One of the most common issues parents ask me for help with in counseling is how to appropriately discipline their children. Kids can be a wonderful joy in the lives of parents, but they can also become stressors when their behavior starts to get out of control. I have compiled a list of helpful discipline strategies that can help parents improve the behavior of their children.
1. Be parents, not peers. Don’t get stuck in society’s trend toward parents and children having peer relationships. Healthy family hierarchies need to differentiate parents from kids. Of course it’s important to develop and maintain healthy relationships with your kids; however, this is different than acting like their teenage friend. In this process, parents need to always be equals.
2. Couples on the same page. Couples (or separated/divorced parents) always need to be on the same page when it comes to discipline. Often, parents disagree with something the other parent did to discipline a child. If the other parent issues a punishment that you disagree with, support them in front of the kids, then talk with the other parent about it behind closed doors. Never threaten the other parent’s authority in front of the children. Research has shown that parents who take a united approach are better able to manage the stresses of parenting. If you find it difficult to take a united front because of disagreements, couples counseling may be helpful.
3. Consistency between parents. Building on the previous issue, there should not be one parent that lays the hammer down and the other that is a pushover. If your kids gravitate to one parent for certain things, this should be a sign of inconsistencies in parenting. Stereotypically, we see dad as the one to manage the tough stuff. All this does is makes one parent bad and the other good in the eyes of children. This is not fair to the parents or the child. If one parent cannot get the kids to act appropriately, potential disparities may exist in how they manage the children compared to the other parent. Take a balanced approach in who disciplines the small and big issues. The only exception to this rule is if one of the parents is a step-parent. Typically children will respond better to big discipline issues from their non-step-parent. In homes with step-parents, it is often better for the non-step-parent to deal with the big discipline problems.
4. Age-appropriate rules. Have clear, age-appropriate rules and ramifications for breaking these rules for each child. Each child may need separate rules depending on their age. Ensure each child knows what the rules are. It can be helpful to write them down and post them in a visible place. This can reduce complaints regarding the fairness of the rules when they break them. I have found it helpful to involve each child in setting their rules. This doesn't mean they make the rules and parents hope they come up with good ones. Parents should direct the rule setting process. If kids are included in the process, they are more likely to be sold on the rules. You may even be surprised with the strict rules some kids come up with. When setting rules, don't go over the top. More than 10 rules (especially for younger children) may be excessive. Choose your battles.
5. How to use good punishments. If you are not sure how to punish your child, a good rule of thumb is to make the punishments directly related to the offense. For example: if there is a rule that the kids can only watch one hour of television per day and they break the rule, take away their television privileges. If they are not supposed to ride their bike in the street and they do, don't take their cell phone away or ground them. It would be better to take their bike away for a time.
6. Timeout. What about timeouts? Using time out procedures for kids 1-10 years of age can be effective. How long should they be? Parents often tell me they heard it should be one minute in timeout for each year of the child's life (i.e. 9 minutes for a 9 year old). Contrary to this popular belief, research has shown that 3 minutes is the magic number for effectiveness (for all ages). When kids are in timeout, don't respond to their tantrums.
7. Physical punishment. Physical punishments should never be used, period. This includes spanking. The goal with discipline is for kids to learn what is appropriate and why. Physical punishment does not do this. If you think spanking helped when you were a kid, I promise there could have been better ways to discipline. Research has shown that the only reason physical discipline (such as spanking) works is because it instills fear. Do you really want your kids to be scared of you?
8. Don’t yell. Yelling at kids is a poor way to tell them they shouldn't yell. Like physical punishment, yelling just instills fear and makes them think yelling is okay. If they are emotionally charged, stay calm and they will eventually follow your example.
9. Correct the behavior, don’t criticize the child’s character. An example of correcting behavior would be: “Use a quiet voice.” An example of criticizing character would be: “You are a loud-mouthed brat." Even if kids make mistakes, they never deserve criticism of their character. Correct with love.
10. Positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement can be five times more effective at changing behavior than negative reinforcement. The strange thing is we focus too much on negative reinforcement as parents. You will get a lot further as parents catching your kids doing what’s right, rather than only punishing when they make mistakes. Praise them for following rules. Establish a reward system. If kids know there may be a reward for them they will be much more motivated to follow the rules. Rewards should not be excessive and may be as simple as thanking them for following the rules today. For example, if you have trouble getting a child to do their chore of sweeping the kitchen floor, praise them when they do it. Tell them the child how great they are at sweeping. Don't be surprised if you come home the next day and the child is grinning, broom in hand, having swept the floor.
11. Parent timeout. You should take a timeout when you get too upset. Kids will feed off your emotional state. If you start to lose control, they will too. Go in the other room for a few minutes and calm yourself down.
12. Choose your battles. If you have 30 rules for kids, or you feel like all you do is discipline, perhaps you should evaluate if you are trying to be too strict. Kids will be kids. They will never understand things at your level. Research has shown that the human brain does not fully develop until the early 20s. This is why they often don't intuitively understand why they should do certain things or act certain ways. To help with this, choose your battles wisely and be patient. Focus on the most important things to discipline. This can help keep your kids from getting too rebellious. When you choose your battles, make sure you win. Parenting is not about winning, but it is about keeping appropriate hierarchies. Kids try so hard to get parents to do what they want. If parents give in, they are allowing the child to run the household.
13. Be 100 percent consistent. I can't emphasize the importance of this enough. If you are 95 percent consistent, the kids will know they can sometimes get away with things and will push you to the limit. Don't rationalize away by thinking, "I will let it slide this time," or "It's easier to not deal with it." Kids keep a tally of every time you give in. Don't give in. Be 100 percent consistent.
14. Show love. Nothing motivates kids more than knowing you will be proud of them. Show them you love them. After all, isn't that why we discipline in the first place?
Relationship expert Jonathan Swinton is a practicing licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Swinton Counseling in Utah: 801-647-9951, www.swintoncounseling.com.