How to discipline your child

Published by 
Jess Miller
Last updated: 
April 2, 2023
girl cover her face with both hands

Whether you like it or not you are going to have to learn how to effectively discipline your child. There is one important thing you must remember. Discipline and punishment are two very different things.

Punishment only tells a child that he or she is bad. It does not tell a child what should be done instead. As a result, punishment may not make sense to a child, he may be unable to link his actions to the punishment and as a result, you could see repeated behavior as you have not correctly told your child it is wrong.

By disciplining your child you are attempting to:

  • Teach your child right from wrong
  • Teach your child how to respect the rights of others
  • Teach your child which behaviors are acceptable and which are not

You may have noticed that every point started with the word "teach". Discipline is very much a lesson. One that may have to be taught over and over before it sticks. Discipline should make sense to a child, and give him the chance to correct his mistakes.

Discipline vs punishment Example

Your child throws his coloring in pencils all over the floor.

Punishment as a solution

You scold your child and send him to his room

Discipline as a Solution

Explain to your child that the pencils could get broken or mark the floor. Get your child to pick the pencils himself. Then hide the pencils from your child until the next day. Yes, the discipline still had a punishment (hiding the pencils) but the child was able to associate the punishment with his actions. The desired outcome of proper discipline is a child who:

  • Feels secure and loved
  • Is self-confident
  • Is self-disciplined and can control impulsiveness
  • Does not get frustrated with the normal routine of everyday life

You play a much greater role in the disciplining process than you may have previously thought. If you give in to your child after he or she throws a tantrum, argues or becomes violent then you are encouraging this behavior to continue. The behavior will be repeated because your child knows that there is the possibility that you may give in (even if it was just that once). By being firm and consistent then eventually your child will learn that fighting is not worth it, one way or another your child is going to have to give in any way.

Be consistent

Be consistent in your discipline and how you punish your child. It is normal for children to test their limits. If your child pushes these limits and you cave in you are sending mixed messages to your child. If you were to discipline once but not the second time then you have actually given the green light for your child to continue this bad behavior.

Ensure that everyone who cares for your child, whether it is your partner, relative or friend is consistent with your child. If your little one thinks there is a weakness, you can bet he or she will try to exploit it.

More discipline basics

Stay Calm

Try your hardest to avoid yelling and screaming if your child misbehaves. By acting this way you can actually enforce the idea that losing control is acceptable if you don't get your way. If you feel your blood starting to boil, take a break and a deep breath. Confront the issue when you regain your composure.

Avoid repeating commands

If you give your child a single command to stop misbehaving. If it is not followed, repeat it once with a warning for what the consequence will be if your child does not listen. If again your child does not listen then act on the consequence. Never repeat a command multiple times as your child will quickly learn that you are not being serious and continuing to misbehave will only result in more harmless words.

Use 'I'

Use 'I' Messages when disciplining your child. Rather than saying "you made me upset for not cleaning up your toys' phrase it as 'i am upset that you didn't clean up your toys'. Statements with 'you' in them can seem accusatory and lead to aging that may be avoided.

Watch the criticism

Explain to your child that it is the behavior that is unacceptable, not your child. Ensure your child understands that you love him or her, just not the behavior.

Watch the praise

Conversely to the above point you want to avoid continuously praising your child particularly for routine activities. Over-praising can make your comments less effective.

Girl clean the floor
Image Source: Flickr

Routine, routine, routine

Children who take part in a daily routine, that is meal times, snacks, bath time and bed all at consistent times each day, respond better to discipline. As your child is already used to following your instructions, you can expect better results when your child does misbehave.

No physical punishment

Spanking. It reinforces the fact that it is okay to hit people if they misbehave, a trait you definitely do not want your child to adopt. Spanking has been proven to be no more effective than other methods of discipline and can even make children more aggressive and angry.

Rewards and praise

Offer rewards and praise for good behavior, just not for doing routine activities. It is also important that you understand the difference between a reward and a bribe. Bribes are given to get your child to complete a task while rewards are given after. You want to avoid bribes as it can teach your child to take before giving.

Be the person you want your child to be

Whether you like it or not your child's personality is going to be partly comprised of your mannerisms. By being a good role model you can be sure that your child is only imitating positive traits.

Don't argue

If you do need to punish your child, don't argue about it. Simply ignore any protests and continue to act on the punishment. You can discuss how the punishment could have been avoided later after your child has calmed down.

Let some things slide.

Despite your best efforts, your child is not, and never will be perfect. Learn to ignore minor or harmless misbehaviors such as fidgeting. Reacting to every little thing your child does with discipline can lead to an inferiority complex.

The environment

Perhaps the most important point, provide your child with a safe environment. Ensure that your child feels secure and loved. A safe and secure child is more likely to respond positively to discipline. Seems like a lot to take in doesn't it? Don't worry, with a little practice discipline is can be both easy and effective.

Encouraging good behavior

The first step to better discipline is to identify and encourage good behavior. You will find that it is much easier to reinforce good behavior than it is to prevent and change bad behavior. The easiest way to reinforce good behavior is by offering praise when your child successfully completes tasks or performs well.

Although your child's mischievous smile may suggest otherwise, children actually will seek approval for the things that they do, especially from their parents. A simple way to let your child know that they have done something correctly or taken the correct steps to do something you wanted is by showing affection. A hug, kiss or smile to reward the little things such as sitting quietly, completes a chore without any problems or even simply playing cooperatively.

Girl curly hair wearing a jacket

Don't forget to give verbal approval. When you are giving verbal approval don't just say 'Great job' or 'Well done'. Tie the approval in with specific behaviors or actions, for example 'I like it when you put your books away when you are finished with them.' This helps your child identify, without any doubts, correct behavior.

Some children respond effectively to making good behavior fun. Your child is more likely to follow your instructions if he or she is having fun. For example, say 'let us see who can pick up the most toys' Jump in and race your child (don't get too caught up in the competitive moment, let your child win).

Discipline Techniques

I know it took so long to get to discipline techniques, but it is important that you are knowledgeable about the basics so you can effectively implement each technique.


You can use distraction to get your child's attention away from inappropriate behaviors. Suggest a different activity or play toy. Do not use something your child will consider a reward to distract your child. Any distractions should be something that your child would be able to do on his own, without your help.

Say no

Stop misbehaving by looking at your child firmly in the eyes and saying no. This technique may not work if your child is not used to being disciplined.

Remove your child

If your child was misbehaving in a specific room such as playing on the tv cabinet, move him to a different room. As long as your child can't hurt himself, you are free to walk away and not give him attention or an audience for acting inappropriately.


Letting your child learn the results of his actions. For example, if he throws pencils all over the floor then he can't play with them anymore.

Withholding privileges

All children have activities that they enjoy, such as watching their favorite TV show or playing with a favorite toy at bath time. When disciplining your child, let them know that the consequence for disobeying will be to take away this treasured activity or toy. Be sure to follow through if the misbehavior continues.

The timeout

When all else fails, the timeout can be a very effective discipline technique. Suitable for children as young as 18 months, by using this method you are removing your child from positive reinforcement after he misbehaves. Prepare a chair, space on the floor or designated area in the house free from distractions such as toys and interactions with others.

Be sure to time how long before your child is allowed to remove themselves from timeout (and not without you telling your child that time is up). Timeout for toddlers is used so that your little one can regroup and calm down. Timeout is usually set at one minute per year of age. So if your little one is two, then two minutes in time out should be adequate.

Child 1871104 640

Remember, timeout is used as a consequence and should only be used if your little one continues to misbehave. Be sure that your little one connects the time out with his actions warning that if he doesn't cease misbehaving he will face time out. If the threat does not work, be sure to follow through. When taking your little one to time out, do not talk or discuss with him, you want your child to reflect on his actions.

You can discuss why he was put in time out after successfully completing it. If your child is being defiant then timeout does not start until your little one calms down and stays put. Even if it takes several minutes or an hour, stay strong. You want your little one to understand that once he is being placed in time out, there is no turning back.

Related Resources: Disciplining your children as they age

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