A child being disciplined.
When disciplining children, it is common to take something away for poor behavior, but it is also good to point out when your child does something good.

How to Discipline a Child

On one hand, having a child can be one of the most stressful, confusing and infuriating experiences a person will ever have. On the other hand, having a child is one of the most rewarding, exciting and fulfilling experiences a person will ever have. With so much love we have for our children, we want to do right by them and help them learn right from wrong but knowing how to discipline a child without hurting their feelings can be difficult.

For many, the primary difference that increases the joy and shrinks the frustration is the behavior of their child. When a child is well-behaved, it is easier to share in positive experiences, so parents will do well to establish effective ways to discipline their child from an early age. Here are some ways on how to discipline a child.

Keep It Positive

Too often, parents make a huge mistake when it comes to disciplining a child. They tend to base their parenting around punishments. Punishments involve giving the child something that they do not want like extra chores or a spanking or taking away something the child wants like dessert or their favorite game.

Make no mistake, punishments are effective ways to parent a child, but it comes with several drawbacks:

  • Punishments do not teach the child about the wanted behavior. It only focuses on the unwanted behaviors.
  • Punishments harm the relationship between the child and the parent who is giving the punishment. Feelings of anger and hostility can build over time with multiple punishments.

The alternative to punishment is called reinforcement. Whereas punishments reduce behaviors, reinforcements help to strengthen and encourage wanted behaviors.

With children, reinforcements are widely available. Possible reinforcers for children include:

  • Special food and drink items
  • Money
  • Shows of love and affect
  • Verbal praise
  • Attention
  • Special experiences like bowling, skating, or going to the movies
  • Anything the child enjoys
  • Tokens, tickets, or stickers that can be redeemed for other items

In the beginning of the process, reward even simple, expected behaviors to get the child excited for the process. Over time, you can reduce the frequency or intensity of the reinforcers and when you do, the behaviors will continue as you have trained the child’s the behaviors.

Make the Rewards Instant

Whatever reinforcement method you choose, make the reward instant. The goal is to provide the reinforcement immediately after the child participates in the wanted behavior.

If the child eats all of their dinner, puts away their crayons, or cleans their room, offer the reward as soon as the behavior is completed. This action helps build the connection between the behavior and the consequences, which turns a neutral or negative behavior into a positive.

Of course, there are times where immediately rewarding a behavior is impractical or impossible but taking a few seconds to stop what you are doing to acknowledge the child and their accomplishment can still produce the wanted effects. It some ways, a small and immediate reward can be more reinforcing than a delayed, large reward.

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Stay Consistent

The best disciplinary strategies are doomed without consistency. Being inconsistent works to inform the child that they will only be rewarded sometimes for their behaviors and many will choose to engage in other behaviors.

Especially at the beginning of the process, consistency is essential. For a child, learning new ideas and concepts takes time and practice. Inconsistency only creates confusion.

As the child’s behavior changes, parents can move towards an irregular reinforcement schedule. This shift mirrors the payouts of a slot machine where not every play will result in a jackpot, but the knowledge that a payout is eventually coming is enough to keep the child engaged.

Catch Them Doing Well

Many parents feel like there child is never performing any positive behaviors. They feel that they cannot reward their child because there is nothing to reward. These parents are not paying enough attention to all of the wonderful actions completed by their child. They are waiting to catch the child doing poorly instead of catching them doing well.

If a child frequently fights with their sibling, find the moment of calm and offer support and reward for the lack of conflict. If their room is always messy, look for the time where they put away one pair of socks.

You have to meet the child where their current abilities and performance levels are. When you look for the good, you and your children feel better about the experience.

Know When Punishments are Needed

Even though punishments are generally frowned upon for the reasons stated earlier, there are several instances when punishments are appropriate:

  • When children put themselves or others in serious danger
  • When the desired behavior does not happen with enough regularity to reinforce it

Rewards and reinforcement can resolve most other situations and scenarios.

With punishment, opt for a timeout rather than corporal punishments like spanking. Timeouts work best when the child is removed from all desirable, positive stimuli for a short, specific period of time, usually about one minute for every year the child is old.

Older children may respond well to adding extra chores or extra responsibilities, instead of timeouts. As always, it is necessary to objectively look at what strategies work and do not work with your child and adjust along the way.

If you feel like the methods of discipline you have employed with your child are not working, consider seeking professional help. A trained mental health expert can tailor a behavioral plan to the exact needs of your child and your family.