Pop quiz: Have you ever asked your child, oh, a dozen times to do something, and they act as if you’re a mere rustle of wind in the trees? (“Time to come inside for dinner, Timmy!” **crickets**) Or better yet, have they ever blatantly — aggressively! — defied you to your face? (“Time to come inside for dinner, Timmy!” … “No!”) If you’re a parent, of course, the answer is yes! This is how kids roll. But don’t worry, mom and dad, it’s nothing personal.
“Behavior is how kids, young kids especially, let parents and caregivers know what they need and what’s going on in their world,” explains Annelise Cunningham, clinical psychologist and neonatal intensive care unit neurodevelopmental assessment and infant mental health postdoctoral fellow at Lurie Children’s Little Ones program in Chicago. “If their behavior is solely met with punishment and no assurance, then an important opportunity to teach and model what to do is missed — and the behavior continues.”
Of course, explanations and assurance aren’t always enough to drive a message home. And unfortunately, parents typically have to try something a number of times to see if it works. “Kids will give you all the information you need when trying new discipline tactics,” Cunningham says. “You just need to stay consistent and pay attention to how they’re reacting.”
Looking for ways to banish unwanted behavior while staying loving and mindful? Here are 10 expert-backed child discipline tactics for kids, ages 4 and up.
1. Nurture secure attachment
Before endeavoring to work on your child’s behavior, it’s imperative to evaluate your relationship. Are you getting enough one-on-one time (time where you’re immersing yourself in their world and not directing or critiquing)? Does their behavior seem like a cry for attention?
“No matter your tactic to discipline, your primary foundation needs to be a secure attachment with your child,” Cunningham explains. “You can have fanciest charts and the most elaborate techniques, but ultimately, kids’ behavior is regulated through their relationship with their parents and/or caregivers. Every child is different in terms of what will work, but the best predictor of ‘good behavior’ is secure attachment.”
And if you’re suddenly feeling pressure — don’t. There’s no need to take your child to an amusement park in order to get Q.T. Whether it’s at bathtime or bedtime, Cunningham explains that as long as you’re giving your child your undivided attention and letting them run the show, so to speak, you’re good.
2. Use the Remembering Spot
Instead of timeout, Sharon Silver, founder of Proactive Parenting and author of “Stop Reacting and Start Responding: 108 Ways to Transform Behavior into Learning Moments,” recommends older kids spend a little time in the Remembering Spot. An extension of a toddler discipline tactic she recommends — “you hit, you sit” — the Remembering Spot is a chance for kids’ memories to be jogged about what they should be doing.
“When a child does something inappropriate or acts out, ask them to sit in a familiar spot and to please remember what they’re supposed to do,” Silver says. “Be empathetic and ask them how long they need — one minute? Two? Then give them the chance to correct their behavior.”
3. Introduce a behavior chart
For parents who can maintain a behavior chart — and for kids who respond to them — Cunningham advises keeping it as simple as possible. “Pick the one or two behaviors that you want to work on most,” she recommends. “And make sure the goals are specific and attainable, otherwise kids will feel defeated.” Put another way: You can’t make the goal of your chart for kids to “listen;” that’s way too broad. Instead, whittle it down to something like “no interrupting during dinner” or “finish your homework every day.”
4. Be silent … then ask questions
You catch your child sneaking candy from the cupboard — what’s your knee-jerk reaction? Is it to yell? Tell them what they’re doing wrong? Stop right there. According to Silver, you should do the opposite and be silent (which, let’s be honest, says a lot more than yelling).
“Don’t come out of the gate yelling,” she explains. “When you catch your child doing something they shouldn’t, they know; they feel it. Be silent and let the situation create a consciousness for them.” From there, you can use a short go-to statement you may have in your arsenal (a favorite of hers was “Dude, bad choice!”) and then ask questions that will help them find answers and genuinely learn.
“Statements and accusations make kids feel like failures and the message you’re trying to convey doesn’t sink in,” Silver continues. “When you ask questions, you’re ultimately providing them with answers, but you’re making their brains work so they’re coming up with them on their own.”
5. Try again
Another favorite of Silver’s for tweens and teens: “Try again.” “Try again — which should be said quietly, firmly and elongated (“tryyy agaaain”) — are two of the most magical words for parents and caregivers,” she says. “Again, you’re shedding the light, creating a teaching moment and giving kids the opportunity to do the right thing on their own.” (Full disclosure, I’ve used this with my own kids recently, and all I can say is *chef’s kiss!*)
6. Call a timeout … or time in
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that timeouts can be useful when a specific rule is broken and they’re given with a warning (i.e.,“Do that again, and you’ll have to go in timeout.”) Their general recommendation is one minute per age, with the option of letting older kids decide for themselves how long they need to cool down.
However, for parents who don’t love the idea of timeout, try time in. “Time in can be especially useful for little kids who are having a hard time navigating their big feelings,” Cunningham says. “You don’t want kids to think that when they’re having a difficult time they need to be by themselves. Try snuggling up and talking about it instead.”
7. Find the right motivator
While the idea of no dessert may be a serious motivator for your friend’s child, it doesn’t mean that will work for yours. A key to making child discipline techniques effective is tailoring them to your child. In other words, if the idea of losing screen time or an upcoming playdate motivates your child more, that’s where you should start.
“A parent knows their child the best – what matters the most to them, what motivates them, what they respond to and what they’re the most interested in.
Having this knowledge can help you decide the best, most effective consequence,” says Dr. Brandon Smith, general academic pediatrics fellow in the Department of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. “That said, it also has to be reasonable and not too harsh! For older kids, parents can even ask what they think the consequence or punishment should be and then use that to help make their own decision.”
8. Choose your battles
Hot tip: Despite what Instagram may want you to believe, nobody’s kids are perfect, and trying to correct every single thing they do “wrong” just isn’t possible — and it will make things unpleasant for everyone.
“When my son was younger, he was a wild child,” says mom of one Jen Opinksi of Los Angeles. “Initially, I found myself trying to correct every little thing he did, and it only made things worse. Once I loosened up and only dealt with the serious stuff, he actually calmed down — and I did, too!”
9. Swap empty threats for explanations
Are you even a parent if you haven’t threatened to do something you had absolutely zero intention of doing? Everyone’s done it. Here’s the thing, though: Do it enough times and your kid is onto you.
“Kids are never going to believe that you’re taking away their iPad for the next year if you say that every day,” says Smith. “It’s an empty threat that won’t address behavior. That said, older kids need consistent boundaries, lines and consequences. Let preteens and teens know what they will (really) lose as a consequence ahead of time and explain why. This is useful, as older kids understand the links between actions and consequences.”
10. Loosen the reins
Teenage behavior can be maddening, but for parents of older kids: Try to remember, being a teenager isn’t exactly a walk in the park. According to Smith, under all of the talk between parents and preteens and teenagers is the issue of control. “Many teenagers don’t think they have control over anything in their lives,” he explains. “Give them some of the control back when you can, while still holding onto the parts that matter the most to you in helping them to grow up healthy and safe.”