When your child comes home disappointed with a low test score, when their team does not win the soccer game, or when they don’t make the cut for the team, what should you do? We all experience “failure” at some point in life. No one is perfect, and no one can be the best at everything they do—and that’s OK!
Positive Discipline Strategies
The words “positive” and “discipline” may not seem like they should go together. But disciplining children can be a positive experience when parents are equipped with different strategies to use for different situations. Discipline does not necessarily have to be a negative thing; Discipline actually means guidance, not punishment. Children need to learn “the rules” of how to act, how to treat others, how to share, how to say “please” and “thank you,” etc. from adults through positive discipline interactions.
Disciplining becomes easier when we keep in mind that there is a reason for all behaviors. Children’s actions are driven by their needs, and children do not always know or understand how to express their needs or act upon their needs in an appropriate manner that is not disruptive or harmful. A child might be hungry, tired, or in need of attention and that is why they are “acting out” or not following instructions. That’s where positive discipline comes in! Adults can discipline children in a way that guides and teaches them appropriate ways of interacting with others, expressing one’s needs, acting on one’s needs, and how to behave in different situations.
Additionally, just as one size rarely “fits all,” not every discipline technique works with every child or in every situation. One child may cry when you give them a stern look. Another may ignore your stern look causing you to do more than just look at them to get your message across for them to stop what they are doing. Yet another may respond and change their behavior appropriately when you look at them sternly. All children are different. Some children are more sensitive than others. Some have a harder time focusing attention or remembering what they are told than others. Matching the approach to discipline with your child’s characteristics or temperament, will get you the best result. Likewise, not every discipline technique is fit for every situation. For example, if your four-year-old is running on a wood floor in their sock feet and you have told them many times not to run in the house, you might let nature take its course (Natural Consequences) and let them learn the hard way that running on wood floors in your socks will lead to you falling down. But you wouldn’t want to use that same strategy if your four-year-old keeps opening the fence gate and running towards the road - the natural consequences of running into the road are far too dangerous for that discipline response. Having many disciplining tools equips parents to select the one that best fits the child, the situation, and the behavior.
Positive disciplining can happen when parents have many tools to choose from, when the child’s needs and motivations are considered, and when parents guide their child towards more appropriate behavior. Here we provide and explain 10 positive disciplining tools, along with examples for when and how to use them. Click any of the topics below for more information.
Distraction is a valuable tool. When you want to avoid certain behaviors, you can try distracting your child to help them focus on something else that won’t upset them. Distract can be a good tool and fairly easy to do, especially with young children, because their brains don’t yet have all the connections to allow them to focus on one thing for a long period of time. However, do not use distraction if your child is extremely upset, hurt, or hurt someone else.
You and your 2-year-old are at the park. You notice that your child wants a ball that another child has. To avoid your child becoming upset, you might say, “Let’s go play on the slides.” Changing where you are on the playground and what your child is doing will help avoid certain behaviors.
If you are making lunch but you notice your 3-year-old getting cranky, you can use distraction. Sing a song with them or make up a simple handshake. This fun activity will help distract your child until they are able to eat.
Your 7-year-old is upset because their friend could not come over to the house. You can distract them with an activity; you could suggest they play outside, draw a picture, or play with their toys.
While your 10-year-old is doing homework, you notice they are starting to get frustrated. You could allow them a short break with a distraction to avoid them becoming even more upset. You could play a song they love and let them dance while they listen.
Attention is rewarding for a child, whether it is positive attention, like telling them “great job,” or negative attention like scolding them for misbehaving. When your child gets your attention, they want to keep your attention. Actively ignoring some behaviors, like whining and tantrums, can help reduce how often your child behaves in these ways. They will learn that such behavior will not get them what they want. When you actively ignore, you purposefully look the other way and don’t give attention to that behavior. When you choose to ignore a behavior, make sure you ignore it every time. If you start to pay attention to that behavior again, your child will know acting that way will get your attention, and they will continue doing it. Do not ignore behaviors that could cause harm to your child.
You open the freezer and your 2-year-old sees the popsicles you bought for dessert that night. Your child asks for one now, and you say, “Not now, baby, they are for after we eat our dinner.” However, your child cries and starts screaming. Instead of giving them a popsicle to stop the screaming, try facing the other direction and act like you do not hear them. As soon as they quiet down, give them attention again. This will help them realize they get attention when they are not screaming.
It is time to get ready for bed, but your 3-year-old refuses to come brush his teeth. When you go to get him, he throws himself on the ground and cries. Try to look away and act as though you are not bothered. Right when he stops crying, pay attention to him again and say something like, “I like how you were able to calm yourself down. How about you pick out the book you want to read for story time before we go brush your teeth.”
Your 8-year-old child is watching television. You tell them to turn it off to come eat dinner, but they refuse to listen, so you tell them, “If you do not turn the television off, I will come turn it off myself.” They do not listen, so you turn off the TV; your child starts crying and whining to continue watching TV. Try to actively ignore this behavior. Walk back to where you are going to eat your meal and continue preparing as though they are not crying. Right when they stop crying, immediately give them attention again, saying “Thank you for quieting down, please come eat with us.”
Your child complains that she is bored. Even after you give her suggestions as to what she could do, she begins to make various noises as loudly as she can right in front of you. Try not to pay attention; look away and pretend like you do not hear it. She will eventually stop when she realizes her behavior is not getting the attention she wanted. After she stops, pay attention to her again.
When a child gets overwhelmed with emotions like frustration, it becomes more difficult for the child to control their behavior. Soothing is easier when you help your child before they get too overwhelmed with the emotion. Pay attention to the signs that a meltdown may be coming. Signs such as a red face, clinched fists or teeth, or fast, heavy breathing. You may need to step in and soothe your younger child or assist your older child in soothing him/herself, so he or she can calm down, think, and make better decisions. This is true for adults as well! When we get overwhelmed it becomes more difficult to use positive discipline, so be sure to allow yourself time to soothe, calm down, take a break, and then return to the parenting situation, able to respond more appropriately. Healthy soothing techniques can include breathing, singing, dancing, walking, hugging, talking, rocking, or even taking a warm bath. Be sure to use the soothing technique that the child responds best to; one child may not like to be touched very much and will respond better to singing and dancing around.
Your toddler has had a long fun day of too much excitement at his birthday party. He missed his nap, and now he is having a meltdown and throwing a tantrum because he doesn’t know how else to handle being overwhelmed and tired. You pick him up, hug him, and sit in a chair rocking him while rubbing his back. Hugs, rocking, and physical touch lower stress hormones and release hormones that make us feel better. Soothed by your touch and the rocking, your toddler calms down, stops crying, and falls asleep for a much-needed nap.
Your preteen comes home in a bad mood, upset about something another girl at school said about her. When her little sibling asks her to play, she rudely says no and starts picking on her younger sibling. You know she did this because she is in a bad mood from what happened at school. After helping her recognize that, you can take your daughters for a walk or have a little dance party. Exercise, sunlight and fresh air, music, singing, dancing, and moving your body in general, can calm a person down and improve mood. Soothed and in a better mood, your preteen agrees to play with her younger sibling.
Giving your child choices does not mean that they are in control. Giving them choices that you provide will help you avoid having a power struggle. It will also empower your children and help you both works together toward a common goal. When children have choices, they feel like they have a little control over the situation, which helps them feel safe and develop confidence in their ability to make decisions. When giving your child choices, stick to just 2 options for younger kids, and 2 or 3 options for older children. It is also important that when you give choices, you let them actually have the choice they picked. That means that you need to be sure you are okay with the options you provide. Choices should not be given if the parent is not comfortable with the options given.
You and your 3-year-old are leaving the house for work and school. You notice your child is not motivated to put their shoes and jacket on, and you are in a hurry. You say with an excited tone, “Do you want to put on your jacket or shoes first?” as you help them get dressed.
You notice your 2-year-old has not been interested in eating their vegetables. You take your child to the grocery store and ask your child, “which vegetable should we have for dinner” and talk about how excited you are to make dinner, “I can’t wait to have the vegetables you picked out for dinner.”
If your 6-year-old cries every time she is told to make her bed, try to give her choices. You could say, “Would you like to make your bed before you eat breakfast, or would you like to make your bed after you brush your teeth?” This way, she has choices, but the choices you gave her still require her to do the chore you need her to do.
You take your preteen shopping for new school shoes and he finds a jacket that he really likes. You explain that you are on a budget and that he needs the shoes, but already has a jacket that fits. You give him a choice of buying a less expensive pair of shoes and the jacket or buying the more expensive shoes he has been requesting, but not the jacket. This example helps a child learn about budgets as well as opens the door for conversations about wants versus needs.
An important aspect of discipline is teaching your children rules of behavior -- what is safe, what is fair, what is healthy. You can involve them in making the basic rules and consequences for breaking those rules. Letting them have a role in this helps them understand the connections between their behaviors and the consequences of their behaviors. It also allows children to feel more responsible for their actions and feel important. Studies show that when children are involved in creating the classroom rules, they tend to follow those rules more.
Your toddler throws the blocks he was playing with at another child, causing her to cry. Have a conversation with your child, talking him through what he did and how it made her feel. Ask him “Since you threw the blocks at Suzie, should you be able to play with the blocks? Why?” Walk him through the answer and help him come to the conclusion that since he didn’t play nicely with the blocks, he should not be allowed to play with the blocks until he can play with them nicely.
Your kids frequently argue over who gets to ride in the front seat, who gets to choose the music in the car, and who gets to pick the show watched on television. Together, come up with a system everyone agrees upon for fairly sharing amongst the kids. For example, one child gets to choose the TV show on odd days of the week and the other child on even days; or, you could have them alternate by week. You could also have one child who gets to ride in the front of the car, one who gets to choose the music, and one who gets to pick the show. Having the children help come up with rotation reduces the arguments and helps children learn how to cooperate.
Positive reinforcement is used to reward a behavior and encourage the child to repeat that behavior. It can be as simple as a “thank you” or “great job,” or more tangible, like a new toy or getting to choose the game for game night. When you reward your child for a positive behavior, your child may be more eager to act that way again; therefore, you are encouraging them to act in positive ways. Food and sweets should not be used as positive reinforcement.
You see your 2-year-old playing with their Lego blocks. After they have finished playing, they neatly put their toys in the bin where they belong. You smile and praise your child by saying, “I see you cleaned up your toys, good job.”
You and your 3-year-old are at the park and you are pushing your child on the swing. You notice another child come over and ask to swing; your 3-year-old hops off the swing and lets the other child have a turn. You smile and say to your child “that’s very nice of you to share the swing and take turns.”
You notice that your 8-year-old cleaned his room without you having to ask, and he even helped his younger sister clean her room, too. You are glad to see he did not need to be asked to help clean, so you might say, “Thank you, I really love how you cleaned your room without asking, and that you helped your sister. That is so considerate! Would you like to pick the movie we watch tonight?”
Your son drew a picture for your neighbor who just got back from the hospital. After you went with him to drop it off, you might tell him, “That was so kind of you to draw her a picture. I’m proud of how thoughtful you are; I’m sure she loved it.”
Using logical consequences is important so that children can make a connection between their behavior and the punishment. Taking away TV time because a child threw a block at their friend does not help the child connect their behavior to the punishment. However, punishing that child from playing with blocks makes sense; if you do not play nicely with the blocks, you cannot play with the blocks. When using logical consequences, it is important that the consequences match the behaviors.
You notice your 3-year-old taking a toy from another child who was playing with it. After telling your child to play nice and not to take from others, your child still insists on keeping the toy. You take the toy from your child and allow your child to sit with you and watch as you remind them how to play nicely. “If you do not want to play nice, then you can sit and watch others play, we play nice by asking for a turn and sharing, but not by taking toys.”
Your 4-year-old throws all of the stuffed animals around the room. You tell them how when people make messes, they have to clean them up. You tell them, “Since you threw your toys on the floor, you need to pick them all up and put them away when you are done playing.”
You already told your 9-year-old that she could not go outside by herself to skate, but you see her skating down the street. After getting her inside, you tell her, “I specifically told you not to skate outside by yourself. It could be dangerous, and I didn’t know where you were. Give me your skates, you are not allowed to use them the rest of the day.”
Your 10-year-old filled the kitchen sink with dirty dishes while you were at work. Rather than sending your child to his room as punishment, you could say, “You made this mess, you can clean it up. Come wash all of these dishes and put them away.”
Consistency is key! Children must learn and understand the rules; they need to know what to expect and what is expected of them. Having consistent rules with the same consequences for not following them helps children learn the rules better. It also helps them learn that no matter what, they are not going to be able to get away with bad behavior. This means expectations and consequences need to be consistent from one parent to the next, and in one situation to the next. The same rules and reactions should apply when mom/dad is distracted, tired, busy, when in public, at home, on the playground, and at another friend’s house. When parents are tired, they often will give in or allow a child to do things they normally would not. It is very important for parents to make sure that even when they are tired or distracted, they are sticking to the rules themselves. Otherwise, a child learns that sometimes they can get away with it, so they will try to break the rules just to see if today is the day.
Your child should have to eat her vegetables before getting desert when at her grandparent’s house, just like when she is at home. Make sure to talk to family members about your rules so they are on the same page as you. This way, your child knows what to expect at all of her relatives’ houses.
Every night you follow the same bedtime routine: take a bath, brush teeth, read a story, and get tucked in. This night, however, your toddler is crying and wants to keep playing. It is important that you try to stick to your routine. Remind your child that you do this every night. It may be helpful if you make your routine into a song that you can sing together. When you start singing it or reminding your child, encourage her to follow you and begin the bedtime routine.
If you teenager wants to go to a friend’s house who, in the past, he has gotten into trouble with, be sure that you and your parenting partner are on the same page about whether that would be appropriate or not. If the teen does not get the answer he wants from one parent and tries going to another parent in hopes for a different answer, he should get the same answer from the other parent.
It is a rule in your house that your kids have to take turns washing the dishes after dinner. One of your children is complaining about it being his turn tonight, and you are so tired and do not want to deal with it. Instead of letting him pass his turn on the chore, try to be consistent and get him to wash the dishes. Remind him that he and his siblings have to take turns every night, and that it would not be fair for him to skip his turn.
Natural consequences happen without involvement from the parent. They are consequences that happen naturally as a result of behavior. If your child does not wear a jacket outside even though you told him to, he will learn he should wear a jacket because he will feel the cold air. Natural consequences help children understand the reasons for various rules their parents put in place. Parents should not use natural consequences when their children or others could be in danger or get seriously hurt.
When your 3-year-old plays with his stuffed animals, he never wants to put them back where they belong. Instead of cleaning them all up yourself, you could allow him to experience the natural consequence. Since he did not put them where they belong, he does not know where his favorite toy is and cannot find it. He may learn to pick up after himself, so he does not lose his toys.
Your 10-year-old often forgets his school assignments at home. One day, he forgets a permission slip for a field trip that you already signed. Instead of taking the permission form to him, you could allow him to learn from the natural consequence. He would not be able to join his class on the field trip, and he might learn to be more responsible with his school assignments.
Children learn from you! Children copy what they see. They watch you ALL the time to see how you handle emotions and respond to situations. They learn how to behave from you. So you need to follow the same rules you want them to follow; share with others, be nice to people who are different from you, do not break things or throw things when you are angry, and take deep breaths and practice self-soothing when your emotions are high.
Sharing is an important behavior that young children must learn. Let them see you sharing with others, such as sharing your umbrella with someone who does not have one or giving your extra bottle of water to someone at the ballpark.
You can also show your young children how to self-regulate. When you notice yourself getting frustrated, try closing your eyes and taking several deep breaths. Getting more oxygen to your lungs and slowing your breathing can help lower your heart rate and calm you. Showing your children that you can take a moment and calm yourself will help them learn to do the same thing.
In later childhood years, peer relationships become more important and romantic relationships begin to emerge. Demonstrate how close friends and romantic partners should treat each other by treating your friends and partners well and insisting that they treat you well, too. Be kind, patient, and forgiving with them; manage conflict with problem solving and without blame or name-calling; treat them with respect and make sure your child sees you being treated in the same manner, so they can have a good example of how to be in healthy relationships and partnerships.