May 24, 2018, 9:46:08 AM CDT Jan 24, 2023, 10:31:59 AM CST

Disciplining your child: What works and what doesn't

How to effectively guide your child’s behavior and emotional growth

Mother talking to daughter calmly and seriously Mother talking to daughter calmly and seriously

Parenting brings many joys, including the opportunity to foster important traits in your child such as confidence, honesty and perseverance. However, in the day to day, parenting might simply feel like being the behavior police. So what works in guiding your child's behavior – and what doesn't?

Hillary Carrington, Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Play Therapist at Children's Health℠, says parents should ensure their style of discipline is in line with their parenting goals.

"When you discipline your child, you must meet a short-term goal of correcting a behavior without interfering with long-term goals to raise an emotionally healthy child," she says. "Parents must determine if their strategies are building their child into a person who functions effectively in the world. After all, the definition of discipline is to teach."

Does spanking work?

Spanking can be a hotly debated topic among parents. You may have been spanked as a child and have different feelings about how well it worked than someone else who was spanked.

In 2016, the University of Texas published the largest study on spanking to date. It included more than 160,000 children and more than 50 years of data. The results of the study showed that children who were spanked were more likely to defy their parents, experience antisocial behavior and suffer from mental health problems. Because of this and other data, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a recommendation that parents use other forms of discipline instead of spanking.

Though spanking may feel like a quick solution to behavior problems, research suggests it is unlikely to help you meet your parenting goals. Even if your goal is to have your child be obedient, the study shows spanking may have the opposite effect. Spanking also does not promote long-term emotional health or coping skills children need as they grow into teens and adults.

Do timeouts work?

Timeouts are a commonly used consequence that parents may rely on to get their kids to calm down or to think about a behavior that needs to change. However, some parenting experts feel that timeouts leave kids alone when they need parental guidance the most.

Children may act out because they need attention or are facing big feelings like sadness and anger. Even if they push you away, they still need help working through what they feel. As a solution, some parenting experts recommend "time-ins." During a time-in, you may take the child away from wherever they are playing or sitting when the tantrum occurs. Instead of leaving them alone, you stay with them.

In this time, you can help your child identify what they are feeling by saying things like:

  • "It is frustrating when we have to leave playtime, isn't it?"
  • "It's sad when our favorite snacks are gone."

Reflecting a child's feelings is most effective when you can match the level of emotion felt by the child. Repeating back what you hear them say can help them determine what they are feeling and begin to calm down. Validating a child's emotions accurately will also build emotional safety and trust. Then, you can give them guidance on what to do the next time they feel that way, such as take deep breaths or think of all the other good snacks they like. In the time-in, your child is still removed from the situation that prompted a negative behavior, but they receive the guidance they need to better handle the situation in the future.

Though time-ins can promote positive long-term goals, Carrington says there are times when timeouts and space away from children are necessary.

"You may need to separate from your child for emotional or safety reasons," she says. "If you find yourself becoming very angry, step away while ensuring your child is safe."

Older children may also want their own space for at least a few minutes before you check in on how they feel.

Is yelling at my child okay?

Even if you intend to never yell at your children, it is likely to happen. Carrington says these are the perfect opportunities to model responsibility for one's behavior by apologizing and offering repair.

"You can say, 'I am sorry I yelled at you. I was angry and I made a mistake. If this happens again I will take deep breaths and speak when I am calmer.' This models for your child that it is okay to make mistakes and it is important to take responsibility for your actions and apologize when needed."

There may also be times that yelling is justified if it is to stop a potentially dangerous behavior like touching a hot stove or crossing a street without looking. But if you yell at your child frequently, yelling may have less impact in preventing dangerous actions.

Though yelling will happen, it doesn't model emotionally healthy responses to anger or sadness. It may not help you raise a child who can understand emotions and react appropriately.

General strategies for effective discipline

No matter what forms of discipline you decide to use, you can set yourself and your child up for success with these tips:

  • Be patient. Changing behaviors and discipline techniques is hard.
  • Communicate with your co-parent about your parenting goals and priorities.
  • Keep visual reminders of your long-term aspirations for your child where you can see them daily.
  • Be proactive by remembering your children are likely to misbehave if they face difficulties like hunger, lack of sleep, a change of routine, stress or sensory problems.
  • Establish a code word that both you and your child can use to mean that you need space or time to breathe.

Carrington says parents should also model behaviors such as self-care, apologizing and communicating about feelings. Showing how an adult uses these behaviors can help children adopt them as they age.

Lastly, Carrington recommends that parents find support. "Parenting isn't easy," she says, "but parents should remember that they’re not alone." Carrington encourages parents to read books or blogs that acknowledge the challenges that can come with parenting. However, she cautions that every child is unique. "What works for one child may not work for another, and parents should seek professional help if needed."

Learn more

Help improve your child's emotional health and well-being with help from expert counselors, psychologists and more at Children's Health.

Screen capture of family newsletter signup

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the Children's Health Family Newsletter.

Children's Health will not sell, share or rent your information to third parties. Please read our privacy policy.

Children's Health Family Newsletter

Get health tips and parenting advice from Children's Health experts sent straight to your inbox twice a month.

behavior, cognitive, mood, psychology, social skills

Childrens Health