How to Discipline Your Child: An Age-by-Age Guide

Published : Jul 01, 2024
By Dr. Ana Aznar

Parenting is challenging. One of the most difficult challenges is how to discipline our children. Questions such as: “Am I being too strict?”, “Nothing that I do works with my child!”, or “How can I make sure that my child follows the rules?”, are common amongst parents. 

We usually think of discipline in terms of punishments, but discipline is much more than that. It is about setting limits and consequences and encouraging good behaviour. The aim of discipline is for children to understand why what they did was wrong, so they do not do it again. 

As children develop, the discipline strategies that we use should change to adapt to their developmental stage. However, there are five rules that apply no matter your kid’s age. 

1. Discipline works best when you have a warm and loving relationship with your child (1)

2. Be a model: as parents, it is much more important what we do (2) than what we say. Think that children are constantly observing us. So, if you want your child to read, you must read. If you do not want your child to hit others, you must not hit others. If you want your child to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, you must do it. This matters regardless of your child’s age.

3. Be consistent: Explain the rules and stick to them. If you have a co-parent, get them on board. Inconsistent discipline has been linked with children’s depression, and worse adjustment for children and teenagers.  

4. Be the adult: A lot about child discipline is really about parent discipline (3). Control your anger and your reactions. If you think you are going to lose it, it is way better to leave the room and calm yourself. Come back to face the situation, once you are in control of your emotions and actions. 

5. Do not use physical punishment: Most studies in this area show that corporal punishment (4) is bad for children (even smacking). A few studies have not shown negative consequences. But NO studies have shown that using physical punishment is good for children. (Read more about this topic here).

Let’s have a look now at discipline strategies to use with children at different ages.

How to Discipline Your Toddler

1. Use praise: as parents very often, we ignore good behaviour and we only focus on negative behavior. It is important that we use praise when our child behaves well. Children love for their parents to be happy with them, so the more you let them know that you like what they are doing, the more likely they are to repeat it. When you praise them, be specific. Rather than saying: “You are such a good boy”, say “Look how well you are sharing with your sister, well done!”. This way they know exactly what they are doing right and are more likely to repeat it (5).

2. Redirect them: at this stage, whenever your child is doing something that they should not do (e.g., trying to stick their finger in the socket), take them to do something else. 

3. If you say ‘no’ stick to it: If you say no to them having an ice-cream but once they start whining, you give in, you are teaching them that whining works. They are more likely to do it again. Ideally, say something like: “I know you want an ice-cream, I would love one too but it’s almost lunch time so we can’t have it”, and then hope for the best! 

4. Do not let them alone (6) to think about what they have done (or the naughty step): when you isolate a toddler and tell them to think about what they did, do you really think it is going to work? They do not have yet have the ability to reflect on their behaviour. They will most likely only get angrier and frustrated. 

5. Do not reinforce negative behaviour: If your toddler likes to pull your hair and whenever he does it you tickle him and make him laugh, he will do it again. Why wouldn’t he? He is getting your attention and having a good laugh! Instead, with a straight face and without a fuss, take his hand and redirect him to do something else. 

How to Discipline Your Child During Middle Childhood

1. Use logical consequences rather than punishments. If your child never puts the laundry in the hamper and instead leaves it on the floor, rather than punishing them without watching TV, tell them that from now on only clothes that are in the hamper will be washed. When they have no clean clothes, they will remember to use the hamper (if they don’t mind wearing dirty clothes, then you have another problem!). This way, they are being ‘punished’ and you are addressing the problem that needs to be solved. 

2. Use ‘when’ and ‘then’: “When you have done your homework, then you can watch TV”.  This approach tends to work well because they feel that they have some control and choice. 

3. Take a coach approach: Our goal as parents is to help our children learn from their mistakes so they can do better next time. For example, if when your child hits someone, you only say “You can’t hit, that is wrong!”, you are not teaching them how to behave next time. Maybe hitting is the only tool they have. Instead, give them options for the future (7)“Hitting is wrong because you hurt the other person. I see that you are angry, what could you do next time you are in the same situation? Perhaps you could tell your friend that he made you angry?”. 

4. Don’t make threats you cannot carry: “If you don’t behave well, I am leaving you by the side of the road!”, or “You are grounded for two years!”. Be realistic because ideally you want to keep your word. 

5. Don’t use time out: Instead use time-in (8) (e.g., “Let’s think about how you are feeling” or time-off (e.g., “Do you want five minutes to wash your face and calm down?”). 

How to Discipline Your Tween and Teenager

1. Explain, explain, explain: Teenagers must understand (9) why what they did was wrong. If you are setting up any consequences, they must see them as being fair, even if they do not agree with them. This is the best way for them to internalize the message. 

2. Give them autonomy: Give them some choices and negotiate when possible. For example, if they want to be out until midnight and you prefer that they are home at 11 pm, try settling for 11.30 pm, that way no one ‘wins’.

3. Choose your timings carefully: Do not discipline your teen while you are both in a fit of rage. It is better to wait until you have both cooled down to have a conversation.  

4. Do not isolate them: Peers are everything to teenagers. It is vital that teenagers feel connected to their friends and are allowed to spend time with them. Punishing a teenager without seeing their friends is usually not a good idea. Social isolation during adolescence is linked with higher risk of experiencing mental health issues (10).

5. Do not laugh at them or be sarcastic: Teenagers are defining and understanding who they are. At the same time, they are going through a period when they care a lot about others’ opinions, and they experience their emotions in a very intense way. Even if you think that they are exaggerating or acting in a dramatic way, be respectful and take them seriously. 

6. Don’t escalate it: “You are horrible!”“Look who’s talking! You are the worst!”. Even if your teenager says very nasty things to you in the heat of the moment, do not engage. You are the adult (11) in the relationship and must behave that way. If you are going to lose it, simply leave the room. 

What happens when we do not get it right?

We do not always get it right! I have given you the ‘theory’, but the truth is that discipline is not easy. We all get it wrong sometimes. Because we are tired, stressed, distracted, or worried. Ideally, we want to get it right more often than not. What do we do when get it wrong? We repair our relationship with our children. We do this by reconnecting again, either by apologizing, giving them a hug, or hanging out together. Human relationships are not perfect, and the parent-child relationship is certainly not perfect. 

I hope this information helps. If you want to discuss specific questions or issues you may be having with your child, do get in touch here and we can organize a 1-2-1 session. 

Love, 

Ana

Dr Ana Aznar

References

  • Fletcher, A. C., Walls, J. K., Cook, E. C., Madison, K. J., & Bridges, T. H. (2008). Parenting Style as a Moderator of Associations Between Maternal Disciplinary Strategies and Child Well-Being. Journal of Family Issues29(12), 1724-1744. https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X08322933
  • Wiese, B. S., & Freund, A. M. (2011). Parents as role models: Parental behavior affects adolescents’ plans for work involvement. International Journal of Behavioral Development35(3), 218-224. https://doi.org/10.1177/0165025411398182
  • Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J., Rudolph, J., Kerin, J., & Bohadana-Brown, G. (2022). Parent emotional regulation: A meta-analytic review of its association with parenting and child adjustment. International Journal of Behavioral Development46(1), 63-82. https://doi.org/10.1177/01650254211051086
  • Cuartas, J., Gershoff, E.T., Bailey, D. et al. Physical punishment and child, adolescent, and adult outcomes in low- and middle-income countries: protocol for systematic review and meta-analysis. Syst Rev 11, 276 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13643-022-02154-5
  • Lawrence, J., Haszard, J. J., Taylor, B., Galland, B., Gray, A., Sayers, R., … & Taylor, R. (2021). A longitudinal study of parental discipline up to 5 years. Journal of Family Studies27(4), 589-606. https://doi.org/10.1080/13229400.2019.1665570 
  • Tompkins, V., & Villaruel, E. (2020). Parent discipline and pre-schoolers’ social skills. Early Child Development and Care192(3), 410–424. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004430.2020.1763978
  • Havighurst, S. S., & Kehoe, C. E. (2021). Tuning in to Kids: An emotion coaching approach to working with parents. Family-based intervention for child and adolescent mental health: A core competencies approach, 269-283.
  • Dadds, M. R., & Tully, L. A. (2019). What is it to discipline a child: What should it be? A reanalysis of time-out from the perspective of child mental health, attachment, and trauma. American Psychologist, 74(7), 794–808. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000449
  • Thomas, K.J., Rodrigues, H., de Oliveira, R.T. et al. What Predicts Pre-adolescent Compliance with Family Rules? A Longitudinal Analysis of Parental Discipline, Procedural Justice, and Legitimacy Evaluations. J Youth Adolescence 49, 936–950 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-019-01158-0
  • Mitic, M., Woodcock, K. A., Amering, M., Krammer, I., Stiehl, K. A., Zehetmayer, S., & Schrank, B. (2021). Toward an integrated model of supportive peer relationships in early adolescence: A systematic review and exploratory meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology12, 589403.
  • Mastrotheodoros, S., Van der Graaff, J., Deković, M. et al. Parent–Adolescent Conflict across Adolescence: Trajectories of Informant Discrepancies and Associations with Personality Types. J Youth Adolescence 49, 119–135 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-019-01054-7

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