Disciplining Children Effectively

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Discipline is an essential component of child rearing, and it is a topic that has received a tremendous amount of attention. Despite its importance, many parents do not understand what discipline is, why it is important, or how to do it. A lack of understanding in these areas may cause parents to under-discipline, over-discipline, or do the wrong kind of discipline. This can lead to a variety of negative effects on children’s behavior and psychological adjustment. Thus, it is important for parents to understand the principles of effective discipline so they can make informed decisions about which strategy to use.

Disciplining children is one of the most important yet difficult responsibilities of parenting, and there are no sure-fire ways to make children cooperate. In writing the work, “Disciplining Children Effectively,” I have tried to provide parents with the information and skills they need to make discipline effective with a variety of children between the ages of two and eight. The introductory chapter explains what discipline is, why it is important, and why it is so difficult.

Importance of effective discipline

Parents are our children’s first teachers. From birth, children are like little sponges, soaking up every bit of knowledge that is available to them. Children learn almost everything from their parents. From birth until the age of seven, they are in the most crucial stage of development. This is the time when children are developing their morals and values. By disciplining our children, we are teaching them what is right and what is wrong. We are teaching them how to make good decisions. Children who have learned to think through problems and come up with appropriate solutions have generally been guided this way by their parents. With safer boundaries and a clear understanding of rules, children know what is expected of them and are better able to succeed.

Parents have an incredibly challenging job. Some of the time, the biggest problem is that the parents themselves do not know what they want the outcome of a situation to be. This is why it is so important that parents have a clear understanding of what they want from their children. The only way for our children to learn that repeat offense of any negative behavior will be met with negative consequences is for us to enforce our rules each and every time.

Common challenges in disciplining children

This section will take a comprehensive look at how to discipline children, outlining the components for effective discipline. The discussion begins with the common challenges that parents face when disciplining their children. This is an important issue because it outlines why discipline often breaks down. The challenges outlined here are unrealistic expectations for children, misinterpretation of child behaviour, and a lack of knowledge about normal child development. Understanding these issues is important because it provides a context for the development of effective discipline and for positive child behaviour. Unrealistic expectations for child behaviour in terms of developmental levels are a common issue for parents. Often parents expect children to be able to control their behaviour for extended periods of time, when they may be too young to achieve this. This may result in an inappropriate punishment for the child’s behaviour. For example, a child under the age of 3 may be punished for being unable to sit still and quiet during a long family dinner. The child’s level of development may make this behaviour impossible. When this occurs, the child may be labelled as ‘naughty’ due to behaviour that is normal for their age. This can have negative effects on the child’s self esteem and create a pattern of undesirable behaviour. Understanding what is normal behaviour for the child’s age is an important part of deciding how to discipline and it can prevent the situation above. A parent who understands that young children cannot sit still for long periods may choose to praise and reward their child for attempting to behave well during dinner, rather than punishing them for behaviour that is developmentally appropriate.

Understanding child behavior

Understanding child behavior in terms of what is trying to be achieved by the behavior is also very useful in terms of deciding how to respond. For example, if a child is boasting about his achievements to his friends, this may be because he is feeling insecure in the friendship and is trying to increase his status. Knowing this, parents can help the child to find more positive ways to feel secure in the friendship, rather than just telling him to stop the boasting which may then damage his esteem.

Children have specific developmental changes at various ages which can lead to changes in behavior. If we understand the developmental changes, we are more likely to understand the behavior. For example, a two-year-old is learning that he is a separate person from his parents and that he can have an effect on his world. This is an important learning task but it often leads to a child behavior labeled as ‘defiant’. If parents understand the importance of this task and support the child’s efforts, they are likely to find that the ‘defiant’ behavior decreases. If we view this same behavior as the child ‘trying to annoy us’, we are likely to respond in a more negative way. The child will pick up this negative response and may begin to see himself as a ‘bad child’. This can spiral into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

An accurate understanding of developmental stages and behavior patterns is critical when working with children. Although the temptation is great to view children as small adults, doing so is likely to increase ineffective parenting behaviors. Understanding children’s behavior in terms of its context and as a part of normal development can help parents learn to be more effective and positive in guiding their children.

When parents expect their children to behave like miniature adults, they respond to child behavior in ways that often lead to increased misbehavior. From their own frame of reference, parents perceive their children’s actions as illogical, inexplicable, and irresponsible. They respond by defining expectable behaviors and the discipline techniques to correct problem behaviors. Unfortunately, these strategies frequently fuel a further deterioration of parent-child relationships and result in an increase of undesired behavior.

Developmental stages and behavior patterns

Jean Piaget, a legendary figure in child psychology, erected a cognitive-developmental stage theory that has greatly influenced our understanding of how children perceive and interact with the world. According to Piaget, children’s development can be classified into 4 age and stage related categories. The first of these, the sensory motor stage, occurs from birth to roughly age 2. Children in this stage use their developing sensory and motor abilities to understand the world around them. They accomplish this through assimilation, the process by which a child incorporates the new information and experiences into their already existing mental structures, and accommodation, the process by which a child changes their existing mental structures in order to accommodate new information and experiences. An example of this would be how an infant who has learned to shake a rattle might assimilate the idea of a musical toy into his rattle schema, and thus shake anything in the future that remotely resembles his rattle in hopes of producing a sound. Accommodation would occur when the same child encounters a different type of rattle that does not produce noise, thus altering his rattle schema to include the specifics of what makes a rattle a musical toy.

Identifying triggers and underlying issues

Understanding the underlying issues to behavior is of great importance. Often what a child says, and the reasons they give for their behavior, are not the underlying issues behind the behavior. For example, a child who is avoiding school work may say that it is because they don’t like the work, however, the real issue may be that the work is very difficult for them and they are afraid of failure. In this case, simply providing easier work may look like it is solving the problem, but the child is likely to continue avoiding work that they find embarrassing. An effective strategy must involve discussing what the real issue is with the child and working together to find solutions to the underlying problem.

It is possible to view a child’s behavior as being wholly negative, though it is more constructive to believe that all behavior has a reason. Identifying the triggers for behavior, in terms of what happens before the behavior, is often the key to understanding why children act in particular ways. It is also helpful to observe the consequences of the behavior, i.e. what does the behavior achieve for the child? Identifying triggers and consequences can be useful when discussing behavior with other people, i.e. teachers or other caregivers, as it provides a clear picture of what is happening without resorting to judgmental statements about the child. By understanding when and why behavior occurs, adults are better placed to apply strategies to avoid, work with, or change particular behaviors.

Setting age-appropriate expectations

What can a parent expect from a child? The question is not easily answered, even by child development experts. A child’s ability to meet specific expectations depends on many factors – temperament, developmental stage, and the specific demand being made. What can be said is that specific, high but realistic expectations yield better performance than global, vague or low expectations. A 3-year-old will not be able to sit and listen to a story for an hour but can for ten minutes. A 10-year-old may be able to do the dishes one day but not the next. How a parent approaches a task and the wording of the expectation is important. A 5-year-old needs to be told “what to do”, instead of “what not to do”. “What not to do” is difficult for a child to act on because it requires them to stop a current action. Telling a child what to do in a positive manner will achieve better results. For example, saying “walk” is better than saying “don’t run”. This simple principle can be applied to the direct teaching of new behaviors, and to increase the frequency of occurring desired behaviors. The frequency of positive expectations greatly affects a child’s behavior. If most of the attention is on misbehaviors, there will be an increase in those misbehaviors. 9:1 positive to negative expectations is a good ratio to strive for. Therefore, an effective and constant method of discipline is more effective than harsh punishment of misbehavior.

Implementing effective discipline strategies

The second step to effective discipline is to use positive reinforcement. Parents are more likely to get the behavior they want when they pay attention to the positive behavior their children display and ignore the minor misbehavior. When parents pay more attention to misbehavior than positive behavior, children are more likely to act out to get the attention. The best way to encourage positive behavior is to reward children. Children will repeat good behavior when it’s followed by a reward. A reward can be as simple as a hug from a parent or a trip to the park. It is essential for parents to reward their children every time they achieve the desired behavior. This is often the most difficult part for parents as it requires patience. It is a typical mistake to stop rewarding positive behavior once it becomes expected. This is problematic because the reward is intended to reinforce the behavior until it becomes a habit. If a behavior is not yet a habit, skipping the reward can be a great opportunity for the child to revert to the old behavior. The third step to effective discipline is to be consistent with the rules. This can be difficult for parents because it often requires more restraint than simply reacting to misbehavior. Consistent behavior from parents will have a greater impact on children. After all, children are little concerned with who makes the rules; what they really need to know is who enforces the rules. Hastily established rules are likely to be as confusing to parents as they are to children. When parents are unsure of a rule, it is likely they will not enforce it. Inconsistency from parents will only confuse children. An inconsistent response to misbehavior that results in a child’s avoidance of punishment prevents the reinforcement of a more desirable behavior. This reduces the likelihood that the child will engage in the more desirable behavior in the future.

Positive reinforcement and rewards

Positive reinforcement is a behavior-management strategy used by teachers or parents to increase the probability that a behavior will be repeated. The use of positive reinforcement can be very effective in teaching and helping children to behave in the way that the adults in their lives expect. Some children receive more attention for misbehavior than for appropriate behavior. In the long run, the child who is being noticed for appropriate behavior is being primed to act that way again in order to get the attention they are receiving. Parents and teachers can make explicit decisions to recognize and attend to appropriate behavior and to use the principles of reinforcement to build a child’s social and emotional skills and self-control. For instance, they can reinforce such behaviors as sharing with siblings by praising and giving the child extra privileges. Caregivers can use daily report cards to give children positive feedback or small rewards for their behaving well. These have been used to change children’s behavior in academic and athletic programs and have good research support. A recent paper entitled “The Token Program” gives a series of examples and practical tips for developing token economies. It is based on research with children with ADHD but is applicable to many other children who could benefit from building specific skills and self-control through this technique.

Consistency and clear communication

This kind of discipline takes a lot of self-control on the parent’s part and may actually be more difficult than a quickie and often ineffective spanking. It involves pinpointing the exact misbehavior or action and discussing with the child why it was wrong and what the child should have done. Exactly how to communicate this will be expanded on in the next section on time-outs and consequences, which are often closely related to misbehavior-specific praise or criticism. Notice this form of discipline is self-explanatory and clear to the child and can be used in reinforcing good behavior, as well as in redirecting or misbehavior. For example, it is known by all well-practiced parents that catching your child being good is always a much simpler task than catching them being bad. But with practice, this method can make other forms of discipline unnecessary as the child learns right from wrong, and it can double as quality time spent with the child. Consistency in these methods is important. Often if misbehavior goes ignored just once, it can be inferred by the child that it is acceptable. But discipline must never be enacted while a parent is too angry or frustrated. Substandard discipline is then often impulsive and can be abusive, and the child does not learn from it. Following through with a clear and concise message gives the child an understanding, a feeling of security, and a set of expectations. Requirements for consistent discipline and the self-control it demands can sometimes be a tall order for many parents, but the long-term benefits are immeasurable. Remaining easy to communicate with and approach about misbehavior and not conflicting a child with mixed messages is another important issue. It is best to avoid negative comments about the child’s character as opposed to the behavior in question, and this also applies to all other forms of discipline. An occasional slip in any area of discipline is to be expected, and it should be addressed with concern and a continuing confidence in the child. This method is also aimed at preventing a common adolescent-parent relationship with fighting and tension or the child’s unwillingness to admit wrongdoing in fear of shame or consequence.

Time-outs and consequences

Drawbacks to time out can occur when it is not done properly. Situations when parents consistently begin to argue with the child about their behavior, bring out why the child was put in time out, and that the child is being provoked to negative behavior in an attempt to be placed in time out. Also, time out is not very effective for some children who have difficulty staying in one area and may flee from the time out location. Time out was also shown to increase negative behavior in ADHD children, although this study was done in time out from medication, it may be something to consider by parents who believe time out is not working for their child. Future research on optimization of time out procedures will continue to make this an effective discipline tactic.

To implement time out, Negoshian suggests placing a child for one minute for each year of the child’s age. He emphasizes that time out should not involve any type of spanking or hitting. It should involve the adult responding to negative behavior and/or non-compliance without yelling or emotional behavior. This is a key point because it is most parents’ emotional response to a child’s behavior that leads to abuse. After the time out has been served, children should be engaged in the positive behavior that was targeted by the negative behavior. Time out has been one of the most effective discipline tactics for children with conduct problems. Time out has also been manipulated in studies to produce cognitive changes in children, which means it can still be an effective method to change behavior. This would be beneficial for parents who want to discipline their children and teach them what they did wrong, but often do not follow through with their intentions.

Teaching problem-solving and conflict resolution skills

Lastly, review how the resolution worked. This involves deciding whether the end of the problem is resolved, whether the solution can be tried on the problem again if it reoccurs, and if any more solutions need to be tried from the list. This step is often forgotten but will prevent a solved problem turning into the same problem over and over.

Third, try out each solution. If the children can agree on a solution, give it a try. This may involve a little bit of trial and error. If it is agreed that an idea is worth a try, even if you think it is a bad idea, let them do it. Often, children will learn a lot more from a solution that doesn’t work. Note that usually only the end of the problem needs to be resolved. This may involve agreeing on how to take turns or a new way to do things in the future.

Second, come up with a list of possible solutions. Depending on the children and the problem, this could involve anything from brainstorming ideas on a piece of paper to calling a family meeting to discuss possible solutions. Be wary not to suggest a solution or judge any suggested ideas at this point. Just write them down.

First, identify the problem. When the problem occurs, explain to each child that there is a problem and have them each say what they think the problem is. Often, rather than starting here, children skip straight to pointing the finger, so be ready to give the whole “how to identify a problem” speech about 50 times. This also will help you to decipher “who started it” later.

This is one of the most helpful skills for both children and parents. Teaching children how to solve problems and conflicts respectfully and fairly teaches values and skills that the children will use for the rest of their lives. Problem-solving involves a few simple steps.

Nurturing a positive parent-child relationship

The feeling of trust and legitimacy in a family comes when all members live up to shared attitudes and values. The subordinate member of the family, the child learning to build his own power base, must feel that he has a fair chance to influence the family and that his interests can be discussed and taken into account. Creating an atmosphere of open communication in which family policies and their rationales are explained, family errors are admitted and discussed, and family conferences concerning family decisions are held is a boon to creating a democratic climate in the family. This kind of climate makes it easier for parents to effectively influence and control their children. In fact, substantial parental control is necessary for the development of self-discipline in any child. It is important that a climate of open communication not be used as an excuse by children to try to take full equal time control of family decisions at an inappropriate developmental stage. Such power-sharing in decision-making is inappropriate in families in which the children have not yet attained their mid-adolescence years and is rarely beneficial when instituted by children without parental guidance. Research has found that families high in conflict and harsh parenting are often characterized by high levels of negative reciprocity. This means that family members see each other’s actions as deliberately antagonistic and harmful, leading to unwarranted escalation of the situation due to misconstrued intentions. Creating a warm, loving, and supportive family environment greatly reduces negative reciprocity and there is far less use of aversive forms of discipline such as physical punishment and yelling. Aversive forms of discipline elicit immediate compliance in children. However, research on its long-term effects shows it to be less effective than positive discipline in the development of self-discipline and internal control and is likely to damage the quality of the parent-child relationship.

Active listening and empathy

Active listening and empathy helps your child to feel understood, accepted and cared for. It increases your child’s emotional awareness and self-esteem and models how to have a healthy and caring relationship. This can then in turn affect the way your child listens and responds to others. Children who feel that their emotions and point of view are acknowledged are more cooperative and it strengthens their willingness to confide and trust in you. A trusting relationship leads to a closer and more intimate relationship with your child and can prevent future problems from developing. Children who do not feel understood can become frustrated and act out their feelings in inappropriate ways. Often when parents have trouble understanding their child’s misbehavior and are themselves feeling frustrated, it leads to ineffective discipline and can damage the parent-child relationship. By striving to understand the underlying cause of misbehavior, for example unmet needs or mistaken goals, and the feelings behind it, it makes it easier to resolve the problem in a way that is mutually satisfying. This will be discussed further in the section on problem solving.

Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another. It is more feeling with the person than feeling sorry for the person. To be an empathetic parent, you must recognize emotions as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching. Discussing and exploring feelings further can open opportunities for problem-solving and decision making and can be used as a moment for reflection in which you and your child exchange roles. Understanding your child’s feelings can also help you understand the meaning and the importance of what your child is communicating. For example, your child may be angry and frustrated at a toy for not working properly. You may feel it is a waste of time to fix or not that important, however the toy may hold significance for your child as it was a gift or has a memorable experience attached to it. Understanding this can help you set aside time to assist your child in fixing the toy.

Active listening occurs when the listener is genuinely interested in understanding the speaker rather than just hearing the words that are being spoken. It involves reflecting back your understanding of the message that was given and the feelings behind it. You do not have to agree with the message, just simply understand it. By providing this feedback and understanding the speaker can feel free to express his or herself more and emotional barriers are broken down. It is important to suspend your own judgment and avoid giving advice or reassurance. Be patient and let the speaker take his or her time, and when they are finished, reflect on your understanding of what they said and ask if you interpreted it correctly.

Building trust and mutual respect

The key is always how these objectives are pursued. A parent can be loving, friendly, and respectful and can act in ways that clearly indicate that he sees his child’s needs and rights as important, or he can fall into habits of coercion, manipulation, and punitive control. The former will lead to the building of good parent-child relations, the latter will create barriers of resentment, resistance, and lack of cooperation and will hinder satisfying outcomes. Always the choice of method comes down to how one views the child and his behavior, the meaning of specific behaviors, and what is important in the long run. These are the areas about which parents can share an understanding and build a consensus, they remain subject to individual interpretations. Conscious awareness of this will assist parents in being respectful during times of disagreement on disciplinary procedures. A child whose behavior is giving rise to a parental concern is still his parent’s child and the familial relationship is still there to provide the context in which guidance and value internalization can occur. Viewing unacceptable behavior as indicative of some temporary states rather than as the child’s nature, e.g. “you’re not a bad kid, you’re a good kid doing a bad thing.” This will foster disapproval for the behavior rather than bringing about a rejection of the child.

When trust and mutual respect are the foundation for the parent-child relationship, firm and consistent methods can be used with success. When efforts to socialize a child are felt by the child to be loving, friendly, and respectful of his needs and rights, the child is likely to internalize the values to which he is being directed and to adopt the behavior that is based on these values.

Encouraging open communication

Visage Children are more likely to communicate with parents who listen, are sympathetic, and non-judgmental. Being an active listener enables your child to feel valued within the family. Listening and empathy are closely linked. The more you are able to understand the world from your child’s perspective, the better you are able to empathize. Always try to consider your child’s interpretation of a situation and how they are feeling before responding to a situation. It is important to show empathy even if you disagree with your child. Acknowledging their feelings does not imply agreement with the behavior. Communicate your understanding of their feelings and needs, which makes them feel understood and cared for. Listening and empathy are skills that can be practiced through the use of “I messages”. An I message explains to the other person how you are feeling with the use of the word “I”. For example, “I feel angry when my toy is broken because it was special to me”. This is a clear communication of the child’s feeling, which is important when using discipline. Instead of reacting to a situation, ask your child how they feel and why they behaved in that way. This can often lead to problem-solving and realization of the discipline strategy without reprimand. Understanding and empathy will build your relationship with your child and strengthen open communication.

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