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How To Discipline a Child (in a Way That Lasts)

| The key to effective discipline | Why a good relationship is important | How to build a good relationship | How to discipline a child | Dealing with a defiant child when nothing works |

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 sorely lacking.

The key to effective discipline

Trying to discipline a child who won’t listen is a common parenting issue.

To be effective, a 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 acceptable behavior.

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.

It is the absence of a good parent-child relationship that causes most discipline to fail. 

Desperate parents who struggle with negative behavior the most tend to focus on punishment while neglecting reinforcement and their parent-child relationships.

mother points finger at boy

Why a good parent-child relationship is necessary in 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 marked by positive emotions because parents manage interactions so that children’s and parents’ concerns are addressed.

On the other hand, distressed relationships have chronic negative emotion that undermines parents’ concerns and children’s development​2​.

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, to want to please them, and not to argue with them.

How to build a good relationship with your child

Building a better relationship doesn’t mean eating together more often or spending more time together. If all one does during this time is antagonize each other, it won’t improve the relationship.

Changing a relationship requires us to change our behaviors and sometimes even our beliefs.

Researchers have found that parenting behaviors play a critical role in a child’s behavioral development.

Create a positive emotional climate at home

An authoritative parent who creates a positive emotional environment is strongly associated with less inappropriate behavior and more socially acceptable behavior in children​3​.

Provide warmth, responsiveness, affection, positive feelings, and non-coercive discipline to create a positive emotional climate at home​4​.

The key to a loving relationship is a positive parenting style, not a punitive one.

Abandon negative attribution

How parents view their children’s behavior can be colored by their beliefs. 

A negative attribution is the belief that children misbehave on purpose.

Parents with a negative attribution tend to overly percepce negativity in others’ behavior. They perceive even unintentional acts as deliberate attempts to annoy them. 

When their children misbehave, these parents feel angrier and more reactive​5​.

Negative responsibility attribution contributes to children’s behavior problems since irritable parents are more likely to use ineffective parenting strategies​6​.

Avoid assuming ill-intention in children and listen to their side of the story to prevent negative attributions that can bias the parents.

How to discipline a child

The following are some effective discipline techniques that can fulfill the three components.

Set clear expectations with good reasons

Set clear basic rules with reasonable 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.

Use natural consequences and inductive reasoning to teach

Using punishment to discipline usually leads to temporary results. This is because punishing a child for misbehavior does not teach them anything other than “they don’t like you” (i.e. damage to the relationship).

Your child shouldn’t need punishment to learn from you if you have a good relationship with them. Simply explain why something is right or wrong.

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. While this may not work for very young children, it shouldn’t discourage you from teaching them how to make good decisions early on.

Also, it’s not uncommon for them not to listen to you for their own reasons. Listen to them carefully to show your child respect and see if you can find a common ground with them.

If they simply refuse to listen to you, then you must work on your relationship first.

If, after all this, they still don’t listen, let them experience the natural negative  consequences 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 to them that you are not doing these things to punish but to protect your child from danger.

Autonomy supportive

Providing autonomy support means actively helping the child to be self-initiating and free from being controlled. It is essential for a child to become intrinsically motivated.

For older school-age children, autonomy-supportive parenting is associated with less behavior problems​7​.

Support for autonomy is different from permissiveness or neglect. Parents who are permissive fail to provide structure to their children in the form of clear and consistent guidelines, rules, and expectations. A parent who neglects their child is not actively involved.

As an autonomous supportive parent, you can promote autonomy while also providing structure and involvement.

But controlling parents, those who force their children to act, think, or feel in a particular way, are associated with more behavior problems in their children​8​.

Be consistent

It is important to have consistent rules and consistent implementation.

For instance, if you are going to let them experience the natural consequence of not completing a project, stick to it. Don’t step in to nag or complete the project for them.

Failing to enforce them consistently reinforces the child’s unacceptable behavior. If they get a pass one time, they’ll keep testing the limits of parents in the future.

Role model of good behavior

The importance of setting an example for a child goes without saying, but not only with behavior, but also with emotional control.

The typical defiant child lacks emotional regulation and self-control. Their aggressive behavior is often due to their inability to control their emotions.

As parents, you must set a good example of self-regulation by showing them how to do it in real life. When children make mistakes, take deep breaths to calm your nerves instead of yelling or getting angry.

Catch good behavior

Catching a child being good is a great way to reinforce correct behavior. Praise behaviors that are acceptable frequently and immediately to help them learn positive behavior quickly.

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.”

How to discipline a defiant child when nothing works

It can be challenging to have a positive relationship with a defiant child

Having a negative child will affect the parent’s ability to express positive emotions, as the relationship is bidirectional​9​.

Having been in power struggles for years, it is difficult to start being positive to one another.

Nevertheless, there is only one adult in this relationship, and only one of you has the ability to regulate negative emotions and make this adversarial relationship work. In other words, the parent must take the initiative here.


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    Guidance for Effective Discipline. Pediatrics. Published online April 1, 1998:723-728. doi:10.1542/peds.101.4.723
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    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:10.1037/0022-3514.90.1.147
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    Wade SL, Cassedy A, Walz NC, Taylor HG, Stancin T, Yeates KO. The relationship of parental warm responsiveness and negativity to emerging behavior problems following traumatic brain injury in young children. Developmental Psychology. Published online 2011:119-133. doi:10.1037/a0021028
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    NELSON JA, O’BRIEN M, CALKINS SD, KEANE SP. Mothers’ and fathers’ negative responsibility attributions and perceptions of children’s problem behavior. Pers Relationship. Published online June 13, 2013:719-727. doi:10.1111/pere.12010
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    Snyder J, Cramer A, Afrank J, Patterson GR. The Contributions of Ineffective Discipline and Parental Hostile Attributions of Child Misbehavior to the Development of Conduct Problems at Home and School. Developmental Psychology. Published online 2005:30-41. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.41.1.30
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    Landry R, Whipple N, Mageau G, et al. Trust in organismic development, autonomy support, and adaptation among mothers and their children. Motiv Emot. Published online May 9, 2008:173-188. doi:10.1007/s11031-008-9092-2
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    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
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    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

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