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How to Discipline a Child (The Complete Guide for Different Ages)



One of the most difficult aspects of parenting is discipline. We want to have a good relationship with our kids. Discipline can make us feel like the bad guy.

Handing out consequences for bad behavior is not fun. It generally makes our kids upset to have consequences for their behavior. Then they get mad at us for being the enforcer of consequences. It is a tough thing to be the disciplinarian of our children. It would be great if a reward system with charts and prizes would be enough to keep kids well behaved and not need discipline at all. Reward systems are great, but they are simply not enough.

Children need age appropriate discipline. It is a simple fact of life and parenting. If you are at a loss for how to discipline your child, I hope to provide some helpful tips for what can work for your child.

I have three kids and all three require different discipline approaches. No child is the same, nor will they respond to discipline the same as the next kid.

Being flexible, fair, consistent in follow through, and loving are the keys to making discipline effective without breaking the bonds of trust with a child. Using discipline that is too harsh or without warning will leave a child having trust broken between parent and child. They need to feel that they are being treated fairly in order for the consequence to not harm the parent and child relationship.

This doesn’t mean all forms of discipline are the same for all children. You need to implement systems that work for each individual child in the household. Discipline is not a one size fits all.

  • Why discipline is essential

    Children need discipline because it will help them now and also in their future as adults. They will develop a sense of right and wrong, with discipline in the home playing a major role in their moral development.

    Discipline helps them to understand what is acceptable behavior and what is not. They will also learn to respect authority when discipline is done fairly and comes from the love of a parent. If they can’t learn to respect authority in the home, it will not be favorable to their future.

    Will they listen to their boss and respect his or her authority? Much of their development of respect for figures of authority is directly correlated with how they were disciplined in the home.

    Was there discipline and correction in the home or were the rules loose and unknown? They will develop a good sense of respect for authority figures when discipline is done correctly in the home with clear rules and consequences in place.

    This again means that it is not too harsh (i.e. screaming and yelling), does not involve abuse, and is never done when a parent is filled with anger or rage.

    How discipline affects development

    There are four major parenting approaches, as outlined in this Psychology Today article:[1]

    1. Authoritarian
    2. Neglectful
    3. Indulgent
    4. Authoritative

    As parents, we need to strive to be authoritative parents in order to be effective in disciplining our children in a manner that helps them develop into the best adults they can be.

    With authoritative parenting approaches being utilized, a child will come to respect authority and discipline. The article from Psychology Today states the following regarding authoritative parenting methods:

    Typically, authoritative parents give their children increasing levels of independence as they mature and this leads to higher leadership potential in the children of authoritative parents. Social skills, self-control, and self-reliance are more highly developed, and these are qualities that make ideal employees, leaders, and life partners.

    When authoritative parenting methods are utilized, children will develop respect for authority figures that will carry over into adulthood. What we are teaching our children now in our discipline methods will have them develop not only a sense of morality of what is right and what is wrong, but they will also develop respect for authority figures.

    The other methods of parenting (authoritarian, neglectful, and indulgent) are flawed and come with consequences that affect the child in their adulthood. The goal is to raise children who are prepared to leave the nest someday and be fully prepared to take on the world.

    Discipline, and the parenting approach it stems from affects the development of children. Authoritative parenting is setting rules and boundaries that are fair to the child and their age. It is also discipline that helps the child to understand right and wrong behavior and the consequences of either within the home.

    How to discipline a child

    Whether we are using appropriate and effective discipline methods will determine whether our children will develop a strong sense of morality (that you have taught them) and a respect for authority.

    Here are some general guidelines for authoritative parenting in regard to discipline:

    • Rules and the reasoning behind them are clearly explained.
    • Parents will try to help their child when the child is frightened or upset.
    • Respect for the child’s opinion is provided, even if they may differ from the parents’ opinions.
    • The child is encouraged to talk about his or her feelings.
    • Consequences for breaking rules are clear to the child before rules are ever broken.
    • Communications and conversations with the child take place after rules are broken to help the child and parent process what took place. This conversation is done with empathy on the part of the parent.
    • Children are provided with discipline when they break rules. This is done in a consistent manner (i.e. if their smart phone is revoked as a consequence of not having their bedroom clean, then it is also revoked the next day if that same rule is broken).
    • Parents discuss with their children the consequences of their good and bad behavior, so there is a clear understanding of consequences and discipline in the home.
    • Parents follow through with discipline and are not lax about allowing rules to be broken without consequences. Rules being broken means that there are consequences. Not just sometimes, but always.
    • Consequences do not involve harsh punishments, shaming, screaming, yelling, name calling, or withholding of love.
    • Consequences are followed by healing words of encouragement and love to assure the child that even though they are being disciplined they are still very much loved. Example, after a time out period the parent would hug their child and tell them they love them unconditionally.
    • Parents encourage children to be independent within boundaries.
    • The reasons for the rules are clearly emphasized when discipline takes place so that the child clearly understands the “why” of their consequence. For example, when a child runs into the street after their ball, they are taken inside for a time out and it is explained that they are not allowed to go into the street because there are cars driving on the street making it very dangerous for them (it is for their own safety).

    Them knowing the house rules and boundaries along with the subsequent consequences are the first components to having a good discipline system in place.

    The next major factor to consider are the consequences. Are the consequences for their behavior fair? Is the consequence age appropriate for the child? Below are some general guidelines for age appropriate discipline methods.

    Discipline at different ages

    Discipline methods need to change as a child ages. What worked for your child at age 2 may not be effective at age 7. You need to recognize when your discipline methods are no longer effective and need modification.

    Understanding that age plays a role in the type of discipline that is most effective is important. Below are some age categories and discipline methods that are effective for these age groups:

    Babies

    Babies generally don’t need discipline. They are just learning about the world and they don’t have a grasp on good versus bad behavior. That will come soon enough when they are toddlers. However, this doesn’t mean that babies don’t do things that require consequences. For example, we don’t want our 9 month old crawling over to a light socket and putting their finger in it.

    The key is to create a safe environment so that the baby can explore their world in a safe manner. If they develop behaviors such as hitting or touching things they shouldn’t, they can be redirected.

    Redirect babies’ attention

    Provide them with something safe to touch and play with. Teaching them the difference between “yes touch” and “no touch” is essential. If they can’t abide by the “no touch” for a particular item, such as pulling the cat’s hair, then remove the item from their view and ability to touch. A 9 month old is not likely to understand the concept of a time out.

    Parenting.com has some helpful tips on handling a baby’s behavior outside of the realm of punishment. They state the following about discipline and babies:[2]

    Discipline begins with trust. The child who trusts his mom or dad to give him food and comfort when he needs it will also trust them when they say, “Don’t touch!”

    The key with babies is that they need love, comfort, and redirection rather than punishment such as time outs. They are just developing their sense of self and discovering the world around them. Soon enough they will be toddlers and consequences can become part of the routine. Until then, it’s the parents’ job to keep baby away from unsafe situations and things.

    The parent can distract or redirect their baby when behavior needs to be modified.

    For example, when I began brushing my kids’ teeth when they first got their new teeth as babies, they did not like to have a toothbrush in their mouth. I had one child that would kick, scream, and cry when she saw the toothbrush.

    I developed a silly song to make teeth brushing entertaining and distract her from what was happening. I made silly faces and sang the song very excitedly every time it came to brushing their teeth, so that she was distracted by my song and dance and I could more easily brush her teeth without a fit. It worked like a charm and within a couple of weeks, she was excited to see the toothbrush because it meant I would be the entertainment.

    Find creative ways to distract your child or engage them with other activities to diffuse crying because they don’t want anything that is unsafe for them. They don’t need punishment for grabbing the TV remote control. Instead the parent simply needs to replace the remote with a toy and make the toy appear far more interesting and fun than a boring remote control.

    Toddlers (around 1 to 2 year old)

    Redirection of behavior is also helpful for toddlers. You will find yourself saying “no-no” repeatedly when you have a toddler. You have to decide which behaviors are stepping over the line and require consequences. Others beahviors can simply be redirected much like you would do with them in the baby phase.

    Simple verbal corrections are helpful at this stage. When the verbal corrections fail, then you need to take action. Sometimes toddlers are just testing the waters to see what they can get away with.

    Know your limits, so you recognize when the behavior has gone too far and verbal correction simply isn’t enough. That way you can move onto other methods such as time outs, taking away toys, or removing privileges (simple things for toddlers like no ice cream).

    Toddler melt downs and tantrums are the norm. If you have a child who doesn’t go through a temper tantrum phase that involves yelling and hitting, then you are lucky and your child is a unicorn. For the rest of us, we need a huge dose of patience, deep breathing, and a calmness of our mind and emotions when the temper tantrums start.

    Avoid triggers that cause tantrums

    Try to avoid triggers that may cause the tantrums to occur (like skipping their naptime or forgetting their snacks and you end up with an “hangry toddler”). When you are in public, remove yourself from the public situation.

    More than once I have left the store with a child in my arms who was in full tantrum mode. I take them to the car and we wait out the tantrum. I don’t yell or punish in any way.

    Quiet times

    The best consequences for tantrums of toddlers are quiet times. This is different than a time out. The time out is usually the same number of minutes as that of the child’s age (if the child is 3 then they get a 3 minute time out). Tantrums require additional time for the child to calm themselves and recover.

    I always placed my children in their rooms on their bed and told them I would come get them after they calmed down and were quiet for a while. Sometimes, they would fall asleep because the tantrum was related to them being overtired. Other times they would come out of the room and say “I calm” in their toddler voice after they had recovered from their fit.

    Usually I would go to their room after all was quiet and I knew that they calmed down and the temper tantrum was over. We would talk about things and then I would ask them to come rejoin the family now that they had calmed and were committed to good behavior.

    The key with toddlers is to remain calm. You need to be their rock, not the one losing it when they lose it. Empowering Parents discusses some more helpful tips on dealing with toddler tantrums including the following:[3]

    Be clear and firm with your child. They want to see that you’re in charge and that somebody is in control. Keep your center and be very firm. You can say, “We are not staying here. We can come back when you can pull yourself together. We are leaving now.”

    Time outs can begin during the toddler phase. A special chair designated as the time out chair is helpful for making this consequence method consistent and understandable for the toddler. You can use a timer that is designated as the “time out” timer.

    A general guideline for time out length is that the number of years of the child’s age is the same amount of minutes for the time out (i.e. 2 minutes for a 2-year old, 3 minutes for a 3-year old, etc.). If the child keeps getting up from the timeout chair, then the parent needs to keep taking the child back to their time out chair until their time out is complete.

    I instituted a policy in our home that if they got up from time out then their time out would start over. They learned from a very early age not to get out of time out until the timer went off.

    It can be a battle of the wills having to keep putting a toddler back in the chair over and over again. But doing so will teach them that you will not give up and they are required to finish the entire time out.

    Eventually they will catch on and realize that the time out will go much quicker if they simply go to the chair and do the time. It may take dozens of time outs to get to that realization, but it will happen eventually.

    If it results in an all out temper tantrum, then use the tantrum policy and remove the child to a safe area, such as their bedroom or crib until the temper subsides and they are calm once again.

    There are some kids that do well with a time out when they can sit with Mom or Dad. They need their parent there as it is a reassurance that they are still loved even though they are being disciplined. That works too as long as they are being removed from their playtime and toys, the consequence of time out in their chair with Mom or Dad near them is fine.

    Removal of toys

    The policy for toddler toy removal is that the toy is taken away if it is used to harm others or two or more children are fighting over the toy.

    Toy time out is what we call it in our home. The toy went on top of a cabinet that the children could not reach. Be sure to put these toys for time out in a place that the children will not try to climb to retrieve and get hurt in the process.

    Our cabinets are bolted to the walls because of this safety issue. My kids were all climbers and you don’t know if your child is a climber until you catch them doing it and by then it can be too late to avoid a horrible accident.

    Be sure to differentiate between normal toddler behavior and direct disobedience. I had one toddler use coloring crayons to draw all over the walls. My daughter who is two years older than her twin brothers pointed out that they didn’t have any more coloring pages left so he had to draw on the walls. Sure enough, I had told them to go into the kitchen and color. I had never told my toddlers to not draw on the walls.

    Rather than scolding him and sending him to time out, I had him helped me clean the walls and we talked about how color crayons are only for paper. I let him know that next time there would be more serious consequences if he wrote on the wall with crayons.

    Toddlers do strange things, so be prepared for your reaction (or the need to hold off on reacting to your toddler’s antics) because sometimes a bean up the nose is just a toddler experimenting and not them trying to be disobedient or act out in any way badly.

    Preschoolers (around 2 to 3 year old)

    Time outs are also useful for preschool aged children. The preschool age is when you can begin to see that some discipline methods work for one child but they may not work for another.

    I have one child that will laugh at me and say “I don’t care about time out, it doesn’t bother me” and I know he means it. Therefore the time outs are no longer used for him. Instead we take away favored toys.

    If you child is obsessed with their fire engine truck that they have to take to the store, to church, and to preschool, you then know it will be effective in taking away this toy for disciplinary measure if needed. For our kids it depends on the severity of the action. For hitting that caused injury to a sibling they will lose that toy for an entire day.

    You don’t want the child to ever feel defeated, so don’t threaten to throw it away because that is far too harsh. Instead a time out for that toy for a designated amount of time is appropriate.

    Thorough explanation and discussion of the behaviors

    It is important at this phase to be more thorough on explanation and discussion of the behavior and consequences. You want your children to understand why you are taking away their favorite toy or giving them a time out. You also want them to feel a sense of growing right and wrong in their heart and mind.

    When they understand that their name calling or hitting their siblings results in hurt feelings and physical hurt, they can begin to empathize with their siblings pain and hurt. They will feel bad for their actions.

    Maybe not immediately, but as they grow and you are consistent with both the consequences and the calm, empathetic conversations about their actions and the resulting consequences, you will find that they will develop a greater sense of remorse and empathy.

    The goal is not to simply change their behavior. It is to change their heart and motivations. You want your children to desire to get along with others and to abide by the rules. They will when they understand the reasons for those rules, the clear consequences, and their emotions are involved in the process.

    Discipline is guiding their hearts as much as it is guiding their actions.

    School-age children

    When children reach school age, then generally the era of when time outs come to a halt. However, there are times when quiet time in their room is needed. For attitude adjustments and mood swings, room time for the child to calm themselves away from others (and electronics) is often very helpful.

    Taking away screen time

    This is the age where electronics are becoming more important. Whether it is a personal tablet, smart phone, or television, school age children are increasingly more attached to these items. It becomes an easy source for effective discipline. They lose time on their electronic device as a consequence for rules being broken.

    No child specialist has yet to say that depriving a child of screen time will be harmful to them. If anything just the contrary has been proven. Therefore taking away screen time as a consequence of their behaviors can be beneficial to them in more ways than one.

    Be sure the time frame is fair with the severity of the behavior. If they didn’t make their bed that morning, maybe an hour restriction is fine. For purposefully damaging their siblings property or harming another child, the device can be restricted for a full day or more, depending on the severity of their behavior.

    Again, it is of utmost importance for the child to understand the “why” of the rules, so they understand why consequences are necessary when rules are broken.

    Removal or restriction of privileges

    This is also effective for school aged children. Understand your child and their desires to make this effective. For example, you may have a child that likes to go ride their bike around with neighborhood kids after school. They may have gotten in trouble at school for something that you deemed worthy of restricting their after school bike riding for a day or two.

    Make sure that your child understands why they are being dealt the consequence and try to make the time productive- such as writing an apology to the teacher or child they offended at school.

    School age is when friends become increasingly more important to kids. Socialization is an important part of development. However, when misbehavior is severe enough, then time with friends can be restricted. “Grounding” is what my parents called it.

    When children are of young school age, it can be simply not allowing them to attend an upcoming friend’s birthday party. Again, make sure that your punishment is not overly harsh. If they believe you are overly harsh and severe in your punishments, then resentments will form.

    Talk with your school aged children about what punishments they deem fair or unfair and for what violations specifically. Having these open conversations can help you develop fair discipline methods that are also effective for your specific child.

    Be a flexible parent

    Determining what kind of punishment is effective for your child is not a one and done policy. What is effective this week may not be an effective consequence for their behavior the next week. Be prepared for conversations with your growing child so that you can understand one another in this process of discipline and rule following.

    The clearer you can make the process for the child, the more likely you are to make things fair. Involving them in conversations about what they believe are fair consequences is also effective in setting up disciplinary measures for their behaviors.

    Give them love and reassurance of that love following discipline because above all the goal is showing them love through the good and bad, so they feel that they are loved unconditionally.

    Discipline is part of loving that child. If you love your child, you want them to develop into emotionally healthy adults and discipline is a part of that process.

    Featured photo credit: Bing via bing.com

    Reference

    [1] Psychology Today: How Does Your Parenting Style Affect Your Kids?
    [2] Parenting.com: 5 Discipline Tricks for Babies
    [3] Empowering Parents: Dealing with Child Temper Tantrums from Toddler to Pre-teen

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