Praise and Punishment: Child Discipline

Stephanie Specht's picture
By Stephanie Specht on September 12, 2018

No matter the age of your child, getting them to do what you want them to do is not always easy. You might have one thing in mind and guess what, they have something completely different on their mind.

I sat down with Lori Dudley, Ph.D., of Carilion Children’s Behavioral Medicine, to talk about how to handle behavior problems.

What I really wanted to know: Is there one method that is the gold standard when it comes to disciplining your child?

Not exactly. The best method is to avoid having to discipline your child altogether.

“When you think about disciplining your child, first think about what behaviors you are wanting to see," Dr. Dudley explained. "Then think about other ways that you can promote those behaviors so you don’t have to resort to discipline.”

Set Expectations

So, how can you do that? Step one is letting your child know ahead of time what kind of behavior you expect out of them.

“Tell them what you expect, how you expect something to be done and let your child know why you are setting these specific expectations,” said Dr. Dudley.

For example, say, “I need to know where you are when you are driving so I can find you quickly if something happens to you.” 

It is also important to avoid making blanket statements, such as, “I expect you to get good grades.”

“You have to consider what your child is truly capable of,” explained Dr. Dudley. “Is your child capable of getting good grades? Instead, say something like, ‘I you expect you to do your best, be a hard worker and follow the rules’.”

Praise Be!

Step two? Let them know when they are being good!

“Anytime you see your child exhibiting a good behavior or a behavior that you want, praise them,” said Dr. Dudley. “For example, if your child handled a disappointment well, you could say, ‘I like how you handled that. I know that upset you, but you really handled it well’.”

When Discipline Is Needed

However, there are times that you might have to discipline your child. When that is the case, Dr. Dudley noted that the only way discipline can be effective is if you have already established a positive and supportive environment for you and your child.

That means an environment focused on positive reinforcement that promotes positive words and praises good behavior.

“If you don’t have that, your child is less likely to listen to you,” she added.

For younger children, Dr. Dudley recommends using time outs; for older kids, taking away privileges.

When it comes to time outs, make sure the area does not have toys or other distracting items and remember to also let your child know why they are in time out.

“Keep the language simple,” said Dr. Dudley. “For example, ‘You hit your brother, so now you are going to time out.’ Don’t go on and on.”

Should You Spank?

The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend spanking as a form of discipline.

“Research has shown that, while it may be effective at that particular moment to stop the child’s unwanted behavior, it does not continue to work,” explained Dr. Dudley. “It also does not fix that particular behavior or teach a new behavior.”

“There is also research that spanking can increase aggression and anger in children,” she added. “It can teach them that when you are upset, in order to get someone to do what you want to do, it is ok to hit them.”

In other words, spanking is not the best way to promote problem solving for your child.

Setting Consequences

For older children, Dr. Dudley recommends involving your child when you are deciding on what privileges to take away for certain behaviors.

For example, if you decide that, once your teen starts driving, they must let you know where they are at all times, ask them what a reasonable consequence might be if they fail to do that.

“Of course, ultimately determining that consequence is up to the parent, but research has shown that when teenagers are more involved in the consequences, they may be more likely to follow through,” explained Dr.
Dudley. “It also helps teach them negotiating skills.”

Children tend to learn best through natural consequences, so make sure the time fits the crime and that any consequences that you choose are reasonable and relatable.

For example, if your child continues to leave their bike in the front yard, do not take away a privilege such as going to a friend’s house. The more logical consequence would be to take away their bike privileges for a set amount of time.

Also, tailor the consequences to the child. For example, if you have a child who is very social, then taking away more social types of privileges, such as going to a friend’s house, could work very well.

However, if you have a child who is not very social, and you are working to help them be more social, taking away those kinds of privileges would not be much of a consequence.

Be Ready to Follow Through

In addition, think about what will work for you.

Will you really be able to stick to taking away screens for three weeks? Or not letting your teen go out for a month?

Will that be manageable for you and your family? If not, choose a consequence that everyone in your household can live with.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition…and Patience

Setting expectations and consequences is only part of the process. Your child will need to be reminded…often.

“Keep in mind that your child is learning a new behavior,” said Dr. Dudley. “Just because you told them one time how you expect them to act when you go to the grocery store does not mean that they will remember that the next time.”

Plus, you will need a hefty dose of patience as you teach a new behavior or work through a behavior problem.

This is when praising what should be done, versus what the child is doing wrong, is crucial.

“Noticing and praising the good behavior all throughout the day is really important,” said Dr. Dudley.

Pick Your Battles

The old adage is true. Don’t try to fix every behavior.

“Pick the bigger behaviors that you really want to focus on and let some of the other little ones go,” said Dr. Dudley. 

When Is It Time to Ask for Help?

If you have tried everything above and your child is still acting out, it might be time to reach out to a professional. Dr. Dudley suggested asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is it interfering with your child’s daily functions?

  • Are you having trouble getting them to school?

  • Are they having trouble at school?

  • Are they not allowed to participate in certain activities or events because they are not showing the appropriate behavior?

  • Are they getting aggressive?

  • How impactful is this behavior becoming?

If your child’s behavior is having a negative impact on their home, school and/or social environment, then it is time to ask for help.

“Start with your pediatrician or family physician first,” said Dr. Dudley. “They can help you decide what the best option is and refer you to the appropriate clinician.”

If your child is resistant to seeking help, Dr. Dudley suggests thinking about your approach.

“It is all in how it is worded,” she explained.

For example, say something like this: “It seems that the choices you are making are interfering with your social life and your academic life and I see that you are not very happy.”

Not this: “You are really misbehaving, and we are taking you to a doctor because your behavior is so bad.”

The second approach can make the child feel defensive; whereas, the first option shows that you are coming from a place of concern about their well-being and happiness.

If you have concerns about your child’s behavior, talk to your doctor today. Don’t think of it as discipline; think about it as an opportunity to help your child grow and learn.