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How to Help Your Child Behave

Updated on March 12, 2011

Discipline does not mean the use of punishment to modify behavior. Effective discipline provides guidance and limits that help children grow into well-functioning individuals.

When children are first born, they are helpless individuals. Through the guidance and teaching of their parents they learn to clap hands, wave good-bye, play peek-a-boo, and numerous other skills. Discipline can and should be approached in the same way. This key discusses some of the many techniques for effective discipline. Whatever technique you use, consistency is the key. Many times parents try one technique for a few days, see no change in behavior, and quickly switch to something else. Choose one or two techniques that you will be able to use on a consistent basis, and give them time to have an effect. Remember, in some cases you may be trying to modify a behavior that has developed over five years!

Be Positive

The first place to start an effective discipline program is with the positive. Praise is a very powerful and effective way to change behaviors. The tendency for most of us is to focus on the negative behaviors. Unfortunately, it is far more likely that we intervene when there is screaming, crying, or carrying on than there is when our children are quietly playing in the other room. It is possible, however, to retrain yourself to focus on the positive aspects of your child's behavior.

Identify, as clearly as possible, the behaviors you want to increase. Take the time to notice and mention when your child engaged in these behaviors. For example, if Johnny has difficulty sharing with his younger sister, shift your focus to the one or two times you can catch him sharing well. Sometimes you must search and pay close attention, but eventually the proper behavior will occur!

Praise the behavior with such statements as, "I really like the way you are sharing your toys with your sister!" It is very important to point out to children the specific behavior rather than praise the child for "being good." Don't be discouraged if the behavior doesn't occur too frequently at first. Take any opportunity you can find, even the times when sharing was actually giving away the piece of candy he didn't like! Using charts to monitor the occurrence of positive behaviors is also useful. This is discussed in more detail in the next key.

Decreasing Behaviors

Praise can also be useful when you are trying to decrease a negative behavior. Praising your child for not engaging in a negative behavior helps to decrease its occurrence. If your child typically whines when he asks for something, praise each time he asks without whining. "I really like the way you asked without whining." "Thank you for asking like a big kid." It may take awhile before you see the negative behaviors start to decrease, but eventually it will happen!

Providing Consequences

When you establish rules and limits with your child, it is also helpful to establish consequences to go along with not following those rules. Natural consequences are things that automatically occur in response to a behavior. If adults do not go to work, they do not get a paycheck. If you do not do the laundry, eventually you run out of clothing. Sometimes it is easy to overlook the natural consequences of behaviors for children. If your child refuses to eat dinner, the natural consequence is hunger. If he is mean to his friends, he will not have anyone to play with. When it is appropriate, allow your child to experi­ence these natural consequences.

Other behaviors can be followed by logical consequences that you, the parent, impose. If your child misuses a toy, the toy is removed. If something is damaged, have your child play a role in repairing the damage. If your child makes a mess with paints or crayons, have him help clean up. Logical conse­quences establish a clear link between the behavior and the outcome.

Removing Privileges

There may be times when you choose to take away a privilege as a consequence for breaking a rule. Removing a special television show, toys, or Nintendo can be effective if used properly. Removing TV on a night when nothing is on won't work! Taking away all your child's toys as a consequence for breaking one will probably worsen the situation, especially because he now has nothing to do except get into more trouble! Losing Nintendo for one day is more effective than losing it for one week. After a couple of days neither you nor your child will probably remember why the Nintendo was taken away in the first place!

Whatever the technique you use, remember these guide­lines:

  • Be consistent.
  • Provide the consequence immediately after the behavior. If you wait too long, the connection between behavior and consequence is lost.
  • Make sure the rewards or punishments are things your child cares about.
  • Give it time to work! Miracles and behavior changes don' happen over night.


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  • swedal profile image

    swedal 6 years ago from Colorado

    Thank you healthymiss for that excellent addition on building self esteem which is so important for children.

  • healthymiss profile image

    healthymiss 6 years ago from Las Vegas

    These are great tips for positive and consistent discipline. Something that I have found to work with my 3 year old is telling her when she has behaved well and also saying "you should be proud of yourself". It establishes self esteem.