How to discipline your child the smart and healthy way

Positive discipline for better mental and physical health and a happy childhood.

UNICEF
Позитивно възпитание за по-добро психическо и физическо здраве, за щастливо детство.
UNICEF/UN0216427/Ergen
12 January 2021

There comes a time when every parent struggles with how best to discipline their child. Whether dealing with a screaming toddler or an angry teen, it can be hard to control your temper. No parent wants to find themselves in such a situation and the bottom line is that shouting and physical violence never help.

Thankfully, there are other, more effective ways and one of them is positive discipline. We consulted Lucie Cluver, Oxford University professor of Child and Family Social Work and mother of two young boys, to explore how the approach can help parents build positive relationships with their children and teach skills like responsibility, cooperation and self-discipline.

There are no bad children, only bad behaviour.


Why positive discipline?

“Parents don't want to shout or hit their kids. We do it because we're stressed and don't see another way,” says Professor Cluver.

The evidence is clear: shouting and hitting simply do not work and can do more harm than good in the long run. Repeated shouting and hitting can even adversely impact a child’s entire life. The continued “toxic stress” it creates can lead to a host of negative outcomes like higher chances of school dropout, depression, drug use, suicide and heart disease.

“It’s like saying: here's this medicine, it's not going to help you and it's going to make you sick,” says Professor Cluver. “When we know something doesn't work, that's a pretty good reason to look for a different approach.”

Rather than punishment and what not to do, the positive discipline approach puts an emphasis on developing a healthy relationship with your child and setting expectations around behaviour. The good news for every parent is it works and here’s how you can start putting it into practice:


1. Plan 1-on-1 time

One-on-one time is important for building any good relationship and even more so with your children. “It can be 20 minutes a day. Or even 5 minutes. You can combine it with something like washing dishes together while you sing a song or chatting while you're hanging out the washing,” says Professor Cluver. “What's really important is that you focus on your child. So, you turn your TV off, you turn your phone off, you get to their level and it's you and them.”


2. Praise the positives

As parents we often focus on our children’s bad behaviour and call it out. Children may read this as a way to get your attention, perpetuating poor conduct rather than putting a stop to it.

Children thrive on praise. It makes them feel loved and special. “Watch out for when they're doing something good and praise them, even if that thing is just playing for five minutes with their sibling,” recommends Professor Cluver. “This can encourage good behaviour and reduce the need for discipline.”


3. Set clear expectations

“Telling your child exactly what you want them to do is much more effective than telling them what not to do,” says Professor Cluver. “When you ask a child to not make a mess, or to be good, they don't necessarily understand what they're required to do.” Clear instructions like “Please pick up all of your toys and put them in the box” set a clear expectation and increase the likelihood that they'll do what you’re asking.

“But it's important to set realistic expectations. Asking them to stay quiet for a whole day may not be as manageable as asking for 10 minutes of quiet time while you have a phone call,” says Professor Cluver. “You know what your child is capable of. But if you ask for the impossible, they are going to fail.”


4. Distract creatively

When your child is being difficult, distracting them with a more positive activity can be a useful strategy says Professor Cluver. “When you distract them towards something else – by changing the topic, introducing a game, leading them into another room, or going for a walk, you can successfully divert their energy towards positive behaviour.”

Timing is also crucial. Distraction is also about spotting when things are about to go wrong and taking action. Being mindful of when your child is starting to become fidgety, irritable or annoyed, or when two siblings are eyeing the same toy, can help diffuse a potential situation before it becomes one.


5. Use calm consequences

Part of growing up is learning that if you do something, something can happen as a result. Defining this for your child is a simple process that encourages better behaviour while teaching them about responsibility.

Give your child a chance to do the right thing by explaining the consequences of their bad behaviour. As an example, if you want your child to stop scribbling on the walls, you can tell them to stop or else you will end their play time. This provides them with a warning and an opportunity to change their behaviour.

If they don’t stop, follow through with the consequences calmly and without showing anger, “and give yourself credit for that – it’s not easy!” adds Professor Cluver.

If they do stop, give them lots of praise for it, recommends Professor Cluver. “What you are doing is creating a positive feedback loop for your child. Calm consequences have been shown to be effective for kids to learn about what happens when they behave badly.”

Being consistent is a key factor in positive parenting, which is why following through with the consequences is important. And so is making them realistic. “You can take a teenager's phone away for an hour but taking it away for a week might be difficult to follow through on.”


Engaging with younger children

One-on-one time can be fun – and it’s completely free! “You can copy their expressions, bang spoons against pots, or sing together,” adds Professor Cluver. “There’s amazing research showing that playing with your children boosts their brain development.”


Engaging with older children

Like younger children, teenagers seek praise and want to be thought of as good. One-on-one time is still important to them. “They love it if you dance around the room with them or engage in a conversation about their favourite singer,” says Professor Cluver. “They may not always show it, but they do. And, it's an effective way of building a relationship on their terms.”

While setting expectations, “ask them to help make some of the rules,” suggests Professor Cluver. “Sit them down and try to agree on the household dos and don'ts. They can also help decide what the consequences for unacceptable behaviour will be. Being involved in the process helps them know that you understand they're becoming their own independent beings.”


Advice for parents during the COVID-19 pandemic 

The pandemic has brought about sudden and drastic changes in the lives of families with parents directly in the middle of it. Here are some tips that can help parents get through these and any other stressful times:


1. Pause

We all know the stress when we feel our child is being difficult. At moments like these, being present and stepping back is a simple and useful tactic. Hit the “pause button”, as Professor Cluver calls it. “Take five deep breaths, slowly and carefully and you'll notice you are able to respond in a calmer, more considered way. Parents across the world say that just taking that pause is enormously helpful.”


2. Step back

Parents often forget to care for themselves, says Professor Cluver. “Take some time for yourself, such as when the kids are asleep, to do something that makes you feel happy and calm. It's really hard to do all the things right as a parent, when you haven't given yourself a break.”


3. Praise yourself

It’s easy to forget the astonishing job you do as a parent every day and you should give yourself the credit, advises Professor Cluver. “Each day, maybe while brushing your teeth, take a moment to ask: ‘What was one thing I did really well with my kids today?’ And, just know that you did something great.”

“We might be in and out of isolation, but you are absolutely not alone,” she says. “Millions of parents across the world are all trying and we're all failing sometimes. And then we're trying again. We’ll survive this together.”

> Explore more COVID-19 parenting tips