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Discipline and Your Child

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How do you help your child learn how to behave? What do you do when your child does not listen to you?

Here is general guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics on effective discipline. (Information applies to all sexes and genders; however, for easier reading, pronouns such as she are used in this publication.)

The Difference Between Discipline and Punishment

Many parents think discipline and punishment are the same thing, but they are quite different.

Start Early

You may not realize it, but you help your child learn good behavior from the time she is born. For example, when you respond to your baby's cries, your baby learns that you are there, that you can be counted on, and that she can trust you. Your responses teach your child all about love.

Once your baby starts to crawl and walk, safety is a critical discipline issue. Creating a safe environment is the first step. For example, keep household chemicals, such as detergent, medicine, and fragile items, out of your child's reach. Taking this simple step makes it easier to limit how often you need to make things off-limits.

Extra supervision is also important during this stage. For example, if your child tries to touch a hot stove, pick her up; firmly say, "No, hot"; and offer her a toy to play with instead. She may not understand you at first, but after a few weeks, she will learn.

At about 18 months of age, your child will try to learn the rules. This means, of course, that she will test limits, especially when it's a new rule. It may even seem that your child breaks rules on purpose. However, by breaking rules, your child actually learns what the rules mean.

If you keep the rules consistent, your child will have an easier time learning. Decide what the rules will be and stick to them. Explain the rules in a simple way your child can understand. After you say, "No," explain what your child is expected to do instead. For example, "No, hot. Stay away from the stove." You can also continue to offer distractions. Remember that one of your jobs as a parent is to prevent your child from harm and make sure that there is no harm to others.

How to Prevent Power Struggles

Here are tips that may help you prevent power struggles with your child.

Spanking and harsh words are harmful and don't work. Here's why.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy statement "Effective Discipline to Raise Healthy Children" highlights why it's important to focus on teaching good behavior rather than punishing bad behavior. Research shows that spanking, slapping, and other forms of physical punishment don't work well to correct a child's behavior. The same holds true for yelling at or shaming a child. Beyond being ineffective, harsh physical and verbal punishments can also damage a child's long-term physical and mental health.

What to Do When Your Child Does Not Listen

Of course, you cannot avoid trouble all the time. Sooner or later, your child will test you. It is your child's way of finding out what the limits really are.

When your child does not listen, try the following approaches:

Lead by Example

Telling your child how to behave is an important part of discipline, but showing her how to behave is even more powerful. Children learn a lot about temper and self-control from watching their parents and other adults. If they see adults being kind toward one another, they will learn that this is how others should be treated. This is how children learn to act respectfully.

If you do not handle a situation well the first time, try not to worry about it. Think about what you could have done differently, and try to do it the next time. If you feel you have made a real mistake in the heat of the moment, wait to cool down, apologize to your child, and explain how you will handle the situation in the future. Be sure to keep your promise. This gives your child a good model of how to recover from mistakes.

Remember

Keep in mind that teaching children good behavior takes time, patience, and a loving attitude. Every child is different and parents can figure out what discipline technique works with their child. There may be times when nothing you do seems to work, so it's important to remind yourself you haven't failed. Pediatricians talk with parents about child behavior all the time. If you have questions or concerns about your child's behavior, write them down and bring the list to your child's next doctor visit. However, if you need help sooner, call your child's doctor before your child's next doctor visit.

Any websites, brand names, products, or manufacturers are mentioned for informational and identification purposes only and do not imply an endorsement by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The AAP is not responsible for the content of external resources. Information was current at the time of publication. The information contained in this publication should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.