Healthy Discipline Strategies: Positive Alternatives to Punishment

Dad disciplining child.

Heathy Discipline Strategies

When you hear the word “discipline,” what springs to mind? If you’re like a lot of people, you think of punishment. In truth, discipline simply means guidance, teaching someone to follow the rules, and there are healthier ways to manage this with your children than by punishing them. Here, we offer some tips to help you find healthy strategies for discipline that will help you guide your children to a healthy adulthood.

Punishment Vs. Positive Reinforcement

Traditionally, discipline has involved punishments like spanking, grounding, angry words, and taking away belongings or privileges. Child development experts now agree that physical punishment can have long-term negative effects on a child’s behavior and well-being, but what about the other types of punishment? Experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, now recommend using positive discipline to keep children safe, teach them to manage their own behavior, and promote healthy development.

What is Positive Discipline?

Positive discipline focuses on developing a healthy relationship with your child, setting expectations around behavior. This approach can help parents teach skills like cooperation, responsibility, and self-discipline, while building and maintaining positive relationships between parents and children.

Employing Positive Discipline Strategies

  • Nurture your relationship with your child. Plan one on one time with your child, giving your complete focus, without being distracted by anything like the television or your phone. It’s easy to connect with little children, simply by playing with them and reading to them. With older kids and teens, it’s a little more complicated, but find ways to connect by taking an interest in what they’re doing and the thing they enjoy.
  • Give positive reinforcement. It’s been said that you should try to “catch them being good.” Notice when your children live up to expectations, follow the rules, take initiative, or do something thoughtful, and take the time to praise them. Offer incentives for good behavior, rather than threatening punishment for bad behavior. When children are praised, they feel loved and special; when rewards are offered for doing the right thing, they’re less likely to misbehave.
  • Make sure your expectations are clear. It’s more effective to tell children what you want them to do, rather than telling them what you don’t want to do. Saying, “pick up your toys and put them away in the toy box,” for example, is much clearer than saying “don’t make a mess.” Be realistic about what you expect out of kids, and make sure your expectations are age appropriate and within the child’s capability. If you have older kids or teens, let them be involved in setting house rules and expectations, so that you will all be on the same page.
  • Learn the art of redirection. Sometimes, the easiest way to stop misbehavior is to distract the child with a different, positive activity. Change the subject, introduce a game, take the child to another room, or go for a walk. Employ this type of distraction before things go wrong, when you see that’s the direction they’re heading. Additionally, remember that misbehavior is sometimes simply the result of a child exploring the world in a way that’s developmentally appropriate, but situationally inappropriate. Redirecting to another way to explore can prevent an unsafe, messy, or embarrassing situation.
  • Understand how to employ consequences. Sometimes, clear expectations, incentives, and positive reinforcement work beautifully. When they don’t consequences sometimes need to come into play. Part of growing up is learning that there are consequences for our actions, and helping your children learn this in a calm, safe space can help encourage better behavior and teach them about responsibility. If your children are misbehaving, explain the consequences if the bad behavior does not stop. Give them a warning and the opportunity to amend their behavior. If they don’t stop what they’re doing, apply the consequence, calmly, without anger. If they do stop, give plenty of praise. When you do use consequences, use logical or natural consequences. Here’s an example of a logical consequence: if a child won’t eat dinner, that child cannot have dessert. Here’s a natural consequence: if a child dumps water on the floor, the child needs to help clean up the water. No anger needs to be involved in this scenario, and you can even use it as an exercise in problem solving, identifying the problem and asking your child to help you figure out how to solve it.
  • Use time out wisely. Time-outs can be effective, but only if they’re used correctly. Make sure your kids have had plenty of positive time with you, and use time outs as a way to regulate emotions. Removing a child from a situation in which he or she is misbehaving gives the child an opportunity to self-regulate, appropriately express emotions, and consider how to make different choices next time. One meaningful way to do this is with a “time-in,” in which the parent sits with the child and helps in the calming process. You might try deep breathing together, sit quietly, or give your child a hug. The idea is to use the quiet space to help your child self-regulate emotions, with your support.

How to Keep from Losing Your Cool

  • Take some deep breaths. You can be present but still step back, pause, and take some deep breaths, so that you can respond in a calmer, more considered way.
  • Give yourself a time out. If you feel like you’re about to lose control, step away from the situation. You can even use this as an opportunity to model self-regulation, by telling your children calmly that you need five minutes to yourself, so that you can stop feeling overwhelmed.
  • Practice self-care. Sometimes, we get angry at our kids because we feel pushed past our limits. Try to keep yourself from getting to that point by doing things you enjoy, managing your stress, and being realistic about the responsibilities you manage. Take some time to take care of yourself, and you can come back to your parenting refreshed and more relaxed, which can help you have more patience.

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