Parenting can be challenging. In fact, sometimes it’s downright hard. One of the more trying demands is discipline. Although the word itself has a negative connotation, discipline (specifically, positive discipline) can actually be beneficial (you can read more about this here). Children often act in ways that are not okay, and parents have to correct the behavior firmly and consistently. It may be hard to remember, especially when your child throws a temper tantrum in the grocery store or bites a preschool classmate, that mistakes are opportunities to teach your child. And they’re not likely to learn anything if your first reaction is to yell or punish (although this will happen; we all have been there). There are many ways to help direct your child’s behavior in a much more positive and productive way.
Here are 10 of the best strategies we’ve found to help parents preserve their loving relationship with their child, even when their child behaves in ways that call for discipline.
1. Be respectful.
Some misbehavior stems from feelings of discouragement or displacement. Children want to know that they are loved and accepted, that they belong in their families. Feelings of insecurity can lead to bad behavior as the child seeks to draw attention—and reassurance. “Be kind and firm at the same time,” author and family counselor Dr. Jane Nelsen writes. Kindness shows “respect for [your] child”; firmness shows “respect for yourself and ‘the needs of the situation.’” Feeling challenged to keep your cool? Consider a cool-down—for yourself—before you address your child’s behavior.
2. Childproof your home.
Saying “no” is not only a parenting bummer, it also creates a habit of negative talk between parent and child. It’s a sure thing that every child will hear “no” sometimes and it's not always a bad thing. But ensuring that your child’s environment is a generally safe one will help to reduce the number of times you have to say no for safety reasons. You will be able to save “no” for when you really need it and give your little explorer more “yes” opportunities. (For more on childproofing your home, see this.)
3. Give only positive time outs.
Have your child help you set up an area with objects, such as comfortable cushions, favorite books, or stuffed animals, that will help her feel better when she is asked to take a “break.” (A “time out timer,” sometimes called a “mind jar,” may be a great addition.) The idea is for this to be a place where they can relax. When your child is upset, offer the positive time out as an option to help them calm down before you try to talk with them about the problem. (Note that many experts agree time-outs shouldn’t occur before at least 2 years of age, since younger children lack self-control).
Keep in mind that time-outs (even positive ones) won’t work for all children. While some will make good use of the opportunity to relax, others will perceive it as a shunning. If your child already feels bad, a time-out won’t make him feel better. Consider whether it works for your child, and be willing to adapt. If you do use time-outs, they should be limited to a number of minutes equal to the child’s age. Your child should be welcome to stay in their relaxing space as long as they need, but check in with them after a minute or two to see if they are ready to talk about the situation.
4. Sing about it.
Dr. Charles Fay, family psychotherapist and author of the Love & Logic program, suggests that parents deliberately control their voices when dealing with misbehavior. “Uh-oh,” delivered in a sing-song voice, Fay explains, can signal to the child the need for different behavior, in a reassuring way that encourages cooperation while disarming tension.
An example of this approach is when, after a child has thrown a truck, been corrected, and throws it again: “Uh-oh, it’s sad you threw your truck again. I think it’s time the truck went away.” Don’t like to use “Uh-oh?” Consider personalizing the words to something that suits you.
5. Chart success!
Does your child have a particular bad habit that he’s working to break? A behavior chart, posted where your child can see it often, such as on the refrigerator, can serve as a handy reminder of good behavior expectations—and day-by-day successes.
A sticker chart may have special appeal for many young children, who will take pride in placing stickers to note their accomplishments. Ideally, the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) suggests, any chart should be “small and simple,” used “for one behavior at a time,” and used with a plan for “how to end their use.” Eventually, your child should adopt and follow the positive behavior without a reward.
6. Redirect attention.
Young children can lack the ability to regulate their emotions, and overwhelming emotions such as fear, anger, or worry can lead to tantrums. It’s natural. They need a release (just like adults do!) and what better way than to start kicking and screaming? Although unlikely to work every time a child behaves badly, some parents find they can stop the negative behavior by engaging their child in positive behavior.
A child arguing in the car might be engaged in a round of “the quiet game,” trying to be the one to stay silent longest. One who is complaining through a shopping trip might be enlisted to help pick out the best apples or breakfast cereal. By redirecting attention you are breaking the cycle of negative thought and inviting the child to participate in more positive endeavors. Whenever possible, try to identify opportunities to stop your child’s tantrum before it starts.
7. Offer choices.
Give your child the opportunity to make good choices along the way. It may seem nonsensical to give a child in the throes of opposition more choices (or any choice at all), but it often works to settle a situation.
For example, if your child is balking at a necessary outing, break up the complaints by asking: “Do you want to wear your jacket, or your sweater?” If your evening routine is flexible, but your child is resisting bathtime, offer: “Do you want your bedtime story before your bath, or after?” Giving your child options is a way to show respect for their feelings. Author and clinical psychologist Dr. Laura Markham of Aha! Parenting suggests that parents who offer children choices counter their child’s resistance not with force but with an acknowledgement of their child’s right to some measure of control. Rather than creating a power struggle, you create a cooperative environment with a child who feels confident that their parent is an ally.
8. Be consistent.
Sometimes it can be tempting to try to ignore bad behavior and hope that it will pass. However, it’s important to respond the same way every time. A predictable and firm response helps your child learn from their behavior, and reduces the likelihood that they will repeat it. Sometimes, there will be a natural consequence (such as a toy breaking when it is thrown to the ground in anger) that requires no direct involvement from the parents. Other times, a logical consequence (such as losing the use of a toy for the rest of the day if the child is fighting with a sibling over it) is set by the parent. Both kinds of consequences, according to Dr. Robert Brooks, psychologist and co-author of Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope, and Optimism in Your Child, allow the child to learn real-life lessons. Consequences that are “harsh, arbitrary, or inconsistent” can, by comparison, cause children to become resentful rather than learn from the experience.
For the learning lesson to be most effective, children should be warned prior to either kind of consequence that is likely to occur as a result of a behavior. Explaining to your child that a ball left out in the front yard is likely to be ruined by the rain (natural consequence) and that a replacement would need to be purchased with money from his own piggy bank (logical consequence) allows him to think through potential consequences beforehand.
9. Focus on solutions.
An alternative to focusing on “consequences” of their behavior is to focus on “solutions” to problems. According to Dr. Nelsen, children should be involved in helping to identify solutions that are related to the problem, respectful of all parties, reasonable, and helpful.
Talking through solutions encourages better outcomes in the future. For example, a consequence-focused approach to a child who is late to the dinner table might be “a cold dinner.” A solution-focused approach would identify strategies for the child to ensure they weren’t late to the table in the future, such as “set a timer.” Engaging your child to help figure out and work on a solution can be a big step toward ensuring that a problem behavior doesn’t happen repeatedly.
10. Praise good behavior!
The goal of positive discipline should be to help children learn from their mistakes. After you identify your child’s negative behavior and figure out a positive solution, be on the alert for an opportunity for praise.
“Without a doubt, the key to developing high-quality human behavior is through the selective, positive reinforcement of appropriate behavior,” says Dr. Glenn Latham, author of The Power of Positive Parenting. He suggests that when parents compliment children on good behavior (instead of focusing their attention on behaviors they disapprove of) they will see a decrease in undesirable behavior. Children crave attention—good or bad—from their parents. Latham believes “behavior which receives parental attention is behavior that is strengthened.” If a parent only pays attention to a child when that child is misbehaving, the bad behavior will likely continue. On the other hand, if a hug, words of encouragement, or a star on a behavior chart is extended to the child for good behavior, the good behavior should persist. Catch your child in the act of being good. Offering a few words of encouragement will let your child know that you have noticed the positive change they’ve made—and that feels good for both of you.