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Naughty or Nice. How to Effectively Discipline for all Ages

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

Discipline is hard

One of the hardest parts of parenting is knowing how to effectively and appropriately discipline our children. In fact, most of us don't automatically know how to do this, but instead learn as we go. Even harder yet, some children will respond differently to certain types of discipline and the most effective forms of discipline can change with age.

Let's discuss the fundamental principles that help with discipline for all ages and break down what specific methods work best for each age.

Discipline Basics

First, let's first go over some basics of effective discipline.

Modeling desired behaviors, setting clear boundaries and consequences, and using both positive and negative reinforcement effectively and appropriately are paramount in raising well-adjusted children.

Modeling desired behaviors refers to the fact that we should try to demonstrate for our children what good behavior looks like. It can be difficult and almost unreasonable to expect our children not to yell, lose their tempers, argue, or be destructive or violent if they see us, as their parents and their guides, exhibiting these behaviors. This may mean working to change our own behaviors and interactions with our partner and other family members and friends, especially in front of our children. Try to avoid fighting or yelling with others in front of your children and instead let them see what calm, constructive discussion and resolution of differences looks like. Most children will emulate what they see, particularly from the ones they love most, their parents.

Setting clear boundaries involves stating simply and clearly what your expectations are of your child and not changing those expectations from day to day or from caregiver to caregiver in order to avoid confusion for your child. This may mean having a discussion with your partner, grandparents, or others consistently helping to care for your child to make sure you are all on the same page and setting the same expectations for your child. Also, make sure that your expectations are age-appropriate. For example, you may have the expectation for a toddler or preschool to not hit and to clean up their toys after playing. For an adolescent or teenager, you may expect that they avoid using profanity and that they clean their room weekly.

In addition to setting clear expectations, you will need to set clear consequences. Consequences need to be stated simply and should be age-appropriate as well. For example, for a preschool child, you may say "if you hit, you will go to time-out" or "if you don't clean up your blocks, you can't color in your coloring book." For adolescents and teens, you may say "if you use profanity, you will not be able to use your cell phone for the rest of the day" or "if you room is not clean by Saturday at noon, you will not be allowed to go to your friend's house." Your instructions should be as clear and as specific as possible relative to your child's age and level of understanding.

Negative reinforcement is what we are most familiar with when we think of discipline. This is using a negative consequence to try to stop or limit undesired behaviors, such as time-out or taking away privileges. The previously mentioned examples show one way to use negative reinforcement.

It can sometimes be more effective to use negative reinforcement framed with positive language. Using the above examples, you may say "you can color in your coloring book as soon as you clean up your blocks" or "you can go to your friend's house after your room is clean". This sends the same clear message but using positive rather than negative language and works well for all ages.

Positive reinforcement involves using a positive consequence to encourage or continue desired behaviors. For example, noticing when your preschooler is behaving well or when he/she cleans up their toys on their own and stating, "you're doing a great job sitting quietly" or "awesome job cleaning up your toys". Another example would be when your teenager gets a good report card or completes a chore without a reminder and stating "I am really proud of your great grades" or "I really appreciate you taking out the trash. Thank you." As demonstrated, praise and positive reinforcement should also reflect the child's age and level of understanding.

Age Differences

Now let's discuss in detail some methods that work well based on age.

Toddlers & Preschoolers

Many parents have heard the term "the terrible twos". This term comes from the fact that around age 2 (or often a little earlier), children start to realize they have choices and start wanting to exert their own independence. This is usually when defiance and temper tantrums can kick in. This makes the ideal time to help your child understand rules and boundaries in order to prevent injury, teach empathy, and set them up for success in the outside world.

Remembering that discipline in the form of negative reinforcement is not the only way to foster good behavior, let's first discuss some tips to avoid undesired behaviors altogether when possible.

Plan ahead. Try to recognize and anticipate situations that may lead to a meltdown or temper tantrum, such as your child being overly hungry, overly tired, or bored. Carry snacks, some portable activities (like a coloring book and crayons or your child's favorite toy), and schedule naps routinely to help avoid these situations. Also, prepare your child beforehand for any activities by letting them know where you're going, who will be there, and what you will do, especially for new environments. If you know your child has difficulty with new environments, "practice" at home beforehand. For example, read them a book about the doctor's office or about school and play pretend at home to prepare them for what will happen at these places.

Distract or Redirect. Distracting or redirecting your child can go a long way. For example, if your toddler is playing with or approaching a dangerous or forbidden object, simply replace it with one that is okay to play with. Another example would be, if your child is fighting with a sibling over a toy, you may find them a similar toy to play with or change the activity altogether to something else that you know your child will enjoy.

Know when not to ignore (or at least pretend like you are). If your child is misbehaving but is not doing anything to harm themselves or others, sometimes the best tactic is to ignore. A great example of this is temper tantrums. Your child may be kicking and screaming or rolling on the floor, but most normally developed children will not actually harm themselves. Ignoring this type of undesired behavior will show your child that they will not get attention (the thing they crave most) from you for bad behavior. You can even walk away or continue whatever you were doing as long as you know your child is in a safe place. However, when your child's temper tantrum is over or they are back to behaving appropriately, make sure to engage with your child again and comment on their good behavior to reinforce that you will give more attention when they are behaving well.

Listen. Sometimes we are so busy, as parents, disciplining and enforcing rules, that we forget to listen to our children. For preschoolers and elementary age children who can articulate themselves well, listening is important. Let your child tell you stories and explain how they're feeling before helping them to solve problems. Then, talk through with them how to solve the problem. Explain to them that they should treat others how they want to be treated. And let them know that it is okay to feel angry or mad but it is not okay to physically harm others or to break things. This helps your child learn how to articulate their emotions and how to solve problems on their own. This can be more effective and long-lasting than just giving consequences.

Positive reinforcement (Give them your attention and praise good behavior). The most powerful tool for discipline is giving your child lots of attention and acknowledgement for good behaviors. All children want their parent's attention more than anything, especially young children. However, if they don't get your attention for good behavior, they may learn to get your attention by behaving badly. So make sure to catch them being good and verbalize out loud that you see it and that you are proud of them for their good behavior.

Negative reinforcement (Time-out). Time-out is the most effective form of negative reinforcement for younger children (generally at least age 2). However, this should only be used for harmful or dangerous behaviors, such as hitting others, forcefully throwing things, or standing on furniture. You can first give your child ONE warning by telling them that if they don't stop the undesired or dangerous behavior, they will go to time-out. Avoid giving several warnings as this will send the signal that you are not serious about disciplining your child. You should use as few words and as clear language as possible, ideally with little emotion (not yelling or in anger). For example, you might say "if you climb on the table again, you will go to time-out". For some behaviors, such as hitting or throwing toys at another person, you might skip the warning and send or take your child directly to time out. This reinforces that this behavior will not be tolerated under any circumstance.

Time-out should only be about as long as the child is old (one minute per year of age) and setting a timer that your child can see or hear will help them understand how long time-out will last. Leaving a child in time-out for too long removes them from the undesired behavior and they may forget why they were in time-out. Time-out should be in a designated room, or maybe even a chair, where there are minimal distractions (e.g. no TV). You should avoid continuing to engage with your child once they are in time-out. Instead, continue with what you were doing until their time-out is over. After their time-out is over, this is the time to again state clearly or have your child state why they were in time-out. Then, give your child a big hug to reinforce that even though your child exhibited a bad behavior, they are not a "bad" child and are still worthy of your love and affection.

Adolescents & Teens

Some of the same principles apply to adolescents and teenagers but how they are best used changes as your child gets older.

Listen. Listening becomes even more important as your children get older. Hear them out before getting upset and take time to verbally validate their feelings. Try to put yourselves in their shoes (or remember that your were once a not-always-perfect teenager too) and try to be as open-minded and non-judgmental as possible.

Talk. Help them to describe and understand their feelings and emotions and help them learn healthy ways to cope with those feelings and emotions. Try also to help them put themselves in other shoes and to continue to treat others how they want to be treated. Guide them in thinking through how things may play out if they take one path versus another without giving them all the answers. They will learn more if they come up with some of the ideas and realizations on their own, but with your guidance. Remind them that it is okay to make mistakes but to try to learn from them.

Autonomy. As your child gets older and becomes more capable of doing some things independently, allow them these freedoms. Find a healthy balance between continuing to help them to navigate life and giving them their own responsibilities. For example, this may start with giving them specific chores, helping them learn how to manage money, and may eventually expand to allowing them more autonomy outside of the home, like getting a job or driving a car. Reward them, either verbally or with increases in privileges, for good, responsible behavior.

Positive reinforcement (Give them your attention and praise good behavior). Giving your child your attention is still paramount, even as they get older. Engage with your children and plan activities together that you both (or all) will enjoy. Take interest in their school activities and school performance and in any sports or extracurricular activities they are involved in. Be their cheerleader and prioritize them over work or other obligations, at least some of the time. If you have to plan ahead to make this happen, make sure you take the time to do so.

Praise good behavior. Let your older child know if you approve of their friends or choice of activities. Applaud their good grades and speak proudly about your child. Find what it is that you love about your child or that makes them unique and let them know about it. Even your older child wants your attention and this serves as a much needed form of validation for them. Remember that how you interact with them sets the foundation for what they will look for and tolerate in their future relationships and how they will interact with the world.

Negative reinforcement (Taking away privileges). Taking away privileges becomes a more effective form of negative reinforcement as your child gets older. Continue to state your expectations and the associated consequences clearly and continue to follow through so your older child understands that you mean it. For example, you may say "no electronics until all homework is completed" or "if you don't complete your chores, you can't go to the game". More extreme behaviors may have more extreme consequences. For example, if your teenager sneaks out of the house, you may take away his/her cell phone for a week.

Recognize when your child needs more help. Use listening and talking to your child, as mentioned above, to decide if your child may need additional help. Try to accept and understand that your child may be dealing with more, emotionally, than you can help them with on your own. There are many stressors that children may encounter at all ages that can create internal turmoil, especially in adolescents and teenagers who are already dealing with a barrage of new emotions that they may not yet fully understand. Everything from parental conflict or divorce, lack of one parent in the home, bullying, social media, school stressors, etc can be difficult for a child to cope with. If you think your child may need extra help, talk to your child's doctor for information on a qualified therapist, counselor, or other mental health provider.

AVOID CORPORAL PUNISHMENT. Spanking and other forms of corporal punishment should be avoided at all costs. These forms of punishment are not usually effective and send your child the wrong message. Spanking often fosters anger in a child and can make emotional issues worse, teaches them to hit or be violent when they are upset, and can negatively affect their physical and emotional well-being. Modeling for them your ability to stay calm and showing them healthier ways to deal with problems sets the framework for how they will learn to cope with problems in their everyday lives.

Parenting is hard

If you've gotten this far in this post, you've already shown great resilience. Remember that that same dedication toward shaping your mini-humans will be worth it in the long run in the form of healthy, functional, successful human beings.

Take a break. If you ever feel overwhelmed (and this will happen), know that you can take a break. Just make sure your child is in a safe place and then give yourself a few minutes to take some deep breaths, relax, or call a friend. Or ask your partner or other capable household member to take over for a little while so you can take a break. When you are feeling better, go back to your child, give them your affection and attention, and start over.

We all make mistakes. If you lose your cool or do not handle a situation well, try not to stress too much about it. Instead, once you have cleared your head, think about what you could have done differently and try to do it the next time.

If you feel you have made a big mistake, it's okay and healthy to admit your mistake to your child no matter how old they are. Apologize and decide how you will handle the situation in the future. Then hold yourself accountable or ask your partner to help hold you accountable to follow through with your plan the next time you get frustrated with your child's behavior. This shows your child that it is okay to make mistakes and that, they too, can recover from mistakes and act differently in the future. Remember that children are pretty forgiving, everyone (even adults) make mistakes, and it's a learning process for both you and your little ones. And most importantly, keep up the good work! You are rocking it!

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