How to Discipline a Child: Helpful Tips

Make up for disappointments

Child sad

In considering how to discipline a child,

remember that if you have to enforce a limit in a particular area and the child is unhappy with it, try to cushion the blow by giving an extra freedom or privilege somewhere else. This will make the child more likely to comply with the limit. Say, “You can’t climb on the rocks, but you can go on the swings.” Say, “You can’t bounce the ball in the living room, but you can in the hallway by the door.” Say, “We can’t go to the movies but I will give you ice cream when we get home.” Children desperately need happiness and they are completely dependent on us to provide it for them, so we have to be mindful of softening their disappointments.

How to discipline a child: Give reasons

If a child asks why he must abide by a certain limit, don’t just say, “Because I said so.” Patiently explain the reasons behind everything and this will make the child more willing to go along. Don’t fear that giving reasons will encourage unwanted argumentativeness. You want the child to explore the reasons behind things through a healthy dialogue of question and answer. This shows great respect for the child and will result in increased compliance and improved behavior.

Do what’s best for the child

If a child has tantrums or misbehaves in public the most important rule is not to be governed by what other people may think. This frees us up to really do what’s best for the child. Usually the child has a need that is being frustrated and by fulfilling that need we can resolve the situation. Most misbehavior can be prevented by carefully injecting happiness into a child’s day at key points, as well as fulfilling his or her emotional needs. Once that tantrum is already in progress, offer the child a treat to distract him and calm him down. Don’t fear you are rewarding bad behavior. A child who is misbehaving is under extreme stress and it is at precisely those moments when he needs our love, attention and support.

See my post: How to stop a temper tantrum.

Child climbing tree happy

Don’t overreact to back talk

Back talk can be a healthy expression of assertiveness so you don’t always want to crush that. Try to sidestep the insult to the parents’ ego or authority and overlook it when it’s not too terrible. Instead you may express your feelings and values firmly but respectfully, “In our house we don’t speak that way!” “It makes me furious when you speak to me that way” “If you’re upset, I expect you to tell me respectfully what’s bothering you!” However, harsh reprimands and punishments have proven to be unhelpful and usually result in worse behavior! Find out what is bothering the child and is causing the back talk and address that need.

Teach politeness politely

Don’t use force or pressure to make children say ‘Hello, excuse me, please, or thank you’ as it actually makes them want to resist saying so in the future. Rather express it for them and use gentle encouragement. In addition, these things are best taught by setting an example, and then when she gains the maturity she will follow. Haim Ginott, famed psychologist from the 1960’s, says we must teach politeness politely. But reminding a child to say thank you in front of people is embarrassing and rude! How is that supposed to teach politeness? Rather say it for him and he will learn gradually by example. Later, in private you can teach him about saying thank you. Calling a child rude for interrupting is in itself rude. Rather say, “It makes me angry when I am interrupted! I expect you to listen before you speak.”  

For more information on growing natural manners for kids, click here.


Acknowledge feelings, avoid bossing

When we must insist on compliance we should first verbally acknowledge the child’s feelings. “You really don’t want to go to bed now, you would like to keep playing, but now it’s time to go to bed.” “Oh, you want to blow up more balloons, I’m really glad you’re having a good time, however it’s time for a bath now.” Noted educator and parenting authority Alfie Kohn describes what he calls the “Request and walk away technique.” When you ask a child to do something and stand there and wait for him to comply it makes the child feel that he must submit to orders and this harms his sense of self. It further makes him feel that you are expecting him not to comply and are standing there to provide back-up enforcement. This makes the child feel you don’t trust him. Therefore we make a request gently and then walk away, giving the child a chance to save face and comply on his own as well as giving him our vote of confidence that we trust he will do what’s asked. This can be repeated patiently until the child complies. Avoid getting angry or frustrated, or saying, “How many times to I have to tell you” This just makes the child lose respect for you and makes him less likely to comply.

To learn a great trick for getting kids to listen, click here.

happy girl smiling

Set the right amount of limits

There’s a balance between limits and permissiveness that should be struck for each child at a particular age. Too few limits can be dangerous and neglectful but too many can result in a child who is resentful and feels restricted and controlled. Take for example the holding of hands while crossing the street. You should be conscious of finding the right age for each child to let him cross with you without holding hands. Too early is dangerous but too late and the child will feel unnecessarily restricted and will rebel. Many parents err on the side of being too strict on these issues. The same rule applies to rough play, watching television, curfews, bedtime, and snacks and treats. You have to try to be conscious of the right amount of limits each child needs.

Please bear in mind that the above principles regarding how to discipline a child represent a parenting ideal, and no one should expect to fulfil them perfectly. Therefore have patience with yourself and try to implement new ideas gradually.

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If you are struggling with how to discipline a child, and seek a child psychotherapist in Lower Manhattan,

you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you! 

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