Timeouts And More: Effective Discipline Techniques

Andrea Evans
May 14, 2009

A key part of childhood and growing up is pushing boundaries and testing limits. A key part of parenting is teaching your children how to respect the boundaries and limits that you have set for them. Reconciling these goals can sometimes seem like an episode of Mission Impossible. The harder you try to enforce limits, the harder your child tries to break them. Even an issue as small as putting toys away can turn into a battle of wills. No one, neither parent nor child, enjoys these contests, particularly when they result in yelling and tears. So, what can you do to manage, or perhaps even, avoid these conflicts?  

The first, and probably most important, thing to realize is that no two children and no two families are alike. The techniques that you may be familiar with from your own childhood may not work with your children. To be truly effective, you have to consider your little one's temperament, and your own for that matter. Some children go to their time-out chairs and return remorseful and ready to cooperate; others return with a nonchalance, and perhaps even an "attitude" that reveals that they did not learn anything at all from the experience. You must be patient and let your child's behavior help you come up with a game plan that will work for your family.   

Any successful game plan should start with positive reinforcement.  After all, it is much easier to reward positive behavior than it is to correct inappropriate behavior. The most effective way to reinforce good behavior is by praising the positive things that your child does, particularly when she makes a choice to do something positive instead of negative. Try to be specific in your praise so that your child understands exactly what she did right. You might say, for example, "I am really happy that you shared your plane with your sister instead of keeping it all to yourself. Your sister is very happy too. What a wonderful thing you did!" Let your child know that sharing makes everyone feel better. 

You can even try a reward system to encourage good behavior.  Most preschoolers will do almost anything for stars, stickers, or other treats, and it really gives them a sense of accomplishment; a sense that they made a good decision for themselves.  

In addition to positive reinforcement, there are other proactive steps that you can take to avoid disciplinary battles.   

  • Set reasonable limits and explain them to your child. You have to let your children know what your expectations are.  After all, most little ones do not instinctively know that they ought not run around in a restaurant the way they do in a park. You have to tell them that different situations call for different types of behavior.  
  • Plan ahead. Decide what type of discipline you are going to impose before you are confronted with a difficult situation and be ready to execute it. Make sure that all caregivers use the same method and do so consistently.  Children need predictability. If they understand that throwing toys at their siblings will result in the toy being taken away, then it will be easier to encourage them to modify their behavior.  
  • Be firm. Try to avoid the repeated warning syndrome. You end up giving your child so many warnings that she does not really think that any discipline will be imposed and acts accordingly (i.e., continues the disruptive behavior). Also avoid giving in to the whining and crying. When you give in, then your child learns that she can escape the consequences of her actions by wearing you down.  Don't let that happen. Four-year-olds can be tough, but you have to be tougher.

Even the best game plan will not always work and you need to be prepared to impose some type of discipline.  What's best?  As explained above, it depends on your child and what best motivates her to act according to your expectations.  Here are some of the most common techniques -- a description of what they are and how to try them at home. 

Time-outs. Time-outs, where you literally and physically remove your child from the disruptive situation, provide your child an opportunity to calm down and reflect on the situation. Time-outs can work with children as young as 18 months old and older kids respond well too. To make a time-out work, you must pick a place in your home that is somewhat isolated (the last thing you want is for a sibling to be able to taunt your child while she is in time-out mode) and designate it the "time-out" chair or location. Experts suggest that you put your child in time-out for one minute per year of age. Thus, a three-year-old gets a three-minute time-out and a four-year-old would get a four-minute time-out, etc.  When your child has completed her time in the time-out space, you should get down to her level, explain what was inappropriate about her conduct, and ask for an apology or for a promise that she will not engage in the troubling behavior again. 

Natural or logical consequences. Natural consequences simply means that you let the situation play out without intervention -- you let the consequence be the lesson. For instance, if your child leaves a special toy outside in the rain, you let her see for herself how the rain might damage it and then trust that the next time she will bring her toys inside. Logical consequences means that you explain to your child what the consequence of her action will be and then follow through with that consequence consistently.  For example, you might say, "if you do not clean up your toys, then I will clean up, but I will also take away your favorite doll for two days." And then, if your child does not pick up her toys, you must follow through and remove that doll. It is best to connect the activity and the consequence directly so that your child better understands cause and effect. The goal of natural and logical consequences is that it will encourage your child to think about the consequence of her behavior and begin to make smart decisions about her behavior on her own. 

Withholding privileges. Every child has a favorite toy, game, or activity. Sometimes taking away that activity can be the most effective means of encouraging the type of behavior that you expect. Again, you must be consistent and you must follow through. If you threaten to take away the Nintendo for two days, then you must do it so that your child understands that you are serious. 

Redirecting. Sometimes, particularly with younger children, the child just needs to be guided in a different direction. If, for example, your little one is sparring with her sibling over a new toy, it may be simple enough to offer her a new toy to play with. Redirecting can work well with older children too. If they are misbehaving while doing one activity, try to stop the activity and offer them something else to do. 

Extinction. In the discipline context, the term "extinction" means to cease paying attention to your child when she engages in disruptive behavior. If your child is in the middle of a tantrum, for example, you can try to just ignore it. Sometimes children are just seeking your attention and if they realize that they are not going to get it by screaming and crying, they may just stop the screaming. 

Critical to any effective method of discipline is considering the true purpose of it. Discipline is not simply to punish your child (though you may feel that punishment is warranted). In fact, discipline is derived from the word disciple, which has more to do with teaching than punishing. Think of discipline as giving your child instructions for becoming a self-sufficient and functioning adult.  It might be challenging in the short run, but in the long run, everyone will benefit. 

From the Parents

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