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?

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Positive Discipline: Long Term Goals

This is part four of a four part series on Positive Discipline (or positive parenting).  For the past few weeks we have focused on a few key areas of positive discipline.  So far we have discussed the importance of conducting self-evaluationsproviding structure and limits, and praise and rewards.  Please feel free to send questions in the comment form if you are looking for more specific information.

We’ve covered a lot of positive parenting strategies over the past few weeks.  We’ve talked about evaluating our own reactions, providing adequate structure and establishing limits, offering frequent praise for positive behaviors, and using rewards to help with specific behaviors.  Now it’s time to put it all together by focusing on long-term goals…”

Please stop by Mommy Moment to continue reading.

Mommy Moment

Positive Discipline: Praise, Encouragement, & Rewards

“This is part three of a four part series on Positive Discipline (or positive parenting).  For the past few weeks we have focused on a few key areas of positive discipline.  So far we have discussed the importance of conducting self-evaluations and providing structure and limits.  Please feel free to send questions in the comment form if you are looking for more specific information.

Although there are many different ways to parent children, there are three distinct parenting styles:

Authoritative parents are firm, loving, and kind.  They provide structure and set rules, but are not overly strict.  They have reasonable expectations.

Authoritarian parents are strict, controlling, and inflexible.  They expect obedience without questioning and are often insensitive to their child’s emotional needs.  They don’t often explain or even establish rules, but always apply consequences when a rule is broken.

Permissive parents are indulgent and fear imposing their will on their child’s developing personality.  They do not set rules and do not use consequences.  They even attempt to avoid any natural consequences for fear that their child might have hurt feelings.  Although they avoid structure and limits, they often become frustrated with negative or defiant behavior.”

Please stop by Mommy Moment to continue reading…


Mommy Moment

Positive Discipline: Structure and Limits

“This is part two of a four part series on Positive Discipline (or positive parenting).  Over the next four weeks I will focus on four key areas of positive discipline.  Last week I discussed the importance of conducting self-evaluations.  Please feel free to send questions in the comment form if you are looking for more specific information.

Providing structure and setting clear limits are essential to positive parenting…”

Please stop by Mommy Moment to continue reading.


Mommy Moment

Positive Discipline: Self-evaluations

“This is part one of a four part series on Positive Discipline (or positive parenting).  Over the next four weeks I will focus on four key areas of positive discipline.  Please feel free to send questions in the comment form if you are looking for more specific information. 

The word discipline has such a bad reputation, yet, by definition, it simply means to teach.  Discipline means helping your children learn to make better choices.  Discipline is a child’s first step into the world of education, provided by parents.

Discipline can be positive…”

Stop by Mommy Moment to read on.



Mommy Moment

Keep it Calm (Tips for using positive discipline)

The word discipline has such a bad reputation, yet, by definition, it simply means to teach.  Discipline means helping your children learn to make better choices.  Discipline is a child’s first step into the world of education, provided by parents.

We spend the first year of our children’s lives running to meet their every need.  We hold them constantly and provide more love than we ever even thought possible.  We put our lives on hold to make sure that we are taking good care of our babies.  Then, they become toddlers.  Suddenly we have these curious little beings on our hands that are learning to do just about everything at once, which means that they get into everything.  Cue the limit setting.

There is a lot of chatter right now about positive discipline (or positive parenting), and rightfully so.  Research shows that children who are close to their parents are more cooperative and better able to make positive choices.  Parents who focus on using positive strategies are more likely to raise confident, responsible children. There isn’t a downside.

Positive discipline means keeping your cool and providing appropriate alternatives when children test limits (which they often do).  Positive discipline does not mean being permissive.  Children need structure and limits, it helps them feel safe and learn how to make appropriate choices.

It can be difficult to stay positive all of the time.  Just as Liam has reached the difficult task of learning to share and take turns, Riley has decided testing boundaries is in order.  The redirecting is endless, and sometimes exhausting.  Now more than ever, I am reevaluating my priorities and focusing on the most important behaviors (which are different for everyone).  Below are some tips to help you keep your behavior intervention positive too:

1. Understand child development: Instead of googling “discipline or limit setting”, consider googling child development by age.  It helps a lot to know what your kids are truly capable of (both cognitively and physically), as well as what stages they might be working through. For instance, at 2 ½, Liam is just starting to move away from the stage of getting his needs met all of the time toward wanting some independence and learning to share.  For ages 0-2:  In this range, children really just need love, support, and a lot of help.  They are working on building lasting attachments and trust. For ages 3-5:  In this age range, children are working on becoming independent.  They are curious and ask many questions.  They touch everything as they learn through their senses.  They are known for testing limits and behaving in ways that get attention (good or bad.  Attention is attention, after all). One thing that’s characteristic of both age ranges is that they aren’t capable of sitting still or sitting quietly for long periods of time.  Those fancy dinners out should be done as a couple, or else you’ll just have to wait!

2. Parental checklist: Before you start handing out consequences, it can help to take a deep breath and ask yourself a few questions.  Is the behavior really negative or are you just out of patience?  Does the behavior really need correcting?  Are your expectations realistic given the ages of your children?  Are you responding more to outside stimuli than your child (i.e. negative input from a stranger at the supermarket)? Come 6pm, I find that I am generally out of patience.  No matter how wonderful the day, that last hour always feels impossible.  I work hard to keep a firm bedtime structure in place, and make changes when it stops working, to avoid over-stimulation and poor choices.  Using this mental checklist helps me keep things into perspective when the night starts to get away from me.  Pick your battles!

3. Clear, consistent rules: I’ve addressed this topic in other posts, but it’s always good to review.  Children crave structure and limits.  The best way to help them understand what is expected of them is to set clear rules and enforce them consistently. It’s best to focus on a few important rules (consider focusing on safety) during these early years, as too many rules can become overwhelming.  Use clip art to create a list and post the rules in the most frequently used room of the house. Review them regularly (they won’t always remember every rule from day to day).  It also helps to create a second list of positive behaviors to post next to the rules. When a rule is broken, you can simply review the rules and help your child choose a positive replacement behavior.

4. Get low & provide choices: Negative behaviors happen and will have to be corrected.  It’s part of being a parent and we all go through it.  Get down to your child’s level, make eye contact, and provide empathy. Children in the 0-5 range generally do not act out just to be mean or upset their parents.  Try to understand the trigger so that you can empathize with your child and provide healthy alternatives. If your child grabs a toy from another child in the sandbox (as most 2 year olds do), get low and redirect him to return that toy while helping him choose another.  Children need to feel heard and understood. Saying, “I know you feel frustrated because you have to wait a turn right now” can go a long way toward helping your child learn how to share and take turns.

5. Caught being great: Some parents resist using reward charts because they feel like rewards = bribery.  There’s a big difference.  Bribery occurs when you offer a large reward in exchange for a specific behavior (“if you stand in line and don’t move, you can have that candy bar”).  For the record, I believe that sometimes offering up a lollipop to get through a necessary Target run with cranky kids is not a bad thing.  Intermittent reward charts are used to catch your child in the act of positive behaviors (versus always being caught in the act of negative behaviors). Sticker charts, when used properly, help children recognize positive behaviors and increase their self-esteem and decision making skills.  Choose a behavior (like sharing) and reward with stickers and hugs.  Your child will thank you later.

6. Understanding actions: Young children have a hard time understanding the consequences of their actions.  In fact, they have a hard time understanding that their choices affect other people at all.  Just this morning I caught Riley yelling at Liam during a tea party because he “ruined it by putting all of the forks in the same place”.  Find teachable moments and help your child understand how other people feel. A quiet reminder that Riley does not like to be bossed around by her friends was all it took for her to run into Liam’s room and apologize.  Remember to circle back to appropriate alternatives. In this case, Riley decided that “little guys” probably aren’t ready for “fancy” tea parties and they should play dollhouse instead.

7. Modeling: Children do most of their learning by watching adults.  We all have our weaknesses.  My tendency toward anxiety can sometimes cause me to worry about climbing a little more than is necessary.  Are you a yeller by nature?  If so, you are teaching your child to yell in order to restore order.  Do you check out and isolate yourself when the going gets tough?  You might be teaching your child to hide out and avoid conflict or difficult situations. Try to be mindful of your own actions when your children are present.  Keep your temper in check, your voice tone appropriate, and make good choices.

8. Know when to walk away: It’s impossible to stay calm all of the time.  Life just doesn’t work that way.  Know when to tag out and send another parent in.  Know when to have a mandatory quiet time so that you can ALL regroup.  There’s no shame in giving yourself a moment of silence if it means you can handle the situation with a calm demeanor upon your return.  Give up on supermom; she doesn’t exist.  Just be the best mom that you can be on any given day.

Discipline doesn’t mean punishment.  Helping your child learn right from wrong and how to make positive choices will help build confidence and self-esteem.  Set some limits, stay consistent, and watch your children soar.

How do you stay positive in the face of negative behaviors?