Discipline is nothing more than teaching our kids how to behave and manage their emotions. Read these 7 effective ways to discipline children.
When you hear “discipline,” you might think of unruly kids and their parents trying to rein them in. You picture time outs, counting to three, punishment, grounding or even spanking. And discipline feels like simply getting kids to obey, behave well, and listen to what parents say.
It turns out, discipline is less about all that, and more about… teaching.
We’re teaching and helping kids through their choices, circumstances, and behavior. We guide them through difficult emotions and model how to behave. We’re not trying to “win” battles so much as helping them on their journey.
Imagine yourself as a teacher helping your child learn—you’re on the same side, hoping for the same thing for her. Discipline isn’t just what to do when she misbehaves. It also includes teaching her how to behave in the first place.
7 ways to discipline children
Given all that, how can parents discipline children in a way that provides boundaries but still respects them? If time outs, spanking and giving empty threats don’t work for their benefit, what does?
After all, we can’t just let them have free reign—that serves neither parents nor children.
Instead, we go back to the meaning of discipline and focus on teaching. This includes digging deeper into their motives and focusing on how we respond. We empathize and guide them, while also giving them more autonomy to make choices and even mistakes.
Take a look at these seven techniques to discipline children:
1. Find the reason behind the outburst
It’s incredible what sets kids off, don’t you think? Your child might throw a fit because she used the wrong color of crayon or because she doesn’t know how to jump rope. These reasons are enough to make you wonder how little triggers can make her explode.
But dig deeper and you’ll find that it’s not just about the crayon color or the missed jump rope.
It could be simple reasons like she’s tired and hungry from a long day. Other times, the issues stem deeper, like adjusting to a new baby or not seeing her friends at school.
Instead of zooming in on the behavior (“Just try to jump rope again!”), zoom out on bigger culprits.
As I say in my book, 31 Days to Better Parenting:
“Look at each challenge not as a battle between you and your child, but as a teachable moment. What gems can you unearth?”
Once you do, you can then address those issues and show compassion for her as well. She won’t seem so stubborn when you realize that she skipped a nap today. And you’ll be more patient when you show empathy for all she’s going through with the changes in her life.
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2. Focus on staying calm
Your child’s behavior—especially when she doesn’t do what you say—can elicit a strong reaction. Hearing her yell and cry makes you want to drag her by the arm and march her to a corner for a time out.
Except you’re here to help her, and the best way to do that is to remain calm.
Yup, long before you explain the rules or tell her why she can or can’t do something, focus on staying calm. You’re on the same team—matching her frustration with your own does little to calm her down. Staying calm is effective, especially since she feeds off your emotions.
This doesn’t mean you have to be happy and chipper, but it does mean asking yourself what will keep you calm through all of this. Maybe it’s taking a breath, walking to the next room, or even ignoring her antics. Do what it takes to stay calm and then decide how to handle the situation.
After all, you can’t think clearly or with compassion when you’re riled up yourself. Deal with the spilled juice or the backpack that still isn’t hung down the line—for now, get yourself to a calm place first.
3. Assert authority
Given your child’s behavior, are you sometimes tempted to give in, just to have some peace once and for all?
While flexibility is important, so too is asserting your authority. You can be firm and kind—it’s not one or the other. Not giving boundaries does her a disservice, as she doesn’t have the guidance to make good choices. She needs parents who care enough to set and enforce limits.
In fact, one of the most important reasons to stand your ground is to protect her from herself.
Think about the overwhelming emotions of a tantrum, and how scary they can be for her. To see you shrug your shoulders and give in sends the message that even you can’t help her through these big feelings. That her tantrums and whims are even stronger than you.
Instead, hold your ground with kindness and compassion. Explain what’s acceptable and what isn’t (“We don’t hit other people”). Most importantly, follow through with consequences and remain consistent with your word.
4. Set boundaries where it matters
Maybe being lenient isn’t your issue—it’s not being lenient enough.
Perhaps you feel compelled to discipline your child for every mishap, to the point where you feel like the “bad guy” 24/7. You take it personally when she doesn’t listen, and can’t seem to stop telling her “no” throughout the day.
If so, step back and see which boundaries matter the most. As important as consistency is, we also have to be flexible and decide whether everything needs boundaries.
At the end of the day, you and your family likely have very few non-negotiable boundaries—the values you must stick by. If she forgets to brush her teeth or didn’t put the colored pencils back in the box, encourage her to remember in a more compassionate way, or let it go.
At first glance, your child’s behavior seems beyond crazy. She threw the remote control across the room, climbed the bookshelves, and colored on the wall.
But before assuming that she did these with bad intentions, discover what her motives were. If you find that she didn’t know any better, redirect her to a similar but more appropriate activity.
After all, throwing, climbing, and coloring are good behaviors in other circumstances. You could say, “It looks like you want to throw, but we don’t throw the remote control. It can break things and hurt people. How about you throw this soft ball instead?”
You honored her impulse (throwing) and explained your expectations (you don’t throw the remote control). You also followed it with the reason and redirected her to a more appropriate activity.
6. Apply natural consequences
Often, the best thing we can do to “teach a lesson” is to let the natural consequences of our kids’ behavior unfold on their own.
Did she not listen when you told her to be more careful with her building blocks? A crumbled structure will send the message stronger than anything you can say. Does she refuse to clean up her toys? She’ll be sure to remember when she can’t find her beloved stuffed animal.
Is she taking too long to put on her shoes? Instead of nagging, cut her park outing short—a natural consequence to her choices about not being speedy enough.
Note that you shouldn’t say “I told you so” or even talk about the consequence at all. This involves you once again, which can defeat the purpose and make her less receptive to learn. Instead, let the experience of the consequence serve as the lesson on its own.
It’s so easy to react that we feed off one another’s emotions before we know what’s going on. Instead, stop and listen.
Listen to your child, both what he’s actually saying with words and what he’s communicating without them. Listen to your body and whether you need to take a breath and release the tension you feel. Or you can listen to your gut, allow yourself the time to assess the situation before acting.
And often, the best gift you can give him is a listening ear. Long before you discipline or find the teachable moment, simply be with him to listen. As petty as his reasons for crying (“I lost the leaf on our walk!”), don’t judge him for feeling them.
The more he feels heard and understood, the more receptive he is to responding to you.
Discipline is a mixture of different methods, but it boils down to teaching kids how to act, deal with frustrations, and learn self-control. It’s not the punishment or tactic we use after kids act up, but rather what we do every day to show them right and wrong.
To start, find the reason behind the outburst and focus on staying calm. Assert authority and hold your ground while also setting boundaries only where it matters. Redirect her to a more appropriate activity and apply natural consequences when possible. And lastly, simply listen and help feel heard.
Forget punishments, time outs, or counting to three. Don’t think “me versus you” when trying to discipline your child. Instead, think about what you can teach. What can she learn from this situation?
She might learn how to manage her emotions and establish boundaries. She can now behave in more acceptable ways and interact with other children and adults. These are prime lessons she can learn and what the true definition of “discipline” is all about.
Get more tips:
- How to Discipline a Toddler Who Doesn’t Listen
- THIS Is Why Your Child Is Testing You
- Why You Shouldn’t Tell Your Child to Stop Crying
- The Surprisingly Simple Question You Should Always Ask Yourself before Disciplining Your Child
- How to Respond to Your Child’s Hurtful Words
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