According to studies, an effective discipline system must contain three essential components. Most disciplinary methods either fail or don’t last because one of these components is lacking.
The key to an effective discipline
Disciplining a child who won’t listen is a common parenting issue. A good discipline system must contain these three elements:1
1) A positive, loving, and supportive relationship between the parent and the child.
2) Using reinforcement to teach and strengthen appropriate behaviors.
3) Allowing consequences to decrease or eliminate bad behavior.
To improve child behavior, each of these components must function properly together. The solution is not 1, 2, or 3. Instead, it’s 1, 2, and 3.
Desperate parents who struggle with negative behavior the most tend to focus on punishment while neglecting reinforcement and their parent-child relationships. This is why the most common cause of discipline failure is the absence of a good parent-child relationship.
Why a good parent-child relationship is necessary for discipline
Children learn best from those who are good role models, whom they care about and want to emulate and please – typically their parents.
Harmonious relationships are characterized by positive emotions and caring attitudes.
On the other hand, distressed relationships have chronic negative emotions that undermine children’s development2.
It is not hard to understand – If you had two bosses, one you liked, the other you didn’t – which boss would you work harder for?
When you have a good relationship with someone, you are more likely to listen to them, want to please them, and not argue with them.
Similarly, when your child feels close to you, they are more likely to listen to you, want to please you, and not argue with you.
How to discipline a child
1. Build a good relationship with your child
Researchers have found that parenting behaviors play a critical role in a child’s behavior development.
Building a better relationship doesn’t mean eating together more often, spending more time together, or letting your child get away with mistakes.
Changing a relationship requires us to change our behaviors and sometimes even our beliefs.
Loving relationships form in a positive environment, not a punitive or coercive one.
Having loving parents who create a positive emotional environment is strongly associated with less inappropriate behavior and more desired behavior in children3.
2. Abandon negative attribution and catch good behavior
Parents’ beliefs can affect their behavior and color their perceptions.
A negative attribution is a belief that children misbehave on purpose.
Parents who believe their children misbehave on purpose can perceive unintentional acts as deliberate attempts to annoy them. When their children misbehave, these parents feel angrier and are more reactive5.
Irritable parents are more likely to use ineffective discipline strategies and contribute to their child’s behavior problems6.
Avoid assuming ill-intention in children and listen to their side of the story to prevent negative attributions that can bias you.
For example, temper tantrums may be triggered when the child doesn’t get what they want, but the real reason behind is that they don’t know how to regulate their emotions. Keeping this in mind will foster more positive interactions.
Notice your child’s good behavior.
“Caught-being-good” is positive reinforcement. It is one of the most effective ways to reinforce correct behavior. Give lots of praise immediately when the child shows positive behavior to help them learn how to get positive attention.
Also, point out the positive consequences that result from their actions to help them connect the two.
“You did not throw your food, but rather shared it with your sister. Doesn’t she look happy? Now she shares her ice cream with you.”
Avoiding negativity while emphasizing positivity goes a long way in creating a positive home environment.
3. Set clear expectations with good reasons
Set clear ground rules with clear limits and realistic expectations. Always explain the reasons behind them.
The goal of child discipline is to teach and nurture children’s competence, self-control, respect for others, and a sense of self-direction. Children can’t learn to make sound decisions unless they understand the reasons behind the family rules.
4. Talk about the whys instead of punishing
Using harsh punishment, such as physical punishment or corporal punishment, to discipline children usually leads to fast but temporary results. Punishing a child does not teach them anything other than you are someone they should fear (i.e. damage to the relationship).
Your child doesn’t need punishment to learn from you if you have a good relationship with them. Simply explain why something is wrong and then give them time to learn.
If they don’t listen, chances are they cannot connect the dots, they have their own reasons, or they don’t want to listen to you.
If they cannot make the connection with the natural consequence, have them visualize what will happen if they do what they’re not supposed to.
Children may refuse to listen because they have their own reasons. If this is the case, listen to them carefully and see if you can find a common ground.
If they simply refuse to listen to you because they don’t want to, then you must work on your relationship first.
If, after all this, they still don’t listen, let them experience the natural negative consequence, if it is safe to do so.
For example, if they really don’t think skipping homework is a big deal, let them see how the school reacts.
If there are things that could have dangerous consequences, tell them you love them too much to let them make that mistake. Stop them from doing it. This may require that they lose allowance or be grounded. However, make it clear that you are not doing this to punish but to protect them from danger.
5. Autonomy supportive
Providing autonomy support means actively helping the child to become self-initiating and free from being controlled. Having a sense of control over our own lives is an essential human need.
For older children, autonomy-supportive parenting is associated with fewer behavior problems7. On the other hand, controlling parents, who force their children to act, think, or feel in a particular way, are associated with more behavior problems8.
Supporting autonomy is not the same as being permissive or neglectful. Parents who are permissive fail to set rules and provide structure to their children. A parent who neglects their child is not actively involved. So giving children autonomy is different.
As an autonomous supportive parent, you can promote independence while also providing structure and involvement.
6. Consistent discipline
It is important to have simple rules, clear instructions, and consistent implementation.
For instance, if you are going to let them experience the natural consequences of not completing a project, stick to it. Don’t nag, intervene, or complete the project for them.
Failing to enforce rules consistently reinforces the child’s inappropriate behavior. If your child gets a pass once, they’ll keep testing your limit in the future.
7. Be a role model
The importance of setting an example for a child goes without saying. However, it applies to not only behavior but also emotional control.
Defiant children usually lack emotional regulation and self-control. Their aggressive behavior is often due to their inability to control their emotions.
Set a good example of self-regulation by showing them how to do it in real life. When your child makes mistakes, take several deep breaths to calm yourself instead of yelling or getting angry. Show them you don’t lose it even when things don’t go your way.
How to discipline a defiant child when nothing works
You have probably tried yelling, punishing, or behavior modification. If it seems as if nothing is working, that’s because these methods aren’t supposed to work, especially in the long run.
Discipline techniques that are not based on mutual respect will not inspire a kid to listen to you, especially if they are strong-willed. Your child’s temperament may require a different approach.
It can be challenging to have a positive relationship with a defiant child.
Having a negative child will affect the parent’s ability to use positive strategies or express positive emotions because relationships are bidirectional9.
Having been in a power struggle for years, it can be hard to start using positive strategies. But it is worth it.
Are you still wondering if building a good relationship is the way to go? Check out why having a positive parent-child relationship is the key to a child’s success in life.
Need Help Motivating Kids?
If you are looking for additional tips and an actual step-by-step plan, this online course How To Motivate Kids is a great place to start.
It gives you the steps you need to identify motivation issues in your child and the strategy you can apply to help your child build self-motivation and become passionate about learning.
Once you know this science-based strategy, motivating your child becomes easy and stress-free.
- 1.Guidance for Effective Discipline. Pediatrics. Published online April 1, 1998:723-728. doi:10.1542/peds.101.4.723
- 2.Dix T. The affective organization of parenting: Adaptive and maladaptative processes. Psychological Bulletin. Published online 1991:3-25. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.110.1.3
- 3.Knafo A, Plomin R. Parental discipline and affection and children’s prosocial behavior: Genetic and environmental links. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online January 2006:147-164. doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.168
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- 8.Grolnick WS, Pomerantz EM. Issues and Challenges in Studying Parental Control: Toward a New Conceptualization. Child Development Perspectives. Published online December 2009:165-170. doi:10.1111/j.1750-8606.2009.00099.x
- 9.Pettit GS, Arsiwalla DD. Commentary on Special Section on “Bidirectional Parent–Child Relationships”: The Continuing Evolution of Dynamic, Transactional Models of Parenting and Youth Behavior Problems. J Abnorm Child Psychol. Published online May 13, 2008:711-718. doi:10.1007/s10802-008-9242-8