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Effective Parenting: Discipline

Topic Overview

Think of discipline as a way to guide and teach your child about positive ways to behave. A parenting style that works well is one that uses discipline proactively. The goal is to use techniques that encourage your child's sense of responsibility, nurture self-esteem, and strengthen your relationship with your child. This may involve setting limits, explaining why a certain behavior is wrong and what can be done instead, discussing values, and using distraction, time-out, and natural and logical consequences.

Punishment may play a small part in discipline, but it is not the same as discipline. Punishment involves giving your child an unpleasant consequence when he or she does or doesn't do something.

No one technique of discipline works for all situations. The wise parent develops a variety of skills and approaches, such as:

  • Ignoring annoying behavior when possible. Ignore behavior that will not harm your child, such as bad habits, whining, and tantrums. Never ignore potentially dangerous behavior. While it is hard to do nothing, this lack of attention takes away the very audience your child is seeking. Recognize, though, that ignoring annoying behavior works best if you notice and thank your child when he or she behaves well. Behavior that you ignore tends to decrease, and any behavior that you pay attention to tends to increase.
  • Using facial expressions and body language to convey how you feel about your child's behavior. Facial expressions and body language can let your child know how disappointed you are in his or her inappropriate behavior. Older children can be told that their behavior has made you feel upset, sad, or angry.
  • Using logical consequences. Let the consequence make the point. For example, take away privileges that closely match a child's inappropriate actions. If a child:
    • Misuses a toy, take it away for a short period. (If the loss of privilege lasts too long, the child focuses more on resentment, losing the point of the lesson.)
    • Writes on the wall with crayons, have the child help you wash it and take away the crayons for a short time.
  • Using distraction. Try distracting a child who is starting to misbehave. This is sometimes called redirecting. For example, if your child has trouble taking turns with a toy, show him or her another toy.
  • Rewarding appropriate behavior. Establish rules and expectations clearly. Then reward your child when rules are followed. For example, when the toys are picked up, you and your child can have story time. When your school-age child comes home from school on time, he or she can have a friend over.
  • Making it easy to succeed. Help your child to meet your expectations by giving him or her helpful tools. For example, rearrange space where items regularly are not picked up, such as adding baskets and low hooks for easier cleanup.
  • Modeling correct behavior. Patiently show your child the right way to behave or do a chore.
  • Using time-out wisely. You can use time-out to respond to dangerous and harmful behavior such as biting, hitting, and purposeful destruction. It's best to use time-out only when your child is able to understand its meaning. This is usually around age 2 or 3 years. Have the child sit in a place where there are no distractions. Explain what he or she did wrong and how to behave appropriately next time. Keep time-out to 1 minute for every year of age, up to a maximum of 5 minutes. Use a timer. After a time-out, acknowledge when the child behaves correctly.

It is important to continually learn and practice good parenting techniques, using different discipline strategies as your child grows and develops. All discipline techniques must be age-appropriate so that the child understands the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Babies younger than age 18 months cannot understand these concepts.

Contact your child's doctor if:

  • You want more information about how to discipline your child.
  • You are having trouble handling your reaction to your child's behavior.
  • Your child's behavior is causing a lot of family stress or other problems.

You can get other parenting tips from your child's doctor, a local hospital, and national parenting groups.

References

Other Works Consulted

  • American Academy of Pediatrics (2009). Behavior. In SP Shelov, RE Hannemann, eds., Caring For Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5, 4th ed., chap. 18, pp. 565–586. New York: Bantam.
  • Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, American Academy of Pediatrics (1998, reaffirmed 2012). Guidance for effective discipline. Pediatrics, 101(4): 723–728. [Erratum in Pediatrics, 101(2): 433.] Also available online:
  • Newman BM, Newman PR (2012). Early school age (4 to 6 year). In Development Through Life: A Psychosocial Approach, 11th ed., pp. 238–286. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
  • Stein MT (2011). Difficult behavior. In CD Rudolph et al., eds., Rudolph’s Pediatrics, 22nd ed., pp. 335–338. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer John Pope, MD - Pediatrics
Specialist Medical Reviewer Louis Pellegrino, MD - Developmental Pediatrics
Last Revised February 22, 2013

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