5 simple ways to change your child’s behaviour

Kids behaving badly? Our experts explain the difference between discipline and punishment, plus reveal the most effective ways to stop them being naughty.

Parenting is a journey filled with joys and challenges, and one of the key issues every parent faces is what to do when their child does something wrong.

While punishment may seem like the go-to solution for correcting misbehaviour, experts say a more effective and nurturing approach is discipline.

Discipline v punishment: What’s the difference?

According to researcher Dr Rebecca English, of Queensland University of Technology, people often think of punishment and discipline as synonymous, but they are very different.

“Discipline is about training for future behaviour,” Dr English says.

“It’s about helping children learn the correct way to act, control their impulses, and manage that by themselves.

“Punishment is about a consequence for something a child’s done in the past and it can, in some examples, be quite confusing and harmful for children.”

Dr English adds that using discipline can be much more rewarding for both parents and children, boosting self-esteem in kids and giving them a sense of agency over their lives, while helping parents to remain calmer and feel less stressed.

Discipline in practice

Although gentle parenting is the best approach, kids still need rules and boundaries, Dr English says.

“They need to know the rules; what’s safe, and (what’s) unacceptable.”

It helps to explain why rules are in place to get kids on board – for example, if a child is hitting, gently holding their arms and reassuring them until they stop is acceptable.

Different techniques

University of Sydney behavioural expert Professor Mark Dadds says techniques that appear to be a form of punishment are also okay to use in certain circumstances.

“If you find a child watching inappropriate content on their screen, then you can take the device away for a set period of time as a consequence,” Prof Dadds explains.

“Or you restrict the things it (the device) can be used for and explain to them why this is happening.”

He says this is similar to using time-out for younger children.

But in both instances, the so-called “punishment” needs to relate to the behaviour and, above all, parents need to be calm and approach the situation with the hope of “enhancing a positive parent-child relationship”.

Keep emotional escalation in check

Prof Dadds says it’s important to protect the parent-child relationship, and to not devalue children during the process of discipline.

“Ignoring a child for longer periods or engaging in emotional escalation like calling them names – disgusting, embarrassing, shameful, things like that – can really damage that relationship,” he explains.

Prof Dadds recommends focusing on the behaviour instead, not putting down their character.

Use time-out effectively

When it comes to time-out, Prof Dadds lays some ground rules to guide parents in correctly carrying out this form of discipline.

It should end when the child is back in control, never go longer than a few minutes of calm, and can range from withdrawing attention to removing the child to a safe and boring environment.

It should also be carried out calmly, as yelling only heightens emotions and reduces understanding.

“Punishment should also never be designed to be used on its own,” Prof Dadds says.

“It should be contrasted with plenty of love and engagement when the child is not misbehaving.”

5 effective ways to discipline your child

1. Set clear expectations

Establish age-appropriate rules, and acknowledge and praise good behaviour.

2. Lead by example

Children mimic their parents, so admit your mistakes and demonstrate how to correct them.

3. Use positive reinforcement

Reward and praise children for displaying positive behaviour to boost their self-esteem and encourage similar choices.

4. Connect actions to consequences

Turn misbehaviour into teachable moments by addressing specific issues and providing appropriate discipline.

5. Maintain consistency

Follow through with actions to provide structure and a sense of safety, ensuring children understand the consequences of their actions.

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