How To Discipline Your Child Effectively

Medically reviewed by Katrice Hollins, LCSW, LICSW
Updated May 6, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

There may not be one answer to how to discipline a child effectively. Every parent and child can be different, and what works for one may not work for another. However, a few evidence-based general principles may guide you as you develop a discipline strategy that’s right for your family. 

Disciplining your child

Rules are often an inescapable part of life, shaping appropriate behavior for both children and adults. Many of us follow the rules to get along in society, from the laws to the unwritten rules of social etiquette. A well-disciplined person, exhibiting self discipline and self control, may know how to follow them and learn from their mistakes.

Child discipline serves as a learning tool, and parents teach children how to function effectively in society. By setting consistent rules and providing positive discipline, we encourage good behaviour and help children understand the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. In doing so, we can guide them towards becoming successful, well-adjusted adults with a strong parent child relationship.

Styles of parenting

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Parenting can be a challenge

Child discipline is not an exact science. Every parent and family may have their own style and approach. However, most psychologists agree that there are four primary parenting styles. While there is not necessarily a best way to discipline, a perrson’s parenting type tends to influence the way a parent disciplines their children. 

Permissive parenting 

Permissive parenting is characterized by low demands and high responsiveness, with parents often exhibiting a good relationship with their kids. These parents tend to be nurturing and encourage good behaviour, but provide few basic rules and guidelines. While they may set realistic expectations, their approach to discipline often involves more lenient consequences, such as time outs or verbal warnings. These parents often fail to set clear limits. 

As a result, permissive parents may seem more like friends to their children, especially to younger children. While this may seem good in some ways, permissive parenting may confuse children as they might struggle to understand the boundaries between acceptable and bad behavior.

Uninvolved parenting 

Uninvolved parenting, often referred to as neglectful or distant parenting, is a style in which parents are entirely hands-off. These parents may not set a good example to promote positive behaviour, potentially hindering the child's brain development and learning. They may be absent from the child's life or only provide necessities for survival, lacking consistent discipline and positive behaviour reinforcement. This approach may lead to older children and adolescents feeling disconnected and possibly misbehaving due to the absence of guidance and support. 

Authoritarian parenting 

Authoritarian parenting is characterized by high demands and low responsiveness, with parents often setting strict expectations for their children's behavior. Parents using this style may have very high expectations of their children, yet provide little feedback to help the child learn and improve. Mistakes tend to be punished harshly, sometimes involving physical punishment or verbal abuse. Physical punishment or other harsh discipline strategies may contribute to children misbehaving in response to the pressure. This approach often overlooks the importance of nurturing good behaviors and exploring other forms of discipline that foster a more positive learning environment.

If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7.

Authoritative parenting 

Authoritative parenting strikes a balance between authoritarian and permissive styles, effectively addressing situations when children misbehave. There are rules and expectations, but authoritative parents also engage in a dialogue about the reasoning behind these rules. They set boundaries and implement consequences for misbehavior, while also giving their children some independence and choices of their own. This balanced approach fosters a respectful and supportive environment, which helps children understand the importance of abiding by rules and making responsible decisions.

While most parents employ a combination of parenting styles depending on the situation, experts consider some types healthier. For example, studies have shown that children raised by authoritative parents have higher self-esteem and quality of life.

Methods of discipline

Parents may utilize several methods of discipline to better their child’s behavior. 

Punishment or negative reinforcement

Punishment is the imposition of an undesirable outcome in response to a specific behavior. Examples may include spanking or scolding. Punishment may teach a child that certain behaviors have consequences. However, it may also have detrimental effects on a child’s mental health in the short and long term. 

Negative reinforcement removes an unpleasant condition after the desired behavior is displayed. For instance, you might tell your children that they cannot play video games until their room is cleaned. This method of discipline is often used to reinforce the behaviors you want to see. However, punishing very young children, like those who are one year of age or around that age group, may result in children fearing caregivers rather than trusting them, since they may be too young to understand why they are being punished.

Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is a discipline that rewards good behavior to encourage future good behavior. This process can be done with verbal praise, tangible rewards, or by providing opportunities for the child to engage in their favorite activities. 

Although positive reinforcement may not come to mind when thinking of discipline, research has shown that it fosters appropriate behaviors and skills in children.

Grounding

Grounding can mean removing privileges from your child if they break the rules. These privileges may be something they enjoy. For example, if your child is playing too many video games and not studying enough, taking away their gaming privileges could be a form of grounding. This can also be a vicarious punishment. The child's siblings may also avoid playing too many video games to avoid suffering the same punishment.

Natural consequences for breaking rules

At times, punishment may be natural. If your child runs without watching where they are going and then trips over something, it may be considered a natural consequence. After they experience natural consequences, it can be beneficial to discuss these with your child to reinforce the lesson, ideally helping the child be more careful next time. 

Spanking

Spanking, or any other form of corporal punishment, is often debated as a discipline. However, the science of corporal punishment is settled.

Virtually without exception, studies have shown that corporal punishment is associated with higher levels of aggression, among other adverse outcomes. Some studies indicate that it can cause childhood trauma.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Helping your child figure out their values

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As children grow, parents often work with them to figure out their values. Effective positive discipline techniques may be valuable in this process. Communicating your expectations and consistently following through with consequences may help your children understand what you value and don’t.

Your children may learn from examples, and seeing you setting solid boundaries and showing empathy at the same time may be a valuable lesson. 

An effective discipline plan

An effective discipline plan may be consistent and predictable but also fair. You may explain to your child why specific actions are wrong and why others deserve rewards.

You might also ensure that your discipline plan grows with your children and evolves as they age. The expected behaviors of a baby tend to be different for teenagers. For instance, if a teenager pulls your hair, some discipline may be appropriate, while disciplining a baby for the same thing may not be. As children age, they often begin to understand the difference between right and wrong. They also tend to develop more autonomy, meaning they can have more opportunities to make their own decisions (with guidance). 

It may feel challenging to find the right discipline plan for your family. Not only does every child respond differently to various techniques, but some children also have conditions that can make it difficult to distinguish right from wrong. Consider tailoring your discipline plan to work best for your child and family. 

When emotions overwhelm you, try to remain calm

You may struggle to discipline your child if your emotions start to take control. For example, your child might do something that makes you upset, and you get the urge to yell or cry. It can be normal to feel this way. If you find yourself in this position, consider taking a break and some deep breaths before responding to the situation. 

Allow yourself some time to cool down before you respond to your child. If you react out of anger in the heat of the moment, you may regret your behavior later. When you’re ready to speak to your child, consider using a neutral and soft tone. Studies have shown that people tend to remember words better when they are spoken to in a neutral tone.

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Parenting can be a challenge

Seek out support

Determining the best discipline plan for your child and family can be difficult. However, you’re not alone. 

Many parents doubt whether their discipline strategies are fair or effective. You may seek professional advice if you feel as if disciplining your child is too challenging. Raising a child can take a village, and parents sometimes need help. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to improve child, parent, and family outcomes. 

You might consider trying online therapy if you’re busy with family life. With online treatment methods, you can meet with licensed therapists from wherever is most convenient and comfortable for you. Additionally, research indicates that online therapy is as effective as in-person therapy.

If you’re interested in trying professional online therapy, you might sign up for a platform such as BetterHelp, which offers a database of online therapists specializing in various subjects. 

Takeaway

Discipline can play an essential role in the learning process for children. While there are a variety of parenting styles that can impact how we discipline our children, the authoritative style is generally considered by experts to be the most effective. 

Consider staying fair and consistent and allow your discipline plan to evolve as your children grow. By setting clear expectations and consistently following through, you may better equip your child to thrive. 

If you’re feeling alone and unsure, consider taking the first step in getting help by reaching out to a professional counselor. 

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