Discipline Without Agression

I overheard a disturbing conversation a couple of weeks ago.  Two parents were discussing when it is considered “ok” to hit a child.  Just like that, in a public place, they discussed negative behaviors that would justify corporal punishment.

Those two parents are not alone.  Studies show that up to 65% of parents still use spanking as a form of discipline in this country.  The age of child most likely to be spanked?  Three.  Years.  Old.


Toddlers and preschoolers can be challenging.  If you have one, this comes as no surprise.  They test limits, get over-stimulated quickly, and have some very large meltdowns.  It’s what they do.

Managing emotions is difficult for many adults (hence my profession), so it stands to reason that it is difficult for small children as well.

It’s our job to teach our children how to manage and cope with overwhelming emotions.  It’s our job to teach them right from wrong and help them learn to make good choices.  If we don’t teach them, who will?

Here are a few things that don’t work:

  • Spanking or hitting (or whatever else you want to call it)
  • Belittling
  • Sarcasm (they might not understand the context, but they understand that it’s meant to hurt)
  • Teasing (in private or in public)
  • Making them write “I won’t hit again” over and over until their arms hurt

All of these behaviors fall under the umbrella of “bullying”.  All over this country people are fighting to put an end to bullying that occurs in schools.  Here’s the catch:  More often than not, bullying is learned at home.

If you don’t want your child to bully others, why on Earth would you bully your child?

Children who are disciplined aggressively can suffer devastating long terms consequences:  Anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and use of aggression to cope with difficult emotions. They are also more likely to hit their own children in the future.

Are you with me now?

Below are some strategies for using positive discipline to help your children learn and grow.  Because hitting is never ever ok…

1.    Structure & Limits:  I often have parents complain that their kids don’t follow any rules or listen, but when I ask them if the house rules are understood and visible the answer is always no.  Create reasonable limits and adjust by age.  Make sure your children understand those limits.  Make a copy of the house rules (using pictures for pre-readers) and place it in the kitchen.  You can’t expect them to internalize your house rules if you haven’t clearly explained them and repeated them often.  Structure your days.  Young children respond well to a predictable environment.  This doesn’t mean that you have to eat every meal at the exact same minute every single day, but try to stay on schedule as much as possible so that your kids know what comes next.

2.    Positive Reinforcement:  Positive energy is contagious (as is negative energy).  Why not go with a positive vibe?  Children respond well to praise.  They tend to want to please their parents and make good choices.  When you praise positive behaviors and choices, you empower your child to repeat those behaviors and choices.  It’s much easier to point out positives then to spend your days saying no.

3.    Relaxation Breaks:  Kids make poor choices at times.  It’s part of growing up.  That doesn’t mean that they need to lose a week of TV because of it (which, by the way, is also a punishment for you).  Reframe the concept of “time out” and call it a relaxation break.  Have a box of quiet time toys stored away for those occasions when your child needs some time alone.  Set a timer (the minute by age thing works for ages 3+).  Try not to think of the quiet time toys as a reward.  The point is that your child is taking a break and calming down.  When the timer runs out, talk to your child about what went wrong and what he should do the next time.

4.    Time Ins:  Often young children act out when they need more attention.  When the negative behaviors start, try to stop the action for a moment and come up with an activity that you can do together.  This is also known as distraction.  Sometimes young children need to shift their focus and have some 1:1 time with mom or dad.  I often talk to parents about increasing the amount of “special time” they spend with each child.  Life is busy and work, chores, and smart phones can get in the way of quality time.  Try to be aware of your child’s needs and make time for good old-fashioned play time.

5.    Toy Time Outs:  Are you kids fighting over toys or are certain toys simply too over-stimulating?  Have your child choose a special place to put the toy and just give that toy a rest for a while.  Find a quiet activity (puzzles, drawing, and play doh are always good choices) to help de-stress your child.  Regulating emotions is difficult work.

6.    Natural Consequences:  Believe it or not, often your children are so upset by the natural consequences of their actions that no further intervention is necessary (aside from maybe a little empathy).  In a calm voice, help your child understand that throwing toys might cause those toys to break, refusing to share will cause others to refuse to share, and yelling will cause people to walk away.  Be quick to help them choose a positive replacement behavior instead.  They know when their choices have negative results.  Repeatedly stating this in an angry voice will only cause children to feel worthless or “bad”.  Help them problem-solve ways to fix the situation (toys can be glued, apologies can be made, etc.) to relieve that feeling of helplessness.

7.    Rewards:  Kids like to earn stuff.  They take pride in reaching their goals.  Consider using a simple reward chart to increase positive behaviors such as sharing, completing chores, using kind words, being friendly (versus teasing), etc.  Intermittent rewards work best.  Give your child a sticker when you catch them working on that goal, and a small prize after 3 to 5 stickers (based on age).  Parents often tell me that this is bribery and they don’t want to reward their kids for things they should just have to do.  It’s hard being a kid.  It’s fun to earn rewards and it’s nice to hear praise.

8.    Parent the Personality:  All children respond well to structure and limits.  That’s a fact.  But all children are different.  You might have to tailor your intervention style to each child. Figure out what works best for each child.  While positive reinforcement tends to work across the board, time ins might work better for one while relaxation breaks work for another.  Choose what works for each child.

What strategies work for you?

About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)