Discipline is your set of choices in response to your child when they have engaged in some behavior that defies the rules you have set or your values and morals about what is right and wrong. The overarching idea of discipline is that you are trying to teach them not to repeat certain behaviors that are disagreeable or inappropriate in some way.
This also means that discipline and managing your child’s behavior occurs during stress and potential distress (as certain behaviors and attitudes from our kids can push our buttons or be very upsetting). So, it’s essential to think about your parenting (and discipline) style so that you have skills and strategies at hand rather than trying to navigate in the “heat” of the moment when you aren’t functioning at your best. Lack of preparation may cause you to “react” instead of intentionally acting in response to your child’s challenging behavior.
How to Discipline a Child When They’re Misbehaving
There is so much information about different parenting styles and how to manage discipline in your family, which can be overwhelming. Let’s explore some key discipline/parenting styles.
Different Methods of Discipline
(Please note that I will not be covering any physical forms of discipline. Research tells us that using physical punishment is ineffective in behavior change. Children respond out of fear, not truly learning how or why they need to change their behavior.1)
There are five key types of discipline. These are not all of the possible styles of discipline that exist. They are also only summaries to get you thinking about which style appeals to you or might best fit the behavior/temperament of your child. It’s crucial to further research and discuss with your family (or partner) what you feel is best and how you might apply a particular discipline style.
Gentle discipline focuses on the prevention of problems. This discipline does not concentrate on shaming the child but on redirecting their attention or distracting them from the issue. It also centers on developing clear expectations and consistency, so children learn how they need to behave.
Parents are responsible for managing their own emotions when dealing with the challenges of their child’s behaviors. They also model and demonstrate how to handle big or intense emotions to help their children cope.
Instead of offering punishment or a consequence, gentle discipline might focus on building a connection with your child and developing their awareness of what is appropriate and expected (or not). For example, your four-year-old wants a toy a friend is playing with. When they don’t get it, they scream and shout. A parent using gentle discipline would focus on redirecting their energy and attention but will also acknowledge their feelings and set the expectations moving forward. “I can see you are upset because you wanted the toy. Although you want it, shouting at your friend is not the best choice. Next time you can try to ask nicely or wait your turn. Let’s see if we can find something else to play with instead?”
This style of discipline focuses on teaching children about their emotions. If children can understand their feelings, they can express them. And when they can adequately express themselves, they can bring in strategies to cope rather than automatically reacting to a situation.
A parent’s role in this discipline style is to normalize and validate their children’s emotional experiences and support them in learning how to manage big feelings. Instead of delivering a consequence or punishment for your child’s behavior, you might focus on identifying their emotions and helping them cope with the feelings underpinning their behavior.
Using the example above (your 4-year-old wants to play with someone else’s toy), you might say, “I can see you feel frustrated and upset that you can’t play with that toy. It’s so hard to wait. Let’s take a few deep breaths to help you feel calm, and then we could have a hug if you would like? Once you feel better, let’s talk about things we can try when we find it hard to wait our turn.”
This discipline style focuses on making rules and setting limits before a particular situation. This way, a child understands what is expected of them before going into any situation. The child is given a choice as to how they respond. But they are given clear consequences if they choose not to follow their parent’s expectations.
The consequences are always logical or natural. For instance, they break a toy, so they can’t play with it anymore. This is a natural consequence. For a young child, breaking a toy and not getting dessert might not have a clear link regarding how a toy and dessert relate to each other. They don’t learn as quickly if the consequence doesn’t feel logical.
With this discipline style, the goal is to set a limit for your child and clearly outline what will happen if they choose not to align themselves with your expectations. Using the example already provided, you might say, “I can see that you would like a turn with that toy. However, your friend is playing with it right now. You can ask nicely for a turn or wait until they are finished. If you continue shouting, you won’t be able to play with that toy. The decision is yours. Which will you choose?”
This type of discipline style works on reinforcing good behavior with a reward. Misbehavior is reinforced with a negative consequence to try and modify the child’s behavior. Negative consequences tend to center around things like the loss of privileges. The parent often ignores protests or negotiations.
A typical example of this discipline style is setting up a reward chart with clear steps or requirements for getting a star that leads to a reward. The reward could be physical (a gift or small token, or being allowed to do something) or emotional (praise). A consequence could be removing something they want to enjoy, like favorite toys, TV, or video games. These are not necessarily logical or natural consequences, but they will feel emotional distress that they cannot play with something or partake in an enjoyable activity.
Using the same example, a consequence may look like, “It’s not okay to shout at your friend. If you continue shouting, then when we get home, you won’t be able to play your video game.”
Which discipline styles are not effective?
As I mentioned, forms of physical punishment such as smacking, hitting, and even using verbal dominance (shouting, threats, and put-downs) are not effective discipline techniques.1, 2, 3 Although children become compliant, this is not because they have truly understood the error of their ways or learned to cope/manage the big feels that sometimes underpin challenging behavior. Instead, they become fearful of their parent and learn to comply to avoid hurt.
Another reason this discipline style isn’t effective is that children lose trust in the primary attachment figures (parents). They learn to be more secretive or avoid being open/transparent with their parents because they fear their response. Again this isn’t the child learning what is appropriate behavior. They get better at hiding indiscretions.
It’s important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to parenting and discipline. Determining the kind of discipline that fits your family’s ideals is a unique and personal choice. It will be based on your morals and temperament and your child’s. It should also take into consideration your philosophies and values as a family. This means that not all types of discipline are created equal for your family, and not all discipline will suit the situation or be helpful. You might need to take an eclectic approach by trying a few different strategies until you find something effective for you and your family.
Sege, RD; Siegel, BS; Council on Child Abuse and Neglect; Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. (December 2018). “Effective Discipline to Raise Healthy Children.” Pediatrics (Review). 142 (6)
MacMillan, HL; Mikton, CR (September 2017). “Moving research beyond the spanking debate” (PDF). Child Abuse & Neglect. 71: 5–8. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2017.02.012. PMID 28249733.
“Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health Position Statement on corporal punishment” (PDF). rcpch.adlibhosting.com. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.