Our goal as parents is to raise responsible, loving adults. Children need love and limits. We need to convey our unconditional love, but also do not need to tolerate disrespect.
Many people confuse discipline with punishment. Discipline is teaching acceptable behaviors. Punishment is to cause pain, loss or confinement after misbehavior. Punishment is the most negative kind of discipline, like scolding and spanking. These might decrease immediate problem behavior, but it may recur in the future. Spanking, for example, may produce aggression and resentment, and when done in anger parents might lose control.
There are ways to prevent misbehavior without punishment.
▪ Develop a close relationship with your children. Spend time with, talk and listen to your children. Say, “I love you” on a daily basis. Convey love and acceptance through eye contact and smiles, voice contact, physical contact, affirmation and individual attention.
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▪ Spend special time with each of your children daily. Schedule 10-15 minutes a day to give them your full attention. Play with them, following their lead in an activity you both enjoy.
▪ Teach your children how to express emotions by labeling them and modeling how to express them. For example, say, “You look very angry right now. Say, I am angry.” Emotions that are expressed are less likely to be acted out.
▪ Reduce stress and discomfort. Tired or hungry children tend to misbehave. Do not cram too many activities into a day. Also take care of yourself. Children need emotionally present, healthy parents. Reducing your own stress is good for your children in the long run.
▪ Establish daily routines for the morning, afternoon and evening, using visuals for smaller children. Write a schedule and post it. Include daily chores, such as setting the table. A predictable schedule brings order, consistency and a sense of control. This prevents future power struggles between you and your children.
▪ Establish clear rules and expectations. Spell out what they need to do and what appropriate behaviors look like. For example, tell your child, “I want you to play quietly while I speak on the phone,” instead of saying, “Be a good boy.”
▪ Pay attention to appropriate behaviors. Notice and praise specific good behaviors, using positive reinforcement by telling your child, “I like it when you read with your brother.” You can also use a star chart to reward good behaviors with a special snack, activity, small toy or later bedtime. Have your kids earn their use of electronics with good behavior.
If your child does misbehave, there are practical ways to provide discipline. Ignore annoying, irrelevant behaviors like whining or tantrums by turning your back or walking away. Tantrums need an audience to work. Never give in to what a child wants during a tantrum as this only reinforces the bad behavior.
▪ Give warnings before transitions. Use a kitchen timer if necessary. Give 15-, 10- and 5-minute warnings before changing an activity or carrying out a command in the schedule.
▪ Provide clear commands with consequences to follow. Make eye contact, say a command in a firm, soft voice, but do not yell. Say, “It’s time to take a bath. You can go walking or I can carry you.” But do not tag on: “OK?” Say what positive or negative consequence they will have for following or not following the command and then enforce it.
▪ Set new rules. Choose the most important misbehaviors, targeting two or three at a time. For example, no hitting, no destroying toys and no back-talk. Take action if rules are broken. Repeat back to your child the broken rule, and give a consequence. Do not yell, reason or negotiate with your child. Verbal attention also reinforces misbehavior.
Discipline will differ depending on your child’s age. If your child is 6 months or older, use verbal and nonverbal disapproval. With a stern look, say a brief “no” or “stop.” Parents can distract from a misbehavior, such as turning lights off and on, or physically removing their children from an area of misbehavior.
At 12 months, you can begin using time-outs of one minute per year of age, and when your child turns 2 begin instituting natural consequences. For example, if your child breaks a toy on purpose, do not replace it. You can also use logical consequences by removing a misused toy and introducing the “first and then strategy.” For example: “First clean your room and then you can play.”
After 5 years old, it’s time to either take away privileges or give extra chores.
Positive discipline helps us enjoy our children and prepares them for the “real world” by giving them a healthy respect for authority. If your child continues to have behavior issues, speak with your pediatrician.
Janellie R. Azaret, M.D., L.M.H.C., is a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at UHealth – the University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.