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Effective Discipline

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Perhaps the most common challenge parents face is disciplining their children effectively. As parents, we are often unsure how to effectively respond to negative behaviors, such as aggression, defiance, failure to follow rules, and noncompliance (not doing chores or homework). When we respond “in the heat of the moment,” we are more likely to use strategies that are ineffective, such as yelling and threatening. This article provides some general guidelines on developing discipline strategies that work.

Philosophy and Strategy

We often think of discipline as a way of decreasing or stopping behaviors that we do not want children to exhibit. However, the most effective discipline strategies focus at least as much on increasing behaviors that we want children to show. It is important to keep in mind that the word “discipline” originally meant “teaching” or “instructing.” Thus, it is best to think of effective discipline as a way to: (1) limit the occurrence of problematic behavior; and (2) help children learn to behave in more competent and respectful ways.

Why do children misbehave? How discipline problems are understood often guides how we respond to a child’s problematic behavior. We share the view advocated by Ross Greene, Ph.D., that children frequently exhibit problematic behavior because they are frustrated and do not know how to respond more effectively. This view point emphasizes a collaborative problem solving focus (as Green labels it) toward discipline rather than a more negative view that problem behavior is willful defiance designed to deliberately manipulate, frustrate and challenge adults. Obviously, there are times when children and adolescents behave in ways designed to provoke and manipulate adults. These more complex problems are addressed elsewhere (look for future article on the topic of "Managing Defiant Behavior").

Increasing and Decreasing Behaviors

Given the philosophy outlined above effective discipline needs to focus on increasing positive behavior as least as much as it focuses on stopping behavior we do not want children to show. Thus, it is important that we utilize positive reinforcement strategies, often known as “rewards” or “reinforcements”, in conjunction with punishment, to decrease undesirable behavior and establish more positive behavior. In addition, it suggests that we problem solve with children and help them learn more effective ways to meet their needs and manage their frustrations.

Isn’t it bribery? Some may question the use of positive reinforcement and take it as accepting or condoning negative behavior, or even as advocating the reliance on “bribery,” (giving children rewards to behave). However, nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact research by Russell Barkley, Ph.D., and his colleagues have found that with oppositional and defiant children that the exclusive use of punishment is likely to increase oppositional behavior.

Strategies for Increasing Positive Behaviors

Positive Reinforcement: Rewarding desired behaviors increases the chance that children will show desired behavior more often and helps children feel more positively about themselves (as their behavior is praised). Moreover, positively reinforced behaviors tend to be effective behaviors, children get what they want and adults are pleased. As a result, children will often develop a greater sense of effectiveness or competency.

Collaborative problem solving: This is a term used by Ross Greene, Ph.D., in his book, The Explosive Child. Greene argues that the most effective way to reduce noncompliance (and thereby promote more competent and positive behavior) is to: (a) empathize with the child, i.e., let the child know you understand what s/he wants or that s/he is frustrated; (b) define the problem clearly, i.e., what is the area of conflict, what does the child want and how can the child’s needs be met and/or frustration reduced while still maintaining adult authority; and (c) invite the child to work with you to figure out a solution to the problem. This approach helps children learn new skills and develop more effective ways to cope with frustrations.

Strategies for promoting positive behavior

  • Praise desired behaviors frequently, and sincerely.
  • Ignore trivial mistakes or wrong-doings (pick your battles).
  • Educate your child to choose appropriate behavior (tell them what you would like them to do when a problem arises, e.g., talk with me instead of hitting your brother).
  • Teach your child more effective ways to manage frustration and respond to challenges. Identify problem situations and plan solutions ahead of time.
  • Spend special time with your child to provide more positive attention.
  • Model positive behavior. Use your own behavior to demonstrate positive alternatives (if you stay calm, it helps your child stay calm).
  • Take into account who your child is. If your child has trouble with transitions give your child warnings and more time to shift activities. If your child is impulsive and distractible provide your child with more supervision to insure task completion.

Strategies for Decreasing Negative Behaviors

Hitting, swearing, and failing to follow important rules, are common examples of behaviors that parents need to take action to stop. Parents can ignore certain behaviors, but those that place the safety of the child, or others, at risk cannot be ignored. Three approaches that parents can rely on to help decrease negative behavior include:

Natural Consequences: The easiest way to decrease an undesirable behavior is to allow it to be followed by a natural consequence. For example if a child breaks a toy it can no longer be used, or if a child leaves her bike outside it may be stolen. Natural consequences can be used when the natural consequence is not harmful to the child (learning not to jump off the roof by breaking one’s neck is not a good natural consequence), can be tolerated by the parent (can you live with a $500 bicycle being stolen?), and is clearly related to the undesirable behavior.

Punishment: Punishment involves imposing a consequence for undesirable behavior, in order to decrease the chance that the behavior will be repeated. Parents commonly punish by removing privileges in response to an undesirable behavior, e.g., loss of T.V. or videogames for failing to do homework or chores. Punishment is usually more effective if the consequence is not overly harsh and occurs quickly after the negative behavior has taken place. Parents are strongly advised to use punishments they can easily implement (i.e., loss of T.V. versus insisting a child do more chores), and feel comfortable utilizing (i.e., do not view as overly harsh or harmful).

Time Out: Removing the child from a situation is another way to decrease the chances that a negative behavior will be repeated, and is particularly effective in defusing conflict. Sending a child out of the room when the child is arguing, exhibiting rude behavior or behaving disruptively, helps decrease the likelihood that the child will exhibit such negative behavior. Moreover, time out prevents negative interactions and conflicts, by removing the child rather than aggressively intervening to stop a negative behavior which a child may have difficulty stopping if he is upset or angry. In some instances, parents can remove themselves from a situation, to give themselves and the child “a time out,” not as a punishment, but as a way to cool down and help avoid conflict.

Does Physical Punishment Work?

Whether or not it is acceptable to use physical punishment as part of a discipline strategy tends to be a controversial matter. Certainly, the administration of a physical consequence can have an immediate impact on behavior. However, it has been well documented that the use of physical punishment has several side effects that make it unlikely to be effective in the long run and may even make it more likely that other forms of discipline will be ineffective. These side effects include: increasing the chance of injury, building resentment against the parent, and teaching the child that aggressive actions are acceptable. Further, psychological research has shown that oppositional and defiant behavior tends to increase when parents respond to behavior in angry and emotional ways. Parents who find that they are relying heavily on physical punishment should consult a professional for assistance in developing alternative discipline strategies.

Strategies that Increase the Effectiveness of Discipline

  • Keep a positive emotional tone at home and show affection toward your child
  • Set limits clearly, calmly, and as simply as possible
  • Be consistent in your discipline techniques
  • Reward positive behaviors with attention and praise
  • Develop and maintain regular times and patterns for daily activities
  • Coordinate discipline techniques with your spouse or partner
  • Model the behavior you would like your child to exhibit

Signs that Discipline Is Not Working

  • You feel that your child “has the upper hand”
  • Your child rejects or ignores your authority and the authority of other adults
  • Your child shows behavioral problems at school or outside the home
  • There are frequent prolonged struggles between you and your child
  • You and your partner frequently disagree about discipline strategies

All Children Are Not Created Equal: Strategies for Dealing with Difficult Children

Not all children are easy to discipline. Some children are by nature more volatile and reactive. These children have been referred to as “explosive,” or “difficult.” Others, particularly, children with ADHD, are more challenging to discipline because of their impulsivity. Parents with these children are advised to seek professional consultation and draw on resources designed for working with these children (see Resource List).

A Final Word on Parenting - Respect and Working Together

Disciplining children can be a challenging task, even in the best of circumstances. The task is much easier when parents work together. It is important that parents respect each other, and support each other's rules and authority. When parents disagree about discipline, especially when disagreement is expressed in front of children, each parent’s efforts will be compromised and discipline will be far less effective. Thus, regardless of the strategies used, parents need to work on working together. When parents are in conflict and when other factors hinder their efforts to cooperate they would be advised to seek counseling to help them resolve their differences.

Parents heading single family households often face significant challenges. They may have less support and assistance than parents in two family households. They may face the rather daunting task of finding ways to effectively co-parent with a former spouse. Finally, they may be faced with the emotional upheaval and resentment of children who have experienced a divorce. Single parents who are experiencing difficulties with discipline often benefit from the support and assistance of others.

In closing, it is important to remember that disciplining children does not occur in a vacuum. If parents are not working together, if conflict and tensions exist in the home, or if severe stresses are present efforts to effectively discipline are unlikely to succeed. Thus, families will need to address these issues before focusing on discipline strategies.

Bibliography and Resources for Parents

Barkley, R.A., Benton, C.M.,. Your defiant child: Eight steps to better behavior. New York: Guildford Press, 1998.

Faber, A., & Mazlish, E. , How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk. New York: Avon Books, 1999.

Greene, R., The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, "Chronically Inflexible" Children, New York: Quill, 2001.

Greenspan, S., The challenging child: Understanding, raising, and engaging the five difficult types of children. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., 1995.

Phelan, T., 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12. Glen Ellyn, IL: Child Management, 1995.

Taffel, Ron, When Parents Disagree and What You Can Do About It. Guildford Press, New York, 2003.

Turecki, S. (1989), The Difficult Child, New York, Bantam.

The website of Ross Green, Ph.D., who developed the Collaborative Problem Solving Model. Offers information about Collaborative Problem Solving and provides information on resources for parents and professionals.

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