Why is it important?

Children’s worlds are filled with very frightening and volatile emotions. The unrelenting evil witch, the dark wizard and the monsters of children’s stories give voice to the intensity of the fears that inhabit their inner worlds. A large portion of our role as parents is to help them manage rather than be overwhelmed by these emotions. There are different ways that we do this. We offer love that alleviates fear, we help our children find words to describe their emotions, we assure them that it’s okay to be both angry and loving, and we discipline them.

Discipline creates emotional safety because it offers children firm boundaries that contain them. It assures children that their hot blooded emotions can’t run rampant and do damage. Although children may fight tooth and nail to get what they want, it is very frightening for them when they succeed.  When parents are able to be firm in discipline, children learn that they cannot overpower or hurt their parents. This knowledge enables them to feel safe.

Another way that discipline creates safety is that it teaches children how to control their own behaviour and emotions. It thus offers children a sense of competence in managing themselves.

How do you do it?

The attitude

For discipline to work it needs to be done with an attitude of love. That is when you’re NOT thinking “If you do that one more time, I’m going to throw away your toys!” It is helpful to keep remembering that ….

discipline is a work of love and must never be administered in anger

You may be shaking your head and thinking about the time your child broke your cell phone despite the fact that you asked her at least seven times not to play with it. You may be thinking about the super human qualities needed to be calm whilst disciplining her. The short answer to this dilemma is that you wait until you are calm before you do any disciplining.

A good way of maintaining calm is to have a very solid set of behavioural rules and consequences for misbehaviour. Then both parents and children can feel like they have control instead of becoming overwhelmed and helpless in the face of the situation.

Formulating rules and consequences

Clarity about expected behaviour

This involves creating a set of rules about what behaviour is acceptable in your family.  One way of formulating rules is to look at areas where your child is struggling to behave appropriately.  You don’t need to look at every small behaviour that is troublesome, only the more disruptive ones. There are also the rules that teach children to deal with everyday tasks such as looking after toys, not hurting other children, being polite, doing homework etc… In order that expectations don’t become overwhelming the rule of thumb is - the younger the child, the fewer the rules.  A child of 3 may be able to handle three or four rules. A child of 8 could manage eight or nine.

Deciding on consequences

The importance of consequences is that they give children a choice. Once a child knows the consequence, they can make an informed decision whether to behave as expected or take the consequence. Choice teaches children responsibility and it also gives them a sense of control over their lives. 

Children from 5 or 6 and up can be involved in deciding what consequences should be.  Children of all ages need a very clear understanding of what is expected of them and what will happen if they refuse to comply. Consequences could be loss of television time, play dates or weekend sweets etc … It makes sense that the more important rules have greater consequences.

Time-out is a helpful consequence for very disruptive behaviour such as biting and hitting, temper tantrums, or constant interruptions. The purpose of time-out is for both you and your child to regain control of yourselves. You can send your child to their room to play or do something else they enjoy. This is an effective way for them to regain their composure and it teaches them how to gain control over themselves. There is no need to close the door and the duration of time-out should be limited.

It is vitally important that rules and consequences are consistently applied.  On a psychological level inconsistency creates insecurity and anxiety, and it stops the system from working.

Because discipline is about teaching children to make choices and control their own behaviour, it is a good idea to tell your child when they are not behaving as expected. For instance, “We’ve agreed that the way you are behaving isn’t okay. If you behave that way it means you’re choosing to give up TV tonight (etc…). Please will you think about whether you want that.” Two or three reminders before implementing the consequence are fair.  

 Other methods of discipline

 Ignore misbehaviour. Sometimes children misbehave in order to get attention and a response from you. If you calmly ignore the behaviour they can learn that it doesn’t achieve the desired effect.

Control the situation, not the child. Structure the environment to minimise possible misbehaviour. That is, don’t keep your precious things where your child can reach, play with and break them. This method is a good one for toddlers and young children.

Children are often disruptive because they are unhappy. Maybe they’re anxious, feeling left out or like no-one likes them. In these cases discipline focuses on giving them emotional support. Here are ways to offer this support:

  • Consistent daily routines help to bring a sense of order and safety. A child who feels safe is far less likely to act out in disruptive ways.
  • Plan special time with your child. You can use this time to find out what is bothering your child or what they are happy about. It could also be time for outings or a bedtime story. It is very important that this time is NEVER taken away as a consequence of misbehaviour.
  • Help your child to feel understood by using reflective listening. Let your child know that you have heard and understood them. Don't tell your child how they ought to feel, this will make them feel like they aren't accepted by you. For instance, your child tells you how a friend hurt them and how they wanted to hurt them back but were scared of being shouted at. A response that shows you have understood could be “You felt so angry with your friend you wanted to hit him and it’s sometimes hard that hitting isn’t allowed.”
  • Notice positive behaviour. If a child can build up a sense of themselves as good, they are less likely to act out.