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About Discipline - Helping Children Develop Self-Control

by Anita Gurian, PhD
Helping Kids Develop Self-Control -


All children misbehave. They may throw tantrums, test the rules, start fights, refuse to cooperate with family routines, use bad language—the list goes on. Misbehavior has different meanings at different ages. Young children are experimenting and trying to find out what appropriate behavior is and what the limits are. Teenagers may rebel in an attempt to assert their independence, a key developmental task at their age.
Parents use discipline to teach their children about expected rules and boundaries and the consequences of misbehavior. Discipline does not mean punishment or conflict between parent and child. It means helping a child learn from mistakes and develop self control. All children need the security that comes with knowing the rules and boundaries of behavior; without these guidelines they feel at a loss.

Flexibility is the key to discipline as children grow. Parents will need to modify their approach over time, using different strategies as their child develops greater autonomy and capacity for self regulation and responsibility.

Real Life Stories

Alex, 2-and-a-half, throws himself on the floor and screams when he wants cookies before dinner. Should his mother let him have the cookies, ignore him, or distract him?

Eloise, 6, has learned some curse words and uses them in a loud voice to her father when he won't buy the cereal she saw advertised on TV. Should he take her out of the store, wash her mouth with soap, or smile and pretend she didn't do anything wrong?

Naomi, 13, refuses to share her Facebook user name and password with her parents.  Should they insist, give in, or take away her computer?

Rafey, 17, wants to attend an all-night party after the high school prom. Should his parents let him go, refuse, discuss their concerns with him, or make some arrangements for supervision?

Understanding the rules: A developmental look

The foundations for discipline are laid down in the early years. During the first year of a child's life, parents and baby establish a trust that sets the climate for their relationship through the years.

Sometime between the ages of 1 and 2, the individual previously thought of as a baby suddenly bursts onto the scene as a person in her own right with very specific wants and needs. As toddlers begin to move around and test their independence, they need help learning what is safe, what they can and cannot do. Since they don't fully understand the idea of consequences, a gentle but firm "no" is in order. With the explosion of the new skill of talking, toddlers may appear to understand the rules and can be reasoned with at times. These developments in language and motor skills parallel the development of the brain regions essential to self-control.

From ages 3 to 6, as these brain regions become more mature, children show improved ability to control their impulses, shift their attention flexibly, and delay gratification to wait for a reward. Preschoolers gradually come to recognize rules and the consequences of their behavior. As children reach school age, they begin to understand the reasons for rules; the rules become internalized and children show an increasing sense of responsibility and self control. Most school age children are sensitive to the ideas of fairness and justice and are able to weigh the needs of others as they make decisions. During adolescence, kids gradually become ready to take responsibility for their own behavior.

Developing self control is a slow process. The ultimate goal of discipline is to help children internalize self-control, not to have them merely obey authority.

Different ways of discipline: Parenting styles

If you want considerate, cooperative, and flexible children, be their model.

Think about your style of discipline. Researchers working with parents and children over the years have identified the three most common parenting styles:  authoritarian/strict, authoritative/moderate, and permissive.

  • The authoritarian, or extremely strict parent controls a child's behavior and attitude by stressing obedience to authority and discouraging discussion. Extremely strict parents often rely on punishment.
  • The moderate, or authoritative parent sets limits and relies on natural and logical consequences for children to learn from making their own mistakes. These parents set clear rules and explain why it's important to follow them. Authoritative parents reason with their children and consider the child's point of view even though they may not agree. They are firm, with kindness, warmth and love. They set high standards and encourage their children to be independent.
  • The permissive, or indulgent parent exerts minimal control. Children are allowed to set their own rules and schedules and activities. Permissive parents do not generally demand the high levels of behavior that authoritarian and authoritative parents do.

How do children raised by these types of parents grow up?
The moderate way, between extreme permissiveness and extreme strictness, is the most effective, according to follow-up studies. Children raised by authoritative, moderate parents tended to have a good self concept and to be responsible, cooperative, self-reliant and intellectually curious.

Becoming an effective parent: Some helpful discipline techniques

Understand what's appropriate for your child's developmental stage. Make sure she understands and is able to do what you expect.

Avoid too much criticism or too much praise, which can make what you say less effective.

Use language to help solve problems
Establish fair, simple rules and state them clearly. For young children just acquiring language, help them use words, rather than actions, to express how they feel. You can model this by using language to tell your child you understand what she's feeling. After the preschool years, a child is interested and able to understand behavior. For example, a 7-year-old may hit her younger brother when he grabs her toy. In the child's world, it's difficult to have a younger sibling messing with your stuff. So, accompany the discipline with words; tell her you know how annoying it can be to have someone getting in your things, but she is not allowed to hit.

Help her practice identifying and saying what she feels before she acts by suggesting scenarios and encouraging her to generate some possible solutions. You might pose situations such as, "How can you tell Amanda that you don't like it when she doesn't let you have a turn?"

Sometimes the simple act of ignoring the behavior will make it disappear. Some children misbehave as a way of getting attention, and parents may unwittingly encourage the behavior they are trying to stop. By repeatedly telling your child to stop blowing bubbles into his milk or using her fingers to pick up food, you may be calling attention to the behavior, turning it into an event. Ignore it, attend to something else and then focus attention on the child when he does the right thing. The point is to recognize and attend to behavior you want to encourage and ignore behavior you want to discourage.

Positive reinforcement is the best technique for encouraging good behavior. Most children crave attention and acceptance from their parents and will work to get it. Rewards are not bribes; they are ways to show a child that she is doing a good job. Tailor the reward to the age and tastes of the child as well as to your own resources. Verbal praise can be very effective. Although small prizes like stickers can be used to encourage new or improved behavior, don't underestimate the value of time. A trip to the playground or a special store, extra television or computer time for older kids or an extra story at bedtime for little ones, is often all it takes to motivate the child to do a better job.

Natural consequences
Natural consequences help children learn to take responsibility for their actions and help parents realize that sometimes the long-term gain, in terms of the lesson a child learns, can be worth the short term discomfort. For example, the 10-year-old who forgot to bring home his social studies book and is unprepared for a quiz may want you to write a note saying he was sick. If you refuse, the child will learn two important lessons: he can't expect parents to bail him out; and, hopefully, he will plan better next time.

No more "No!" – keep it positive
Both parents and children get tired of hearing "no" all the time. Too many "no's" lose their meaning and don't help a child learn what will get her a "yes." It is not enough to tell a child what not to do; positive statements can also teach a better alternative. If your five-year-old is happily and busily coloring with crayon on the wall, it's more effective to give him paper and say something like, "Walls are not meant for drawing, but paper is perfect. And when you use paper you can draw as many pictures as you want, and I can save them." Parents should develop a radar system to pick up the good behavior rather than just the bad.

Watch for good behavior as much as bad
Try to catch children in the acts of sharing, helping other children, and dealing well with frustration, and compliment them immediately. Try a one-day experiment and you'll be surprised at all the good behavior you'll find.
Don't dictate: negotiate
Negotiation does not mean that parents or children get their way. Negotiation, when done with sensitivity, makes everyone feel like part of the solution to a problem. Even young children like to feel they have a choice rather than that they are being forced into something. Think carefully about the choices you offer before starting the negotiations. Insisting that your child take her bad-tasting medicine can set the stage for conflict. However, giving her the choice of taking the medicine with a juice box or chocolate milk encourages cooperation. But proceed with caution and choose your words carefully. Give the child a choice only when he truly has one. Don't ask a 4-year-old if he wants to go to the doctor if a doctor visit is necessary. But do ask him to choose what snack to take or what to wear.

Pick your battles
Some issues just aren't worth the hassle. Discipline doesn't mean that parents always win. You may feel as if you're giving in, but there are times when you should decide whether  what your child is carrying on about is worth a drawn-out conflict. Parents should prioritize and decide what's important. For example, parents might very well be more strict about honesty than about a child cleaning up his room. It's reasonable to set a curfew for a 15-year-old, but it's probably not worth fighting about what clothes she wears as long as they fit within your rules of decency.

With time, parents get to know their child's trouble spots, and then prevention is in order. For example, if every time you go to the supermarket your 4-year-old begs you to buy her various items, devise a plan before you go. You might give her an empty box of an item you want to buy and have her help you hunt for it. Perhaps you can also tell her you will stop at the library, or plan some other treat, if she helps you. Preparing children in advance for a change from one activity or environment to another can help them manage the transition and prevent foot-dragging.

Dealing with unacceptable behavior

Despite all the advice and good intentions, children and parents will still have meltdowns. Keeping blowups in perspective, preparing for them, and having some strategies for dealing with them will help everyone manage crises.

A basic principle to remember is that parents should separate the child from the action. It is essential to remind a child that it is the behavior that is disliked; the child is still loved.

  • Be clear, firm and specific about why the behavior was a problem.
  • Be respectful. Don't resort to name-calling or yelling.
  • The consequence should follow the behavior immediately. The consequence should be fair in relation to the behavior.

Time out
When it works, it really works! Time out is time honored for good reason. Time out teaches the child that for every action there is a reaction. Specifically, time out achieves two important objectives: It immediately stops unwanted behavior, and it gives the child (and parent) a necessary cooling off period. The general rule of thumb is to start time out immediately after the incident or behavior takes place, and have a designated spot for the time out. The number of minutes should generally be equivalent to a child's age; thus a 5-year-old stays in time out for five minutes. Some children may need to be held during the time out to stay, and physically feel, in control, and some children may be too scared about being alone to benefit from this technique.

What doesn't work
Studies confirm that physical punishment causes children to grow up to be aggressive. Another main reason to avoid spanking is that it can backfire. Imagine this: A 7-year-old hits a 4-year-old. A parent rushes in and hits the offender. What did the children learn from this scenario? They learned that it's okay to hit when they're mad, exactly the opposite of what the parent intended to teach. Children are masters of imitation and look to their parents as models. What's the effect of hitting? The children learn to hit, just like mom and dad.

When to seek help
Check things out with a professional if your child is doing dangerous or risky things that you can't stop, if he's overly aggressive with others, or is disrespectful of people or property. Parents should also seek consultation if there are changes in their child's behavior or new physical symptoms, such as headaches, or poor eating or sleeping. Any medical or psychological causes for unacceptable behavior should be identified and addressed as soon as possible.

Questions and answers

Q: My 11-month-old just learned to walk and gets into everything. I'm afraid he'll get hurt, but I don't want to stifle his curiosity. What can I do?

Answer: Although children of 6 to 12 months are beginning to understand and even use some language, they do not understand that the world is not entirely safe for them. When you see a child doing something that's potentially dangerous, say "no" in a firm and loud voice and, if necessary, physically remove her and help her find something else to explore.

Q: I've tried everything, but my 4-year-old still misbehaves and flaunts the rules. What am I doing wrong?

Answer: Sometimes misbehavior results from a combination of a child being willful and a parent being ineffective in his or her approach. However, a child's behavior may signal some other problem. For example, your child may be frustrated due to a language problem, or have difficulty regulating his emotions, or even have experienced some trauma. A professional can help you decide if it's a developmental issue or something that can be addressed through a different parenting approach.

Q: My 10-year-old constantly challenges me when I ask about her homework, but I think she's not doing it.

Answer: School age children still need to learn about cause and effect, and the positive and negative consequences of behavior. They also need to develop some independence. Homework is a typical proving ground for these lessons. Set up a reasonable routine for doing and reviewing homework. Be patient – she may need to actually experience a bad quiz grade to realize what happens if homework is not done. Grades and teacher reports should help a parent check on actual progress. If the child is avoiding homework because she is having trouble coping with school demands, parents should step in and have the problem evaluated. The earlier learning or emotional issues are addressed, the better the outcome.

Q: My 13-year-old daughter goes straight to Facebook as soon as she gets home from school and stays on for several hours. How can I control this?

Answer: Teenagers should have limits set on the time they spend on social media. Know who your child is interacting with on Facebook, and what he or she is watching or doing online generally. Parents can use software that turns the computer off after a certain number of hours or monitors online activity.

Q: My son is almost 14 and is obsessed with video games. He tells me they're good for him, but he's given up hockey and he isn't reading. How can I get him interested in other things?

Answer: Certain video games can improve hand-eye coordination and problem solving, but kids who get overly involved need to have limits placed on their use. It's also important to remind kids that what is depicted in the games—often violence, lack of consequences, and poor attitudes towards women—are not real. Just as with TV, movies, music videos, and other forms of media, kids need to be critical consumers.

Q: How can I get my 16-year-old to abide by his curfew?

Answer: It's normal for teens to be more involved with their peers than with their parents. Bonding with peers is a necessary step as teens create an identity for themselves, become more independent, and prepare to eventually leave home. But teens still need to know what their parents think, although they may not always act as if they do. It is still appropriate for parents to set limits on behavior and define consequences. Remember, the more forbidden a parent makes something, the more appealing it may become. With teenagers, parents should explain the reasons for their decisions and encourage a dialogue whenever possible. It is also important for parents to acknowledge and listen to their teens' thoughts and help them feel that they're understood. Discipline in the teen years is not just about rules, it's about learning values, trying out adult behavior and accepting responsibility.

Updated December 2011.