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How to discipline children and teens with consequences that are effective and meaningful

Updated on April 3, 2013
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Is the term “digital native” familiar?

I learned of this term during a workshop on information technology which I attended not too long ago. It refers to today’s child, a child of this digital and internet savvy generation. Computers have become part of their world, a world which has become difficult to pull them out of.

Reining in a child’s difficult behavior has always been a difficult issue. This is even more pertinent for the child of today. The landscape of discipline has become more challenging with the added obstacle of technology.

Many would be familiar with the refrain “If you’ll let me be on the computer, I’ll start my homework.” Yes, children and teenagers these days have become more adept at the skill of manipulation and getting around the parental obstacle. So with updated challenges of this day and age, how do we discipline children with consequences that are effective and are meaningful to them?

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Why do children ignore the consequences of bad behavior and punishment?

It is very common these days to hear a parent complain that their children ignore their threats of punishment for using the computer for too long or for texting their friends into the wee hours of the night. The modern challenges of the internet and the cellphone, however, make it imperative that the consequences of inappropriate behavior are delivered with meaning.

Why do children ignore parents even when they say that there will be consequences for bad conduct?

Inconsistency in meting out punishment

This is an exchange between a parent and a child, who is a computer and gaming addict.

Parent : If you do not get your messy room tidied up, I will take away the computer.

The child slams the door of his room. The parent, who feels guilty for neglecting or threatening the child, comes home the next day with a new computer game for him.

The next day

Parent : I thought I told you that I will take away your computer! You’ve been in there since

dinner, and this room is still a mess!

Child : But mom, I’ve got to complete the game that you bought for me yesterday! I can’t

leave it halfway! (ignores parent and turns to his computer)

Does the above scenario seem familiar? It is very sadly a common one. Busy parents who feel pangs of guilt whenever they deliver consequences try to make up for their neglect. The result is that the child does not feel the sting of his own lack of responsibility. The inconsistency has made his mother’s threat empty. He does not feel a difference when she makes it.

Consequences of inappropriate behavior have to be delivered consistently for them to be effective. An unpredictable signals on his parent’s part give him the message that any bad form does not matter.

Power play

The above scenario is also a form of power play between a parent and child. The child has used the tool of ignoring a parent’s threat of consequence to manipulate her into giving her the freedom and even the computer game that she desires.

Ignoring consequences is a tool a child, consciously or not, may use to make a parent feel inadequate or guilty about being “mean.” This meanness is, of course, from the child’s perspective. By giving in to this manipulation, the parent in the above scenario has allowed the child to win the power struggle.

Delivering consequences means being aware that the child may know what buttons to push and not allowing him to push them.

Being ambiguous

This is yet another possible scenario.

Child : Mom, if I can’t clear the room on time, will you take my computer away?

Parent: I haven’t decided yet.

Child : Then I’ll just go and play my game.

The mother has not made it very clear what consequences she will mete out to the child for his messy room. Again, it gives the child room to maneuver and tells him that it really does not matter if he gets the room cleaned.

Not being clear about the results of improper behavior again sends the message that empty threats are being made.

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Natural consequences are ignored.

In the above scenarios, the parent could have allowed the room to remain untidy for a while. Soon enough, the child would have had to look for something that he needed that he would not be able to find.

This is allowing the child to see what would naturally happen as a result of him not tidying his room. Allowing natural consequences of bad behavior may be uncomfortable (no one likes to see a mess) and requires patience but teaches far more than punishment could.

No explanation for why their conduct is inappropriate

Sometimes, parents deliver a consequence without explaining why the child’s conduct is not up to expectations. They forget to tell the child how certain behaviors can have ill-effects, leaving a child confused when he is punished.

Anger at perceived unfairness

Children would see any form of punishment as being unfair as long as it is not explained. This anger would cause them to ignore any further threat of consequence.

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Passive-aggressive behavior

I have decided to include a little section on passive-aggressive behavior for children who act “in” instead of “out.” We are familiar with the child who acts out, but more needs to be addressed for a child who is passive-aggressive.

Description of a passive aggressive child

As many, if not more, children fit the description of the passive-aggressive child than the rebellious one. So who is he?

The passive-aggressive child does not openly defy his parents. He simply ignores them when they make any requests or mete out any form of punishment. This is the child who would ignore their parents or drag their feet until they are left alone. This child appears more in this day and age because the advent of the computer gives them a perfect excuse to turn to it and ignore their parents when attention is called for.

What is passive-aggressive behavior?

Children use passive-aggressive behavior because they do not want to give their parents a reason to punish them for being openly ‘rude.’ By avoiding confrontation and simply feigning ignorance, they miss being labeled as impolite or defiant.

This kind of behavior is thus used as an excuse for them to say, “I never said or did anything wrong,” and push the parent into a guilt corner when they attempt to mete out any punishment.

The child in the scenarios above ignored his mother and consciously or not, was practicing this form of behavior. It is far more difficult to deliver consequences of such behavior that have meaning in this instance.

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How should we deliver consequences that have meaning?

Whether your child is passive-aggressive or openly rude, there are some steps that parents can take to deliver consequences that have meaning.

Have a problem-solving talk with your child.

To overcome passive aggressive behavior is a little more tricky, because giving outright consequence and punishment will seldom, if ever, have any meaning. It would be far better for a parent to have a talk with the child about any behavior that needs addressing.

Invite your child to talk about what bothering him.

Get him to trust you.

While you are having that conversation with your child, it is important for him to realize that he can trust you. Tell him that it is ‘safe’ to tell you what is making him angry. Trust opens the doors of communication.

Set time limits.

Whether a child is simply rude or passive-aggressive, the motivation behind the conduct is the same-perceived lack of fairness. To maintain a level of fairness while delivering consequences, set time limits. Use words like, “If you do not tidy your room by 8 o’ clock, I will come in and turn the computer off.”

Then REALLY go in and turn the computer off if it is still not being done. There will still be a tussle, but the child will have less reason to fuss because justification has been established.

Make the child accountable.

By setting time limits, the child is being shown that he is responsible for the consequences of his actions. He becomes the cause of the computer being taken away if his room is not being tidied up by 8 o’clock, and will do so because he would not want it to be removed because he gave reason for it to be.

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Do not show disgust or disdain.

We want to tell the child that it is the inappropriate behavior we do not like, and not the child himself. Showing disgust, disdain or sarcasm is ultimately demoralizing and does not motivate a child to do the right thing.

Remember that facial expressions communicate far more than words, so it is good to be wary that facial expressions do not let the child sense hate or anger.

Engage your child’s self interest

A child is still developing his ego. So if parents say things like “If you say such things to your sister again, I’ll punish you,” the child thinks, “Again, it’s because of her.” He does not see the wrong in his actions but unfairness and bias for his sister.

Instead, make it about him. Say, “If you say such things, it does not make you look good to others.” Let the child know that any consequences are in his own interests.

Don’t use speeches to try to appeal to emotions.

Children will not understand the reasons behind your words about them being selfish or them being bad examples for their brothers or sisters. They will view emotion-filled speeches as nagging, blah blah and tune these out because their young minds may not be ready to rationalize.

Keep things simple. Just say, ‘We speak nicely to others around here. And if you cannot, your computer will be taken away.”

Lay consequences when everything has settled down.

As with all relationships and conflicts, nothing will register in the heat of the moment. Wait till the child is in a better mood before talking to him or her. He will be in more of a mind to take things in.

Be Creative!

Sometimes, it takes a little creativity to make consequences stick. Take the example of the child who refuses to tidy his room. When he refuses to do it, leave him alone. When he next asks where something is, tell him it is in his room but he'll have to look for it himself. He will feel the frustration of an untidy room and when it hits, you can tell him, "That's what happens when things are untidy, you won't be able to find anything!"

Conclusion

Meting out consequences with meaning is a tricky business. But when done fairly and with the good of the child in mind, will tend to stick.

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    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      On attaching meaning to the consequences of inappropriate behavior.

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 4 years ago from New York, New York

      Some wonderful tips and suggestion of what to do and what to also avoid when trying to discipline your children. Thanks for sharing this here Michelle and have of course voted, shared and tweeted, too!!

    • profile image

      Phoebe Pike 4 years ago

      My little one is still a toddler, but these are great tips for when he's older.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 4 years ago from New York

      This couldn't be better Michelle. So many parents today are more worried about their guilt or hurting their child's feelings than they are about teaching the child to be a good person and that actions have consequences. Schools are having more and more problems dealing with children and it all reflects back on the parents who've dropped the ball. This has great advice how NOT to drop the ball.

      Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting. Shared as well.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 4 years ago from Florida

      As a mother and grandmother, I couldn't agree with you more. I am happy I got mine raised and out of the house with the exception of a 17 yr. old son. I must have done something right because I'm very proud of my children. My son loves his computer and his games. In the past if he didn't complete his homework or clean his room, I would just turn off the internet! He knows his limitations and abides by them.

      Voted UP, and shared.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      If you aren't a parent you should be. You have excellent suggestions about raising children.

    • midget38 profile image
      Author

      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Yep, I understand the frustration of parents who have little time to be with their kids. But there are ways to rein them in without hurting too much! Thanks for sharing, Mary!

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      Oh yes the subject on teenagers which I have to say is brilliant and certainly leaves much food for thought.

      I am sure this will benefit many; great hub. Eddy.

    • kidscrafts profile image

      kidscrafts 4 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

      Wonderful suggestions Michelle! It's not easy to raise kids and I think that more times go by, more difficult it's getting. I think my kids were probably the first one with a computer at home when they were at school; my husband is a programmer and at that time I was a teacher and taking care of the computers at school! But we had only one game on that computer. I feel lucky that the internet really started when they both finished high school. The internet is like the world in your hand at any time, the good as well as the bad and the ugly.

      One important thing with raising children....always keep the line of communication open. Talk, share, praise, etc.

      Vote up and awesome!

    • Ruchira profile image

      Ruchira 4 years ago from United States

      Great suggestions, Michelle

      The examples are nailed precisely..lol

      User friendly guide :)

    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 4 years ago from United States

      excellent work my friend. Keep up the great hubs on education. whonu

    • joym7 profile image

      Joy 4 years ago from United States

      I must say a great hub. well elaborated the education things. Good work

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Janine...I hope it will help many!

    • midget38 profile image
      Author

      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      I think it will be useful for when they reach the middle school years! Thanks for sharing, Phoebe!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Good that a teen like your son is easy to get through to, Mary! You did a great job with the kids for sure. THanks for sharing, and my blessings to the family!

    • midget38 profile image
      Author

      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks kindly, Bill.

    • midget38 profile image
      Author

      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Teens are indeed a difficult subject! Thanks for sharing, Eddy!

    • midget38 profile image
      Author

      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      We connect over this, kids crafts! My hubby is a programmer too! Glad to run into you here on hubpages. Yes, communication is the key!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Ruchira!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Who! Yes, discipline is always a tricky balance!!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Joym!

    • midget38 profile image
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      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Hope that it's helpful, Tourist guide!

    • donnah75 profile image

      Donna Hilbrandt 4 years ago from Upstate New York

      Yes. Yes. Yes! Consistency and clarity are soooooo important. I have found that being consistent and clear in my classroom discipline has been effective. I am not a parent, but teachers need to take a similar approach when teaching and guiding children. Natural consequences are good sometimes too. No homework? Ok, accept your consequences. When the zeros add up and the report card goes home, often student turn their poor habits around. Very helpful advice in this hub. Voted up and sharing.

    • MarieAlana1 profile image

      Marie Alana 4 years ago from Ohio

      Natural Consequences are great as well, but you have to use it with the right age. A 3 year old will know what happened, but not be able to describe what happened leading up to that. Therefore, natural consequences are better for the child who is at a more reasonable age, say maybe 8 and above. Also, you have to stick to the discipline and be consistent. I really like your idea of being creative and talking to the child.

    • midget38 profile image
      Author

      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      I would agree, natural consequences will work when kids reach the age of reasoning.

      And indeed, we have to be consistent! Thanks for sharing!!

    • girishpuri profile image

      Girish puri 4 years ago from NCR , INDIA

      A useful hub and great tips about raising our children, very important for many among us, voted up.

    • midget38 profile image
      Author

      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Yep, disciplining kids these days is an art! Thanks, Girishpuri!

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 4 years ago from Nepal

      We don't have teenagers in our family, however, my sister is raising kids.

      I believe she will find these tips very useful.

    • midget38 profile image
      Author

      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks for passing them to her, Vinaya!

    • MrsBrownsParlour profile image

      Lurana Brown 4 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois

      Thank you for writing on such an important topic that affects all parents. This was helpful and gave me some things to think about. I had received behavioral modification training in a previous part-time tutoring job (working with children with autism) and have enjoyed working with kids, so I thought parenting would come easily. Nope. It is so much harder to stay patient and rational with your own children! I make up behavioral plans that do work, but there are lots of gray areas...and you illuminated one of them: passive-aggressive behavior. Thank you very much for sharing your insights. I also really like your layout, especially the borders between capsules that I have noticed in a couple other hubs of yours. You clearly put a lot of effort into planning and designing your work---I'm not surprised that you are a teacher by trade!! :-)

    • midget38 profile image
      Author

      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Lurana! I hope the hub helps. Passive aggressive can be a grey area because one is never sure of the 'right' way of dealing with it. It's a child's really intelligent way of cornering you into submission...and you have no way of saying that he's violated any rules! Thanks for sharing!

    • Ewent profile image

      Eleanore Ferranti Whitaker 10 months ago from Old Bridge, New Jersey

      If there is one thing younger parents must do, it is to remember who is the "parent" and who is the "child."

      I worked with thousands of dance students for over 3 decades. If there is one thing that always worked as discipline, it was the severity of deprivation.

      By that I mean, depriving children of that which they value most. This works so much better than "time outs" and canceled "play dates." Take a child's cell phone, bicycle or other favorite for a specified time and they feel deprived strongly enough to be ready to accept the terms of discipline. This assumes, of course, that these children are unable to learn self-discipline.

      Educators today are having to deal with children who receive parental discipline that is far to ineffective.

      By observation of so many of my students' parents, I have to say that those who had the least patience were parents who had children too late in their lives to have the energy to create any symbiosis with their children. Many of these parents would tell me I could get their children to do things they couldn't. It was because I could get down to children's level and still be the adult in the relationships.

      Children thrive on praise. But, they also must learn that failure is not a nightmare. Too many parents today live vicariously through their children and as such, "failure is not an option."

      I've taught autistic, dyslexic, blind and deaf children to dance. It was a requirement of my dance certification to be able to learn patience so that children who were in any way impaired might discover their talents and skills.

      I also raised two male children as a single parent, not by choice. If there is one thing that became obvious to me dealing with children is it that male children are adventurers, restless and always ready to wander into uncharted territory. This is the lesson my own male children taught me.

      You see...I believe we are all teachers of each other. With my female dance students, I learned that children absorbed examples of adult behavior far more often than they process verbal discipline.

      My male dance students were far more willful but just as eager to understand the importance of self-discipline.

      The key to teaching discipline is teaching children to discipline themselves. What I see of parents today is odd. They insist their children become soccer stars at age six or the world's greatest Little League or Pee Wee Football players, often before parents provide children with examples of self-discipline.

      One reason dance educators are so successful at producing excellent dancers has to do with providing students with examples of self-discipline as early as toddlerhood. And yes...It can be done as early as age three. I know this because I taught toddlers ages 3 to 5 to learn how to perform the 5 ballet positions of arms and legs. They also learned French names for ballet steps to the surprise of their parents.

      I taught hundreds of teens in my career. Again, it was always a matter of helping them discover how to discipline their minds and bodies in order to develop coordination, technique and talent.

      With my own two sons, they were given a choice as to the type of activities they felt would help them learn self-discipline. Today, both are accomplished, professional musicians.

      All teens are subjected to peer pressure. Oddly, my own sons' peers gravitated to me due to my ability to listen to them. I learned that teens have a lot to say and need someone to listen. So, I would greet them and let them take it from there.

      My attitude with children has always been to allow them to discover themselves without pushing my influence on who they want to be. Too many of my adult friends are unable to make decisions as senior citizens because their parents made all of their decisions for them.

      I have had the enjoyment of having professional chemists, engineers and financial careerists in my circle of friends. Those who chose their careers were happiest. Those whose parents chose their careers either resented their jobs or they burned out quickly.

      While all of the pyscho babble for parenting today may sound wonderful, with children, the best platitude is to "keep it simple," always know who the parent is and who the child is and not blend the two into some bizarre friendship.

      And always, always, always be aware of the examples you set for your children.

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