation, you must keep things consistent. If you change it up, your child won’t understand when (or why) they are expected to follow that rule. Children need to have information repeated many (many) times before they embed it clearly into their memory. You need to be consistent for this reason and because children feel unsafe when they don’t know what to expect. Children who are frightened or feel insecure are more likely to try many unhelpful strategies to help them feel back in control or in response to their fear (i.e., you are trying to stop challenging behavior but just end up seeing more of it if you are inconsistent).
If your child knows there are no consequences for their actions, why would they stop? When I talk about consequences, I am not talking about verbal or physical punishment. Consequences should always be “natural,” meaning your child can link the consequence and their behavior. For example, if a child is stealing their sibling’s toy and not sharing, the natural consequence might be that they don’t get to play or are removed from the situation for a short period of time. Or if they aren’t listening because they are engrossed in a TV show, a natural consequence might be turning off the TV.
Misbehavior often arises when your child seeks connection or wants to be heard. Have you ever heard the phrase “any attention is good attention”? Young children don’t have a lot of strategies, but they will quickly learn what behaviors catch your attention. They might not be that well equipped to tell you why they need your attention in the first place. Perhaps they are seeking connection, or maybe they have an unmet need. Either way, take misbehavior as a chance to do some detective work and see if you can see the need underneath the behavior.
Our kids need a good balance of positive attention. Make sure that your interactions are not just discipline. Otherwise, they can learn or interpret that they are “bad” if all they receive are messages about how challenging or negative their behaviors/choices are. This can just be as simple as locking in ten minutes of good quality time together or engaging in a small project (like crafting or baking) together. It doesn’t have to be much . . . quality over quantity.
Sometimes we get so caught up in discipline or setting rules that we can get a bit over the top or excessive. Too many rules are not good for children. First, they can’t remember them all. Secondly, it never gives you a chance to relax if you are constantly policing their behavior. So, think about whether a situation really warrants a response from you.
Does your child get cranky around nap time? Or sassy when they are hungry? Think about modifying activities around key pinch points. Do you need to take them to shops right now if it interferes with nap time and increases the likelihood of challenging behavior? If they get “hangry,” maybe pack some snacks just in case.
If you see your child making good choices, notice and comment on this. It’s important that you balance constructive and positive feedback, so they hear you say positive things about them.
Limit telling your child off or putting punishments/consequences in place if you can catch the behavior early and redirect. If your child is jumping on the couch when you don’t allow that, name the behavior and redirect them to something more positive. For example, “I can see you want to jump. Let’s go outside on the trampoline instead.”
When your child is in the midst of a tantrum and has lost control, it is not the time for a lecture or discipline. You need to help them regulate before you explore their challenging behavior. Co-regulation looks like hugging, rocking, holding, or patting. You are not coddling your child when you do this or permitting the behavior. It’s simply bringing their nervous system back to a place of regulation so that you can then address the behavior.
If they are in conflict or have a differing opinion from someone, we need to teach our kids to manage themselves in these situations. Give them scripts or things to say when they are upset so they don’t need to lash out to try and get their way. Try “I feel (insert feeling word) when you (insert what the other person has done wrong) because (why they feel that way).” It can help them express themselves in healthy ways. Model compromise or turn-taking so that they learn these skills or how to ask for what they need, “I would really like a turn of that toy. Can I have a turn next?” Or teaching them to move away and ask a grown-up for support if they disagree and can’t come up with a compromise.
If a child can express their emotions and needs, they are better equipped to get those needs met. This, in turn, reduces frustration and acting out that comes from having an unmet need or feeling unheard. This can be as simple as reflecting on the feeling you see, such as “I can see you are so mad right now,” or “I wonder if you are feeling sad?”
Empathy is critical in teaching your child to behave in socially appropriate ways. This is because they understand how their behavior influences how people around them feel. Empathy comes from understanding emotions and recognizing emotions in other people (and changing their behavior accordingly). So, ask them heaps of questions about TV show characters (“Wow, I wonder how that character is feeling now, why do you think that is?”), or characters in books. Share your own emotions and help them understand their emotions too. This will all go a long way to teaching empathy.
Instead of saying “don’t” all the time (which draws more attention and focus on the behavior you want to avoid), focus on what you “do” want your child to do. “Don’t jump on the couch” isn’t as effective as “The couch is for sitting on.”
When children have unmet needs, they can become overwhelmed and possibly destructive. Are they feeling safe? Have you offered comfort? Are they full and not thirsty? Try meeting key physical and emotional needs to see if that is underpinning challenging behavior.
Give them coping strategies to manage big feelings so they don’t act out. If they feel angry, it’s quite a physical emotion. So teach them to squeeze playdough, or scrunch paper, do star jumps, and do some calm breathing. If they feel sad, can they hug a teddy or you? Can they listen to quiet music or do some yoga? When a child knows they can cope with a feeling, they are less frightened of it. They are more confident to manage their emotions in healthy and adaptive ways.
Some children have a hard time waiting for things and get impatient or destructive because they want things right now. Help them build their ability to wait by doing little projects where they have to work for the outcome (and wait for the reward). Try things like puzzles, baking, crafting, etc.
The word “no” can become repetitive and lose meaning. It’s almost like they stop hearing you say the word. So save it for certain situations where you need them to really listen to you and quickly stop their behavior. You can use some of the strategies above to help avoid the “no” trap, like redirecting and using positive language instead.
Often children can become upset or frustrated because they don’t have control over their world. Try and give them age-appropriate things to manage. It could be feeding themselves, choosing their outfit, deciding on a meal or recipe, or specific activities of daily living like brushing their teeth (with supervision, of course).
When your child is in the middle of a meltdown, or even when you are feeling frustrated, those are not the times to discipline your child. Wait until everyone is calm before you talk it through, or let them know about the consequences. Things can wait unless the situation is dangerous and you need to jump in and take action immediately. They will be more receptive and calm to hear the message you are trying to convey. And you will be calm enough to parent with choice rather than as a reaction to challenging behavior.
Although there are lots of strategies here, try a few out and see which ones fit the needs of your child and your family. Some can be used at the moment, and some can be preventative measures but work out what is effective. As parents, it’s essential to have lots of tools in the discipline tool chest. Not only are children and situations unique, but our children grow and develop, and their needs and behaviors change. So too must the way we manage and respond to them.