Parents, Kids, and Discipline

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on December 17, 2021

How can you provide discipline to your child so that they can function well at home and in public? Every parent wants their children to be happy, respectful, respected by others, and able to find their place in the world as well-behaved adults. Nobody wants to be accused of raising a spoiled brat.

But sometimes it seems that these goals are miles away from your child's current behavior. Read on for barriers to good behavior, effective discipline techniques, and when to get help for dangerous behavior patterns.

What Is Discipline?

Discipline is the process of teaching your child what type of behavior is acceptable and what type is not acceptable. In other words, discipline teaches a child to follow rules. Effective discipline uses many different tools, like positive reinforcement, modeling, and a loving and supportive family. Sometimes, punishments are also an effective tool-but that doesn’t mean that good discipline is mostly about punishments. It sounds so straightforward, yet every parent becomes frustrated at one time or another with issues surrounding children and discipline.

Establish Your Role as Parent

Parents run up against barriers when trying to teach good behavior, like children who:

  • Are disrespectful and don't listen: "I must have told you a thousand times!"
  • Do listen, but defy or deliberately disobey your request for good behavior.

Your responsibility as a parent is to help your child become self-reliant, respectful, and self-controlled. Relatives, schools, churches, therapists, health care professionals, and others can help. But the primary responsibility for discipline rests with parents.

The American Mental Health Association describes three styles of parenting. Which is yours?

An authoritative parent has clear expectations and consequences and is affectionate toward their child. The authoritative parent allows for flexibility and collaborative problem solving with the child when dealing with behavioral challenges. This is the most effective form of parenting.

An authoritarian parent has clear expectations and consequences, but shows little affection toward their child. The parent may say things like, "because I'm the Mommy, that's why." This is a less effective form of parenting.

A permissive parent shows lots of affection toward their child but provides little discipline. This is a less effective form of parenting.

Discipline Techniques

What you choose may depend on the type of inappropriate behavior your child displays, your child's age, your child's temperament, and your parenting style. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the National Mental Health Association recommend these:

Reward good behavior: Acknowledging good behavior is the best way to encourage your child to continue it. In other words, "Catch him being good." Compliment your child when they show the behavior you've been seeking.

Natural consequences: Your child does something wrong, and you let the child experience the result of that behavior. There's no need for you to "lecture." The child can't blame you for what happened. For example, if a child deliberately breaks a toy, they no longer have that toy to play with.

Natural consequences can work well when children don't seem to "hear" your warnings about the potential outcome of their behavior. Be sure, however, that any consequence they might experience isn't dangerous.

Logical consequences: This technique is similar to natural consequences but involves describing to your child what the consequences will be for unacceptable behavior. The consequence is directly linked to the behavior. For example, you tell your child that if they don't pick up their toys, then those toys will be removed for a week.

Taking away privileges: Sometimes there isn't a logical or natural consequence for a bad behavior -- or you don't have time to think it through. In this case, the consequence for unacceptable behavior may be taking away a privilege. For example, if a middle schooler doesn't complete their homework on time, you may choose to take away television privileges for the evening. This discipline technique works best if the privilege is:

  • Related in some way to the behavior
  • Something the child values
  • Taken away as soon as possible after the inappropriate behavior (especially for young children)

Time outs: Time outs work if you know exactly what the child did wrong or if you need a break from the child's behavior. Be sure you have a time-out location established ahead of time. It should be a quiet, boring place -- probably not the bedroom (where the child can play) or a dangerous place like a bathroom. This discipline technique can work with children when the child is old enough to understand the purpose of a time out -- usually around age 2 and older, with about a minute of time out for each year of age. Time outs often work best with younger kids for whom the separation from the parent is truly seen as a deprivation.

Corporal (physical) punishment, such as spanking, isn't recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics or mental health associations. Why? Primarily because nonphysical discipline techniques work better with fewer negative consequences. According to the AAP, spanking may:

  • Make children more aggressive
  • Become more violent and harm a child
  • Cause children to think that it's OK to physically hurt someone you love

Tips for Maintaining Discipline

Guide your discipline techniques to fit well with your child's temperament. The key to effective discipline is to understand who your child is, especially their temperamental style, and use your discipline to help them achieve their potential given those talents and tendencies. But your goal should not be to turn them into someone they are not (for example, to turn a boisterous intense child into a mellow laid-back one).

Communicate your discipline plan. Discipline techniques shouldn't come "out of the blue," especially if you're trying something new. To children who are old enough to understand, during a planned discussion (not in the heat of the moment) explain the technique, why you are using it, and what you hope it will accomplish. Older children may be included in choosing which rewards and consequences would be appropriate.

Be respectful of your child. If you show your child respect -- even when disciplining your child -- your child is more likely to respect you, other family members, and other people in their life. If you "lose it" or overreact with disrespect, apologize. Behave the way you want your child to behave.

Be consistent. Any technique will fail if you don't follow through or enforce consequences consistently. If you say, for example, that toys will be off limits for a week, then take them away if the offending behavior continues.

Don't break your discipline rules by giving in during public exhibitions of bad behavior, such as a child throwing a tantrum while shopping. If you give in to the child's demands, the tantrums will continue.

Try to keep your goals and your techniques consistent over time. If more than one adult is responsible for the child's discipline, be sure you agree about the approaches you will use.

When it's done, it's done. After the consequence is over or the time has been served, don't ask for apologies or continue to lecture about the behavior. Help your child return to an appropriate activity.

Understand what's appropriate for your child's development. Before disciplining a child, make sure that the child really did understand what you asked them to do. Sometimes parents make demands for behavior that is beyond the child's ability to comply. Just like other skills in life, behaviors often need to be "grown into."

Look for the "why" behind behaviors. If you notice a pattern of inappropriate behavior, part of the solution is to look for "whys." For example, perhaps your child is upset about something else, such as a friend moving away. Maybe your child had a bad day at school. Perhaps your child feels stressed about family problems. Maybe they are tired or hungry.

These explanations don't excuse the behavior, but trying to understand why it happens can help you and your child find ways to prevent it from happening again and again.

Know When and Where to Go for Help

Give yourself a break. Even if you have the best discipline techniques and parenting style, there are some days when nothing seems to work. Or perhaps you've had a bad day, too. Developing skills for positive discipline takes a lot of practice and a lot of time. If you feel you have made a mistake, be honest. Apologize to your child and explain how you plan to change your response the next time.

There may be times when you don't know what to do to next. Or you may not know how to change from what you're doing now to something that will be more effective.

Any time you have questions about your child's behavior and discipline, check in with your child's doctor. It may be time to seek help from a mental health professional when you see:

  • Ongoing disrespect for all authorities: parents, teachers, and other adults
  • Aggressive or destructive behavior
  • Signs of depression, such as feeling blue for a long time, having no friends, or threatening suicide
  • Your child or other members of the family use drugs or alcohol to deal with stress or other problems in their lives
  • Several relationships within the family are difficult

Show Sources


American Academy of Pediatrics: "Parenting Corner Q&A: Discipline," "Parenting Corner Q&A: Disobedience."

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: "Discipline."

National Mental Health Association: "Strengthening Families Fact Sheet: Effective Discipline Techniques for Parents: Alternatives to Spanking."

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