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Discipline: Guidelines for Parents

Children do not always do what parents want. When a child misbehaves, the parent must decide how to respond.

All children need rules and expectations to help them learn appropriate behavior. How does a parent teach a child the rules and, when those rules are broken, what should parents do?

Parents should begin by talking to each other about how they want to handle discipline and establish the rules. It is important to view discipline as teaching not punishment. Learning to follow rules keeps a child safe and helps him or her learn the difference between right and wrong.

Once rules have been established, parents should explain to the child that broken rules carry consequences. For example: Here are the rules. When you follow the rules, this will happen and if you break a rule, this is what will happen. Parents and the child should decide together what the rewards and consequences will be. Parents should always acknowledge and offer positive reinforcement and support when their child follows the rules. Parents must also follow through with an appropriate consequence when the child breaks a rule. Consistency and predictability are the cornerstones of discipline and praise is the most powerful reinforcer of learning.

Children learn from experience. Having logical consequences for misbehavior helps them learn that they are accountable for their actions, without damaging their self-esteem. If children are fighting over the television, computer or a video game, turn it off. If a child spills milk at the dinner table while fooling around, have the child clean it up. A teenager who stays up too late may suffer the natural consequences of being tired the next day. Another type of consequence that can be effective is the suspension or delay of a privilege. If a child breaks the rule about where they can go on their bike, take away the bike for a few days. When a child does not do chores, he or she cannot do something special like spend the night with a friend or rent a movie.

There are different styles and approaches to parenting. Research shows that effective parents raise well-adjusted children who are more self-reliant, self-controlled, and positively curious than children raised by parents who are punitive, overly strict (authoritarian), or permissive. Effective parents operate on the belief that both the child and the parent have certain rights and that the needs of both are important. Effective parents don’t need to use physical force to discipline the child, but are more likely to set clear rules and explain why these rules are important. Effective parents reason with their children and consider the youngsters’ points of views even though they may not agree with them.

Tips for effective discipline:

  • Trust your child to do the right thing within the limits of your child’s age and stage of development.
  • Be sure what you ask for is reasonable.
  • Speak to your child as you would want to be spoken to if someone were reprimanding you. Don’t resort to name-calling, yelling, or disrespect.
  • Be clear about what you mean. Be firm and specific. 
  • Model positive behavior. “Do as I say, not as I do” seldom works. 
  • Allow for negotiation and flexibility. It can help build your child’s social skills. 
  • Let your child experience the consequences of his behavior. 
  • Whenever possible, consequences should be delivered immediately, should relate to the rule broken, and be short enough in duration that you can move on again to emphasize the positives. 
  • Consequences should be fair and appropriate to the situation and the child’s age.

All children are oppositional from time to time, particularly when tired, hungry, stressed or upset. They may argue, talk back, disobey, and defy parents, teachers, and other adults. Oppositional behavior is often a normal part of development for two to three year olds and early adolescents. However, openly uncooperative and hostile behavior becomes a serious concern when it is so frequent and consistent that it stands out when compared with other children of the same age and developmental level and when it affects the child’s social, family, and academic life.

In children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), there is an ongoing pattern of uncooperative, defiant, and hostile behavior toward authority figures that seriously interferes with the youngster’s day to day functioning. Symptoms of ODD may include:

  • Frequent temper tantrums 
  • Excessive arguing with adults 
  • Active defiance and refusal to comply with adult requests and rules 
  • Deliberate attempts to annoy or upset people 
  • Blaming others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior 
  • Often being touchy or easily annoyed by others 
  • Frequent anger and resentment 
  • Mean and hateful talking when upset 
  • Seeking revenge

Symptoms are usually seen in multiple settings, but may be more noticeable at home or at school. Five to fifteen percent of all school-age children have ODD. The causes of ODD are unknown, but many parents report that their child with ODD was more rigid and demanding than the child’s siblings from an early age. Biological and environmental factors may have a role.

A child presenting with ODD symptoms should have a comprehensive evaluation. It is important to look for other disorders which may be present; such as, attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities, mood disorders (depression, bipolar disorder) and anxiety disorders. It may be difficult to improve the symptoms of ODD without treating the coexisting disorder. Some children with ODD may go on to develop conduct disorder.

Treatment of ODD may include: Parent Training Programs to help manage the child’s behavior, Individual Psychotherapy to develop more effective anger management, Family Psychotherapy to improve communication, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy to assist problem solving and decrease negativity, and Social Skills Training to increase flexibility and improve frustration tolerance with peers. A child with ODD can be very difficult for parents. These parents need support and understanding. Parents can help their child with ODD in the following ways:

  • Always build on the positives, give the child praise and positive reinforcement when he shows flexibility or cooperation. 
  • Take a time-out or break if you are about to make the conflict with your child worse, not better. This is good modeling for your child. Support your child if he decides to take a time-out to prevent overreacting. 
  • Pick your battles. The child with ODD has trouble avoiding power struggles. Prioritize the things you want your child to do. If you give your child a time-out in his room for misbehavior, don’t add time for arguing. Say “your time will start when you go to your room.” 
  • Set up reasonable, age appropriate limits with consequences that can be enforced consistently. 
  • Maintain interests other than your child with ODD, so that managing your child doesn’t take all your time and energy. Try to work with and obtain support from the other adults (teachers, coaches, and spouse) dealing with your child. 
  • Manage your stress with exercise and relaxation. Use respite care as needed.

Many children with ODD will respond to the positive parenting techniques. Parenting classes and coaching can be helpful in learning to be an effective parent. If parents have serious concerns about continuing problems with their child’s behavior, consultation with a child and adolescent psychiatrist or other qualified mental health professional may be helpful.

Copyright c 2008 American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

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Last modified: Saturday, April 19, 2014

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