Help! What’s the Most Effective Way to Discipline My Child?

Children do not always do what parents want, which can be frustrating to the parent and cause a seemingly never-ending pattern of conflict. When a child misbehaves, because all children (and teens) need rules and expectations to help them learn, the parent must decide how to respond. Below are some tips for healthy discipline:

  1. It is important to view discipline as teaching and not punishment. Learning to follow rules helps keep a child or teenager safe, helps them to learn the difference between right and wrong, helps them learn how to make healthy choices, and ultimately promotes better self-esteem later on in life.
  2. Think ahead. Come up with rules and expectations for the child/teen and the family, and be prepared for what you are going to do and say if and when a rule is broken. Make consequences relate specifically to the rule broken, and appropriate in duration/severity to the rule being broken. Be clear about what you mean. Be firm and specific. Don’t just wait until something happens to cause conflict and then ‘wing it’. This will cause you to say the first thing that pops into your head, to react negatively or become emotionally reactive (e.g., yelling, nagging). Talk to your child and explain the rules in detail, as well as the specific consequences to breaking each rule. For older children and teenagers who are at a developmentally appropriate age, allow them to help come up with realistic consequences that you can all agree upon to a certain extent. Obviously, these consequences must be just that—consequences, and not rewards! For example, if your teen recommends the consequence for lying to be “I have to go to the mall all day on Saturday”, it wouldn’t be a consequence! That would be like an adult getting pulled over for a speeding ticket, and expecting to get paid by the police officer. 
  3. This tip should really be #1 on the list: Above all else, be consistent in your methods of discipline and consequences for your child/teen, and absolutely be predictable. If a child or teen has consequences for not following through with a rule (no matter how big or small) on one day, but then breaks the rule again on another day with no consequence, it only reinforces the undesired behavior. Instead of thinking of the consequences before making an unhealthy choice, without consistency, your child or teen will think “Well… I got away with it last time, so I probably can get away with it again”. Being inconsistent communicates to your child that the undesired behavior “really isn’t that bad”, teaches them to disrespect both you and the rules, as well as to distrust you as a parent in your word. Though tempting, try not to allow external factors (e.g., you had an exhausting day at work, it’s right before you are getting ready to go out to dinner, etc.) to sway you from being consistent at any cost.
  4. Use ‘I’ statements—NOT ‘you’ statements, when communicating. For example, say “I am upset that you didn’t clean your room (followed by expectations and consequence)” instead of “You still haven’t cleaned up your room… You had all day today…”. ‘You’ statements can seem more accusatory and can lead to arguing, or the child or teen shutting down and tuning you out. 
  5. Make consequences (as well as rewards for positive behavior and healthy choices) immediate. If consequences are delayed, especially for younger children, by the time the consequence is implemented, the child has already forgotten the seriousness of their actions.
  6. In appropriate situations, especially for teens or older children, allow for negotiation and flexibility. This would be appropriate only in those situations where something might occur that doesn’t already have a rule or consequence in place. Allowing some negotiation and flexibility can promote a child’s social skills and increase feelings of self-worth. Obviously there are non-negotiable things in all parent-child relationships, and it is important to communicate these to your child so they are aware of when it is appropriate to expect negotiation and flexibility from you. It is a fine balance: Too much freedom and flexibility and too many choices can be extremely confusing and overwhelming to a child or teen who needs direction but doesn’t have to tools or capability to make healthy decisions in certain areas. Not enough freedom and flexibility or ability to make some choices feels confining, fosters rebellion and resistance, creates dependency needs, and stunts the ongoing development of and increasing needs for independence in a child/teen.
  7. Don’t argue with your child/teen about the pre-set consequences. Ignore any protests. You can discuss it later. While it is important for children and teens to feel heard and supported, allowing an argument over rules and consequences that are pre-determined and have already been discussed (especially in the heat of things) will only exhaust both you and the child. Expect your child or teen to be upset, to cry, and/or to be angry. Just don’t give in to back talk, whining, crying, or temper tantrums. If you do, it will only teach the child or teen that this kind of behavior is an appropriate way to get what he/she wants. Anger, sadness, and frustration are all healthy and normal ways of dealing with new limitations in both younger children and teens. (See #12)
  8. Allow your child to experience the consequences of their behavior. It is difficult to see your child upset, angry with you, sad and disappointed, but it is important for them to learn how to cope with painful feelings as a result of consequences. This is how we learn to make healthier choices in life! Resist the urge to cut the consequence short because you can’t stand seeing your child in so much emotional pain. More than likely, this is old emotional baggage that you struggle with internally—your child is just stirring it up for you (e.g., remembering feeling disappointment and anger as a child, so wanting to take back consequences for your child when you see them disappointed and angry). Again, validate their feelings (“I can see you are disappointed and angry right now—I know this is difficult for you”), without trying to take away the emotional pain of the consequence. It is an expected result of consequences, and what helps us all to learn, change, and grow!
  9. Avoid repeating commands for rules already in place. Give an expectation or command (e.g., “take your dinner plate to the sink, please”), and if not followed, then you can repeat it once with a warning (or reminder) of what the consequence will be for noncompliance. If not followed, then apply the consequences. Do not continue to repeat the command, as it will be seen as nagging. At this point, the child/teen will only learn to tune it and you out. You will become more and more frustrated and end up yelling, which will then teach your child to only hear you when you are yelling.
  10. Speak to your child or teen as you would want to be spoken to if someone were reprimanding you. Don’t ever resort to name calling, yelling, or disrespect. Remember that you are the parent and have the ability to display emotionally healthy behavior and communicate effectively. Your child is learning how to do this—from you.
  11. Model positive behavior. “Do as I say, not as I do” seldom works. Kids and teens are pretty good at pointing this out, which creates a whole other set of issues and conflict!
  12. After disciplining, briefly explain the rule and what your expectations are, explaining what the proper behavior or choice would have been. With older children and teens, following consequences (when raw emotions have calmed down somewhat), open up a dialogue with your child. Allow them to talk about what happened, how the consequences felt, and discuss options for how they might handle the situation in a healthier way in the future. As long as they are communicating appropriately and respectfully, listen to their point of view. Validate their feelings, but don’t give in to them to reverse the consequences. Ensure that you are both (all) on as close to the same page as possible with understanding the rule, expectations and consequences for the future.