Before I opened my play therapy practice, I worked as an in-home child and family therapist who helped parents to improve parenting skills so that their children could develop optimally. One of the most common complaints I received from parents was that the child “just won’t listen.” Even more, these parents were certain that there were no solutions to their child’s behaviors and that they were stuck for life just dealing with these negative behaviors.
They believed that their child was just too young to understand a time out, too stubborn to care about consequences, or incapable because their child had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder or some other disorder that the child’s behaviors could be blamed on. In 100% of the cases I worked with, the parents were astonished when they were able to implement a discipline technique that actually worked for their child. If you find yourself with any of these excuses, or something similar, take a look at the following steps that I recommend for effectively disciplining your child.
Step 1: Create Rules
Create a short list of rules that focuses on what you expect your child to do, not what you want them not to do. For example, Use Kind Words or Use Nice Touches versus No Name-Calling and No Hitting. Notice that in the first set of rules, the child is encouraged to act in positive ways, versus being discouraged from acting in negative ways in the second set of rules. Research indicates that children are more likely to comply with rules that suggest that they increase behaviors, versus decrease behaviors.
Step 2: Post the Rules
Write the rules in terms that a child can understand and then accompany each rule with a picture that demonstrates the rule in action. For example, the rule Use Nice Touches can be accompanied by a picture of children holding hands or a child and parent hugging. Be sure to include a child in the pictures, as children associate with other children better than they do with adults.Once the rules list is complete, post the list at the child’s eye-level in a common location in your home or classroom. Make sure to limit the rules on the list to no more than 4 for toddlers and no more than 6 for preschoolers.
Step 3: Inform the Child of the Rules
Plan a family or classroom meeting to sit down with the child to explain what each rule means. Demonstrate what each rule means by acting the rule out with the child, or in front of the child. For preschool-aged and older children, ask if the child has questions. For younger children, this is not necessary or effective. A child this age is going to need repeated reminders of the rules because he will not remember the details of this meeting.
Step 4: Establish a Consequence
Before a rule is ever broken, and at least one of them will be broken at least once, think about what the consequence will be for broken rules. Select the consequence based on your child, his or her interests, and whether you think your child has the capacity to understand cause and effect. Also, try to think about what a natural consequence would be for the rules that you have set.
For children under two, the best approach is to redirect the child from the behavior toward a more appropriate behavior. For children older than two, other options are possible. You may elect to take away a treasured item or place the child in time out, or another option that represents a natural consequence for the rules on the rules list.
When selecting to take a treasured item away, establish the time frame that you will remove it from the child’s possession (1 hour, for the rest of the day, or 24 hours). Do not take an item away for more than 24 hours, as this method will lose its effectiveness beyond this 24 hour time frame. For toddlers, I encourage parents to only take away an item for 1 hour, because the child will completely forget the lesson if the item is returned an entire day later. When selecting to give a time out, select a specific space in the home that will act as a time out location. This location should not be in the child’s room and should be located in a place in the home that is convenient for the parent and child to get to in the case that a time out is necessary.
Step 5: Implement the Consequence
When you notice that your child has broken a rule, let the child know that he broke the rule. Say to your child, “You hit me. You did not use nice touches.” Then, you can choose to give one warning or implement the consequence that you have selected. For younger children, a warning is helpful. For older children, if the problem is a consistent problem, then implementing the consequence may be the best option.
For children under two, follow this statement by grabbing the child’s hands and demonstrating how to use nice touches on yourself and your child.
Taking away a Possession
For older children, follow this up by saying, “Because you hit me, you will lose your__________” and then state whatever the item was that you said you were going to take away from the child. IThen, take away the item. If the child starts to cry, say “I felt sad when you hit me. Now you feel sad that I took ______ away. Let’s try to use nice touches next time so that neither you nor I need to feel sad.” No matter how much your child screams, cries, or promises to “be good,” do not return the item. Only return the item when it has been taken away for the amount of time that you established when initially selecting the method.
Before I go into detail about how to effectively run a time out, I want to share some disclaimers about time outs. When I use the words Time Out, I mean the kind in which a child is placed in a corner or a designated space where he or she is expected to sit quietly for a few moments (the duration of which is decided by the adult running the time out) until he or she is released by the adult.
#1: Time Out isn’t for Everyone
If you have a child who is shy and likes to be left alone, then time outs aren’t a great way of disciplining if you are hoping for your child to feel “punished” by this discipline technique. A child who likes to be by herself will enjoy a time out, and might even act out so that she can receive the time out if she doesn’t have the skill to give herself a rest or a break when things are stressing her out.
While this means that using time out as a “punishment” won’t work, it also means that you have a child who can benefit from a time out of a different kind in which you allow her to take a break from stressors to cool down when you notice that she is getting worked up and a behavior is probable. Some researchers suggest that using a “time out” like this is a much better option because it teaches children how to take a break before issues arise, instead of being forced into a break after the problem has occurred (Child ADHD Multimodal Program: An Empirically Supported Intervention for Young Children with ADHD).
On the other hand, if you have a child who hates time outs so much that he is likely to get worked up and out of control, he too is not a good candidate for time outs. A good rule of thumb is that for young kids, if they have any of the following symptoms, don’t use a time out as it will only escalate the problem, and likely cause harm to the child:
Anxiety or excessive fear or worry over separating from the adult
A tendency to cry uncontrollably until unable to breathe, possibly resulting in vomiting
A history of abuse, neglect or other trauma
A child in the foster care system or an adopted child
#2: Time Out isn’t Supported by Some Professionals
Newer research has suggested that natural consequences are the better for children than forced consequences that don’t have anything to do with the negative behavior. In addition, other research has focused more on the importance of learning a valuable lesson from the consequence instead of learning not to do the behavior for fear of the consequence.
As I mentioned before, some researchers advocate for a time out process in which the child puts himself in a time out for a break from the stressful environment. This approach takes the child’s individual needs into account, and uses time out as a way to teach the child how to handle stressors (as a preventative for behaviors) instead of as a way to punish the child for not appropriately handling the stressors when the result is negative behaviors (as an after-the-fact punishment for poor behaviors).
I tend to agree with most of the research that time outs as a preventative are much better than as an after-the-matter approach. However, I also recognize that even the best of parents cannot predict when a problem is about to occur every time and they need an after-the-fact discipline plan. And in these circumstances, time outs can be an option.
If you selected to use a time out, say, “Because you hit me, you will go to a time out.” Guide your child to the location that you previously selected as your time out spot. Place your child very gently into the time out location and say, “You are in a time out because you did not use nice touches.” When your child tries to leave the time out location, which he will, calmly follow your child and guide him back to the time out location. Repeat this until your child is able to sit in the time out location quietly for the time frame you have established.
When this has been accomplished, say to your child, “You were in time out because you did not use nice touches. Next time, use nice touches.” End the time out by walking away from your child. Do not use this moment to talk to your child about the incident, to cuddle, to say that you still love him, or to do anything else. This is a time for separation to ensure that your child does not get rewarded through the time out experience.
Step 6: Repeat, Repeat, Repeat!
The method that you have chosen to effectively discipline your child will only work if you are able to do it consistently, every time your child completes the undesired behavior. The more often you follow your plan, the more quickly you will get rid of the behavior. Remember that if your child is smart,he will test your limits and see what he can get away with. This is a good thing, because it means that he is developing appropriately. However, it is a bad thing too because it will make you want to abandon your plan and give in to him to make your life easier at that moment.
No matter what, stick to your plan, or evaluate its effectiveness and create changes that address whatever is making your plan fail. You may be exhausted in the moment, but if you stick to your plan, you have just saved yourself a lot of energy in your future parenting.