When thinking of the meaning of ‘discipline’, you might be thinking about getting your child to obey the rules or respect your authority. You might be searching for punishments or consequences, hoping to find something that will get your child to comply with what feels like some basic expectations.
But what you are actually wanting, long term, isn’t just to raise a person who can follow the rules, but to raise a person who can make good decisions. You want your child to grow up to have ‘self-discipline’, and that means being able to choose ‘self-control’ even in difficult circumstances.
Certainly, we revert to punishment sometimes when we feel helpless to get our children to hear our important messages. But we also know that research shows punishment is not effective in supporting long-term change in the ways we intend, and we would likely choose differently if we only knew how.
But it’s not easy. There are so many ingredients to an effective behavior plan and, like making cookies, you can have the majority of the fundamentals in the mix, but if you’re missing an egg, or someone dropped in a lego, its hard to even realize that you had a lot of parts right.
For help with putting together a behavior plan for your special ‘cookies’, here are Ten Critical Elements to consider:
1. Have a Plan
You don’t need a therapist to tell you that it’s so much easier to make decisions when you are in a calm emotional state than when you are just recovering from the realization that your child has just risked their life or seemingly lost their mind. We don’t think clearly when we are in a heightened emotional state. Brain science supports this fact.
In addition, any parent knows the passion that kids can have for arguing consequences, and this is the last thing parents need to be using their energy on when the time comes to address unacceptable behaviors.
Having a plan resolves the need to determine how events should be handled in the moment, lessens the likelihood of arguing about consequences over time, and frees parents’ energies to address underlying issues with the child.
2. Limit Your Behavioral Goals
Having too many goals can be overwhelming to your child in the same way that having too high of personal expectations and goals for yourself is discouraging to you.
Try to set one, and no more than two, initial goals per child. Some of the most common unacceptable behaviors involve compliance and/or safety concerns. If either of these are true for your child, you would likely do well to start there.
Don’t be afraid to set different goals for different kids, and do set goals for all kids:
This can be a great opportunity to teach or remind children that each person struggles with some sort of problem, even though their’s might be different from another’s. Treat each plan as a support system to help kids overcome whatever their particular challenges are.
3. Define Each Expectation in Very Concrete Terms
The more we know about the outcomes related to our choices, the better we are at making helpful decisions.
The same is true for your children. If a teenager is deciding whether to come home by curfew, they will need to know whether 10:00 actually means 10:00, 10:01, or 10:15. They will, smartly, adjust their actions based on this important information, in order to maximize their benefits and minimize their risk of negative consequences.
Children must know – clearly – what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior if they are to make informed decisions. For this reason, make sure to clearly define your expectations.
Suppose that safety is a concern. You might define safety as not harming themselves, not harming others, being safe online, maintaining curfew, accurately informing parents of their whereabouts, or any combination of these.
Likewise, internet safety might include things like not accepting unknown friends, not posting inaccurate information such as a false age, not posting inappropriate pictures that show specific body parts, allowing parents access to passwords, etc.
Compliance also needs to be defined in concrete terms. You will want to inform your child of details like how many warnings they will get (a rule of thumb tends to be providing a single warning) and/or how much time they will have to comply.
Regardless of what definitions you establish, be very clear on your definitions as it is not fair to change them after the fact; kids need to know clearly where the boundaries are. Furthermore, kids have less anxiety when they can depend on follow-through and consistency, and aren’t uncertain about what to expect.
Thinking about behaviors and acting on behaviors are two different things:
Please remember that, if harming themselves or others is a concern, it is very important to make the explicit distinction that talking to someone about these feelings is okay and is within the boundaries of maintaining safety – it is only acting on these thoughts that is not.
4. Use Consequences, Not Punishments
Research has shown over and over that punishments do not produce longterm positive behavioral changes and, in fact, contribute to promoting aggression and power-struggles instead.
But what are consequences, if not punishments?
Consequences and punishments can seem similar in that they are attempts to address behaviors, but there are significant differences in their intents, and their outcomes.
Punishments are intended to address unacceptable behaviors by making children feel bad, and they do. Consequences are intended to emphasize choices and demonstrate that decisions, whether good or bad, impact outcomes. They teach children to consider future goals when making decisions, and offer hope that they can always improve and do better.
To establish consequences for your children, start by pairing your expected behavior with a privilege that they already generally expect. This might be using their phone, having the freedom to leave with friends, or being able to hang out alone in their room. Whatever you choose, make sure it is something that your child will be motivated by and that it’s available to then on a regular basis.
Once you have chosen an appropriate privilege to pair your expectation with, the consequences of your child’s choice will look roughly like this:
Your child chooses to meet the expectation -> your child maintains access to their privilege
Your child chooses not meet the expectation -> your child will not have access to the privilege until the expectation is met (for a certain amount of time – see #5).
In other words, when your child meets your expectations, you meet theirs (in contrast to your child having these benefits regardless of their behaviors).
Avoid pairing two unrelated behavior expectations with one privilege:
This can result in a problem when a child struggles with one expectation, and then loses the incentive to continue maintaining the other behavioral expectation that they may have otherwise succeeded with.
Don’t use healthy activities as privileges:
I don’t advise using regularly scheduled sports or arts activities as privileges, as these healthy outlets will promote more positive behaviors overall. They also have many benefits for your child’s mental health.
5. Determine Reasonable Timeframes
Grounding kids for a month, or even a week can be much, much more ineffective than you might think. In fact, implementing consequences for an unreasonably long time generally results in one of two scenarios (or both):
(a) Your child’s behavior continues and maybe even gets worse as they think, “My whole life (car keys, phone, time with friends, etc.) is over, so what’s the point?” or/and
(b) You aren’t able to follow through on implementing the consequences because it’s getting to be too much of a punishment for you!
On the other hand, implementing consequences for a short time may be much, much more effective than you might think.
Just like adults, kids need to be able to picture and believe in the possibility of success in order to keep trying. We all give up if we don’t see hope of changing an outcome in a reasonable timeframe.
The difference between adults and non-adults is, kids and teens aren’t able to imagine into the future as far as adults are able to, and their goals need to be attainable in their own minds, not in the minds of their parents.
For fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen year olds, two or three days is generally an appropriate timeframe. For younger children closer to nine or ten, as little as one or two hours without their privilege may be sufficient.
6. Think of Consequences as Resets
If our goal is to get our children back on track as soon as possible (which of course it is), then our systems need to encourage our children to stop their unacceptable behaviors as soon as possible. This is accomplished best when children are able to understand that compliant behaviors will get them faster results. (We all love faster results!)
For that reason, it is very important to not use additive measures of time. You know what I’m talking about: When we say things like, “Ok you want to cuss at me again, well that’s two more hours for you!… What’s that I hear?… Well, there’s two more!” That is using additive measures of time, and that can surely lead to a child losing privileges far into the future. Which then leads to your child not caring much about good behaviors anymore.
Instead of adding time for ongoing unacceptable behaviors, you can simply wait to start the time counting towards them re-earning their privilege, or start their time over if it had been started.
In other words, start the time over from the time the child decides to comply. Again, our goal is to encourage our children to be compliant as soon as possible, in order to re-earn their privileges as soon as possible.
Encourage additional commitment from a child by having them start a timer themselves:
A simple way to increase effectiveness for shorter time-frames is have kids start a timer themselves, when they are ready to comply. This encourages additional commitment from the child and ownership of their efforts.
7. Consider Enforceability
This is the most challenging part. And every parent gets tripped up here at some point.
It’s important to consider all potential barriers that might run into when implementing your plan, so you’re not finding yourself in a predicament where, whoops, you can’t enforce what you just said.
Having a skilled therapist can be especially helpful with this part, but you might find it helpful to brainstorm with others close to you too.
For instance, if the expectation is for your child to turn in all of their assignments, but they say their latest assignment is not showing up on the portal because that teacher of theirs forgot to put it in? What do you?
What if the earned privilege is having use of their phone, but your child refuses to hand it over? Do you wait for the battery to die for them to give it to you (if you thought enough in advance to keep the charger)? Would you disengage the phone by updating it to lost mode? Could you have your phone carrier temporarily disable their service (how much would this cost anyway)?
No matter what plan you decide on, you will need to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that your plan is enforceable. You’ll also want to inform your child of any extended plans, too, should they be necessary.
Again, make sure to problem-solve potential issues before implementing anything!
Make a commitment to yourself to never, ever force compliance:
If a kid refuses to relinquish a privilege, wait until either the child decides to comply, or there is a time when you can confiscate an item without a power struggle (such as when the kid goes to school).
Getting in power struggles will only take away a child’s need for autonomy, as well as the child’s ownership of their behaviors. Studies also show that power struggles can foster – and even biologically trigger, at times – aggression.
Conversely, waiting and responding neutrally and matter-of-factly will model emotional regulation skills and non-reactivity. In other words, it will model the ‘self-discipline’ that you are working to teach them.
The one circumstance for adding additional time:
Not following the rules of the overall behavior structure is the one and only time I might recommend implementing an additive approach to your timeframe.
If used, you would only add an increment of the time that you normally use (adding a day to three days, or fifteen minutes to an hour, for instance).
Make sure to inform your child of the additional time involved in their decision-making. For example, “You have 10 minutes to relinquish your phone before you will need 4 days of compliance to earn your privilege back, instead of three.”
And then, if the time is added, do not continue adding beyond that time. Simply start the full time when the child begins complying.
Enforce consequences with a neutral, non-judgmental tone:
When angry or controlling tones are used, consequences easily come off as punishments, and have a much different effect. Angry or controlling tones are likely to stir resistance and defensiveness, and sabotage the personal accountability that we are working to cultivate. Consequences are best enforced with neutral, non-judgmental tones.
8. Listen With the Intention of Understanding
With the focus off of establishing consequences, you will be able to hear your child’s explanation for their behavior in a way that isn’t filtering for information to to determine how they should be disciplined.
Instead, you will have the opportunity to listen for how you might be able to help them manage their needs and feelings in a way that doesn’t cause them the same consequences in the future. Did they hit their brother because they were so angry and hurt by what their brother said? Did they need their brother to understand how upset they were? How might they get their brother to understand without hitting him?
The overall goal is this: We want to send the message, time and time again, that while some behaviors are acceptable and others are not acceptable, the child is always accepted. While the behaviors may be unwanted, the child is always lovable.
As positive experiences build with this, your child will learn that they do not have to frame their explanations in a way to argue their consequences (since that won’t work), and they will tell more and more of their true experiences as they sense that their feelings will be understood and not judged.
Your child’s sense of being heard and understood in these situations will be nothing less than transformational over time. It is this sense of love and acceptance that will ultimately shift your child’s extrinsic motivations (behavior choices based on external consequences) into intrinsic ones, as they learn the joy of having increased confidence in themselves and their ability to navigate challenging situations.
Do your best to listen for the underlying feelings and desires that your child is trying to express and achieve:
Some common feelings include feeling irritated, unloved, rejected, overwhelmed, shameful, picked on, jealous, offended, worthless, fearful, stressed, anxious, frustrated, helpless, or betrayed.
Examples of desires might include feeling valued, belonging, having autonomy, having fun, or being heard.
In depth discussions don’t have to have to happen right away:
Wait until emotions have de-escalated before engaging in the meaningful stuff.
If your child is more shy and introverted:
You might try talking while engaging in an activity that allows for movement while you are talking.
And, you might need to imagine what the feelings and desires underlying their unacceptable behaviors are, and you might need to check in about these.
9. Be Consistent
You know what a baby does when you don’t meet their needs, right? Right. They cry louder … and louder … and louder. And when you first implement behavior structures it might get a little…well…
If you are able to ignore the noise, however, and stick to the structure, this will subside. If you don’t stick to it and give in when the noise reaches, say, 90 decibels…well then… your child will make a mental note of where to start to get what they want the next time.
If you simply don’t follow through, due to the fact that truly life is busy, they will be making a mental note of that as well.
But the other thing that they will take mental note of?… If you are consistent! And when they make that mental note… maaan, will you feel it! You might not feel it till the shock wears off, but you will feel it! Things become so much easier when that happens!
10. Remember That Self Worth Matters
Remember, when focusing on punishing our kids, we send the message that they are not measuring up and are not good. By focusing more on privileges that our children are able to earn (or re-earn), we send the message that our children are capable and that we notice and value their efforts.
When kids are struggling with behaviors, they generally don’t feel good about themselves to begin with. They might be feeling insecure or anxious about one thing or another and are struggling in some way; feelings of inadequacy and shame can contribute significantly to acting-out behaviors.
While the approach, outlined here, focuses on incentive structures that still result in consequences for negative behaviors, it also highlights successes and provides positive reinforcements that encourage repetitions of positive behaviors.
Kids who are struggling behaviorally need this type of positive encouragement more than ever. Approaches that focus on punishing and making them feel bad would only compound existing problems.
This approach provides positive momentum overall. Every time your child engages with their earned privilege, it is a subconscious reminder that they are doing well and are capable of making positive choices.
The increase in self-esteem and confidence that they experience from achieving their goals becomes the intrinsic motivation they use to make positive decisions moving forward.
Putting it All Together
Sometimes when I work with couples and families, parents will debate whether they should focus on addressing behaviors through consequences or whether they should focus on teaching children through showing understanding and maintaining a strong bond. My answer is that it isn’t one or the other; kids desperately need both.
When it comes to disciplining kids, each child is a little different. It’s like trying to make a special cookie dough to match the tastes of each one, but without being provided the recipe.
We know we need flour (the foundation of healthy relationships) and we need sugar (a little bit of temptational behavior structure). But we still have to adjust how much of each one we need for each particular child, and we still have to determine what brands of ingredients each child digests best.
And it doesn’t take much to throw it all off.
You might have needed guidance on a lot of these ingredients, or you may have already discovered a lot of these and were only missing a few. Either way, I hope this helps with your recipes.