Child Discipline: Being Effective Without Losing Perspective

Discipline is one of the most challenging aspects of being a parent or other child care giver. Most parents know good vs. bad behavior when they see it, but translating this into effective discipline requires certain skills and sensitivities beyond “just telling children what to do.”

To ensure the safety and beginning social adjustment of very young children, early discipline tends to emphasize control and restraint. A very succinct EAP brochure on “Disciplining Your Child” (Channing L. Bete Co., Inc.) outlines some of the basics: families need limits on time (bedtime, curfews), boundaries (you may go here but not there), and behavior (you may do this but not that). As children grow older, their cognitive capacities increase so they can learn and remember various rules of conduct, and understand why they are necessary. Hopefully, children will then start regulating themselves in a way that reflects desirable family and societal values & standards. If a good sense of conscience or morality develops, children will want to do the right thing!

Generally, good discipline shows children how to respect themselves and others, and promotes the development of essential skills including:

  • conforming to accepted rules and standards
  • appropriately managing difficult feelings and controlling impulses
  • developing self-discipline that promotes goal attainment and adaptive functioning
  • showing consideration for others’ needs and feelings
  • setting limits and boundaries, e.g., deciding how much to give in relationships and being assertive if pushed beyond one’s comfort level

If parents have their own difficulties in any of these areas, this might hamper their ability to discipline well…. Some principles of effective discipline include:

  1. Be a good role model. Verbal instruction does have an impact, but children respond even more to what they observe: how parents balance their own needs and desires against various “reality constraints”; tolerate frustration and disappointment; resolve conflicts; and treat other people. Even parents who are themselves honest and responsible will send children a very confusing message if they tolerate unacceptable behavior from other adults. Parents must hold everyone accountable, including themselves, so that children do not feel they are being held to unfair or unrealistic standards.
  2. Stay calm and firm. This principle of good discipline is about remaining the adult and maintaining self-control, especially when anger is provoked. Parents who are secure in their own authority will not expend energy arguing with a two-year old, or with a teenager, for that matter. After a reasonable explanation is provided regarding a rule or limit, a parent does not need to keep justifying it. They can just matter-of-factly repeat: “You will need to be home by 10:00 tonight”, or “It’s time to turn off the video games and do something else.” If the child or teen continues to argue, the parent should not get upset or argue back. They can just set another limit by saying, “I am not debating this with you”, or “It is not helpful for us to go around & around about this.”
  3. Maintain a loving, positive relationship. Through all of the ups and downs of raising a child, a parent’s best “leverage” is in keeping a good connection based on mutual respect and unconditional love. When this is present, children will want to please their families and therefore be better motivated to behave.When frustration or disappointment builds, some parents seem to withdraw their love or even threaten abandonment. But when a child gets into serious trouble or shows outrageous disrespect – especially in these circumstances – they especially need to be secure about having their family’s support. Parents should not take it personally when children question their authority or seek more autonomy; while this can seem rejecting, it is part of normal development. If parents educate themselves about what can be expected of children at different ages & stages, many disciplinary challenges can be anticipated and effectively managed.
  4. Use age-appropriate, non-abusive methods of discipline. Methods of discipline that leave a child feeling shamed and humiliated, fearful or full of rage can damage the parent-child bond and spawn more serious emotional/behavioral problems. Relying on dominance and control (e.g., yelling, physical punishment, very harsh restrictions) might seem effective in the short run, but this type of “power” eventually runs out. As children grow physically bigger and more independent, they can find numerous ways to defeat parents’ efforts to control them. Some might become rebellious or confrontational; others will quietly resist by withdrawing from the family or starting to lie; yet others get self-destructive with alcohol or drug use, eating disorders, reckless driving, etc.So-called corporal punishment is a long tradition in many families, regions and cultures, but mainstream educators and mental health professionals strongly advise against it. “Spanking” is really another word for hitting, and we do not want to teach children that it is okay to hit – even if the other person is smaller or if one is very angry. There is clear evidence that physical punishment puts a child at risk for various mental health problems and often increases misbehavior – even if it is kept from the parents’ view (one classic response to physical punishment is avoidance of the punisher). Not surprisingly, children who are hit by their parents are more likely to behave aggressively toward others. Such “anger management” problems can have pervasive effects on adult adjustment, e.g., family relationships, job stability, legal problems. Finally, when parents convey that for some reason a child deserves to be hit, this can create the type of confusion that gets some adults stuck in abusive relationships.
  5. Be proactive about setting limits and teaching good behavior. At the other extreme, some parents are so careful to avoid any conflict or unpleasantness with their children that they fail to provide meaningful discipline. Often a reaction to having been too harshly treated themselves, this permissiveness might reflect fear of the parent’s own power or anxiety about being rejected by their children. But while children might seem resentful of rules and limits, not having them in place can create fear and insecurity. For example, when parents let a teenager go without sufficient monitoring or supervision, the teen might conclude that no one is really concerned about their well-being. This can cause anxiety, depression or emotional isolation, problems which might not be detected if there is no actual misbehavior. Or, such a teenager can respond by acting delinquent (e.g., drinking alcohol or using drugs, risky sexual behavior), perhaps because this helps them feel more grown-up and therefore less scared of being “out there on their own.”

So what does constitute effective discipline? With an attitude of loving acceptance, parents must convey what is expected and appropriate behavior. They should also help children understand the need to adapt to changing circumstances, and recognize that some behaviors which are fine at home (e.g., running and yelling in the backyard) are not okay in public places. Children’s feelings should always be taken into account, but this does not necessarily mean that a given rule or limit should be dismissed or changed. Showing empathy by “reflecting” a child’s feelings often has a significant impact on their willingness to accept discipline and end up feeling okay despite any disagreement with the parent. For example, a parent can state, “I know it is disappointing for you to only have six people at your birthday party,” or “I hear that you’re frustrated we won’t let you drive your friends around at night.” And then try lightly changing the subject.

For a general framework that is helpful with children of all ages, use behavioral methods:

  • reinforce good behavior (“catch them being good”) through a variety of means including verbal praise, increased privileges,allowing greater independence;
  • ignore low-level bad behavior such as pestering, sulking and squabbling; and
  • set firm limits on behavior that presents any real problem or threat, e.g., staying up too late on school nights, running on a slippery floor, acting rude or aggressive.

Limit-setting should be calm and matter-of-fact. Describe the behavior and why it’s a problem. Whenever possible, give the child a chance to make an adjustment or propose a better alternative. This conveys good expectations and gives them an opportunity to “make things right” on their own (which can be reinforcing in itself, since no one likes to be told what to do).

Finally, remember to strive for progress, not perfection. Let children know that discipline is really about making good-faith efforts to control your behavior and treat others well – and asking for help if you have trouble doing so. Furthermore, it’s always okay to admit to children when you’ve made a mistake regarding discipline or other parenting issues. Seeing parents take responsibility for their own behavior makes children respect them more, not less. After all, learning to “play well with others” is a lifelong process, which parents can continue to work on alongside their kids.

Resources

Because I Love You (formerly “Toughlove”) – community-based parent support group designed to help parents whose children or teens have behavioral problems. For local meetings, check their website: www.bily.org.

Northern Virginia Family Services, Oakton, VA (and other suburban VA locations).

703-385-3267. A private, non-profit mental health agency.

Parent Encouragement Program (PEP), Kensington MD (also offers classes in other suburban MD locations and Herndon & Vienna, VA). 301-929-8824. Website: www.ParentEncouragement.org. A non-profit educational organization that offers parenting classes based on the Adlerian philosophy of mutual respect, shared responsibility, developing competence, and winning cooperation.

The Family Tree – a non-profit organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of child abuse and neglect through child, family, and community-focused advocacy and outreach services. Website: www.familytreemd.org. 24-hour “family stress” telephone line: 1-800-243-7337.

Virginia Tech Center for Family Services, Fairfax, VA. 703-538-8470. A family therapy training program that provides sliding-fee counseling services to the community.