Raising a healthy and happy child is your primary job as a parent. That means knowing how to employ safe, effective discipline strategies. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Institutes of Health provide guidance on how to do this. While specific tactics vary, depending on the age, background, and disposition of your child, here are ten general strategies they recommended.
1. Lead by example
Children are very good at picking up signals and often follow examples set by role models, particularly parents. Show them the kind of appropriate behavior that you expect from them, use a calm tone of voice, and demonstrate how to act in difficult situations.
2. Establish clear rules
Clarity and consistency are important for children of all ages. Have a conversation together—before you need to implement the rules—so you can explain expectations and limitations in an age-appropriate way.
3. Describe the consequences
Let your child know, calmly and honestly, what the consequences are for their actions—whether they are punitive consequences (“If you don’t pick up your toys, you can’t watch TV this evening”) or natural (“If you climb to the next tree branch, it might break and you could fall and get hurt”). Never arbitrarily establish consequences after the fact, and always follow-through on promised consequences to avoid undermining your credibility in the future.
4. Listen to them
When children act out, they are often feeling very strong emotions and their decision to act on those emotions is because they think that nobody will listen to them. Give your child the opportunity to talk about how they feel or tell their side of the story. Then, only after they have finished talking, help them come up with positive, constructive ways to solve their problems or resolve their feelings.
5. Pay attention to them
Pay attention to your child and their behaviors in advance of any problems, engage and interact with them so they know that you are focused on them, and be prepared to discourage negative behaviors, before they become too pronounced.
6. Praise the good
Reinforcing desirable behavior by noticing it, pointing it out, and rewarding it with praise, will encourage more of that behavior in the future. Make sure your praise is specific, so your child knows exactly what it is that they did to earn it and so they know to follow that example in the future. Not only does this help children learn what they should do, but it builds a healthy and positive sense of self-esteem.
7. Ignore the bad
It may sound counter-intuitive, but it is important to know when not to respond to your child’s negative behavior. Because parents’ attention is one of the most important rewards for a child, they may try to earn that attention by getting into trouble. Ignoring bad behaviors is also an effective way for children to learn about natural consequences.
8. Be prepared
You can probably anticipate in advance what kind of behavior your child might demonstrate in different contexts or settings. Plan for those situations if you think they are going to provoke problem behaviors. Talk to you child in advance, so they know what the situation is going to be and lay out your expectations.
Bad behavior often manifests out of boredom, ignorance, or simply curiosity. When you notice those kinds of behaviors starting to appear, interrupt them and substitute an alternative action for your child. By finding something else for your child to focus on, you can channel their potentially negative energies into a constructive, or at least benign, activity.
If rules are broken, it might be necessary for your child to take some time to reset (the term “time-out” is sometimes used, but it’s better to use “reset”, which communicates the positive benefits the child will get out of the experience, rather than the idea that they are going to be missing out on something). Resets only work if the child knows what the rules are, gets a clear warning when they begin to break them, and receive a brief explanation about why they are going to reset. An appropriate time-span for reset is 1 minute per year of age, though with some children over 4, you can help them practice self-management by allowing them to leave reset when they feel in control of themselves again.
An abundance of evidence shows that physical punishment—spanking, slapping, and so forth—and verbal punishment—such as yelling, shaming, or name-calling—is ineffective and causes profound, lasting damage to a child’s physical and mental health. Remember that “discipline” itself means to impart knowledge: make sure your discipline strategies don’t just correct unwanted behavior, but help your child to learn how and why to avoid it in the future.