It can be hard for parents to know where to draw the line between being too permissive, or being too strict. Try to think about discipline as guiding your child to be an adult who can make decisions that are good for them and those around them. This means as they get older, you need to start holding back more and letting them make their own decisions, and bear the consequences of those decisions themselves. Take clothing for example:

The caregivers of a baby completely decide what is appropriate clothing to ensure the baby will be comfortable, the child doesn’t get a choice in the matter. A toddler could get a couple of choices – the blue shirt or the red shirt? A preschooler could be more involved in the decision – check out the weather today, discuss what activities they will be doing and help them select appropriate clothing. The adult’s input will become less and less until the child gets to the stage where they go and buy their clothes with their allowance or money they earn themselves.

Where people go wrong is often giving too much freedom too young, not enough freedom when they are older or giving the freedom without teaching them how to make a good decision.

These tips will work for most ages:

  • Spending time with your child and giving them lots of affection and affirmation will ensure you have a strong relationship to deal with the rocky times.
  • Know your child, if there are situations you know set them off, try to minimise these whenever possible.
  • Show respect for your child. Don’t choose discipline strategies that belittle or embarrass. Think about how you discipline your child in front of others so as not to embarrass them. Maybe you could have a hand signal to tell them they’ve stepped over the line?
  • Walk the talk! Modelling appropriate responses is the most effective way to teach your children.
  • Give affirmation for what they are doing right, and for who they are.
  • Be consistent, but within reason. Make sure your child knows that when you say something, you mean it and will follow through. However it is important to allow room for negotiation or flexibility. If you are bending a rule, make sure you can explain to your child why. For example, if you have a rule that your child does the dishes, but they are really tired from a family outing and have a test the following day, by all means let them go to bed and do the dishes for them – but tell them why! This is different to the inconsistency where one day they are allowed to jump on the couch, but the next they get yelled at.
  • Keep your child’s emotional and physical needs topped up. A hungry, tired or attention starved child is more likely to push boundaries.
  • Give a warning or reminder before imposing consequences.

Once they are past the baby stage:

  • Involve your children in setting rules for the household.
  • Create a team feeling by using phrases such as: In our family we…
  • Use natural consequences. This lets your child understand the result of their action. So, rather than battle with them to put their coat on, you could let them go outside and get wet and uncomfortable. Hopefully the next time it rains, they will remember and put their coat on without fuss. Some consequences would be unsafe to allow, so make sure you pick these carefully.
  • If natural consequences are unrealistic, try to make the consequences related to the child’s actions. If they have drawn on the furniture, the related consequence to that could be cleaning it off. You may also set a time frame for this which could mean they miss out on something while they are cleaning.
  • Help them right their own wrongs. For young children that might mean fetching the brush and shovel so you can clean up their mess, for older children it might mean getting a job so they can pay you back to replacing the neighbour’s window.
  • Choose your battles carefully. Allowing your child some control over what happens to them goes a long way to creating a positive relationship.
  • Try to limit saying no as much as you can. If you find yourself saying no contantly, try:
    • “Yes! When… then…” Eg, “Yes! When you’ve tidied your toys, then we can go to the park.”
    •  “Convince me!” If your child wants something, instead of immediately saying no, say “convince me”. If you’re not convinced, say so and let them try again.
    • If you see them being “naughty” ask them to explain what they are doing. Maybe it looks like your child has made a huge mess in the kitchen and wasted lots of food, but really they saw you were having a bad day and were trying to make you a surprise cake to help you feel better!

Use these techniques sparingly:

  • Time out. Time out works best when it is a break from an overwhelming situation, rather than an isolating punishment. Most people use 1 minute for each year of the child’s age. Young children may benefit from sitting with an adult watching the play and going back when they feel they are able to follow the rules.
  • Rewards: Rewards are a part of our adult life – there are few people who would continue in their job if they weren’t being paid for it! The trick with using rewards is to ensure your child is not rewarded for everything. They should have some chores they do simply because they are part of the family. Other things they should do because they can see the value in the task itself.
  • Removing privileges: Diane Levy suggests using a GST approach to withdrawing Goods and Services. If your child has not complied with a request, and you have ensured they heard the request; wait until they ask for something and then use the Yes! When.. then… technique. Eg. Yes! When you have emptied the dishwasher, then you can have your pocket money. This seems to be more effective than withdrawing possessions for set periods.
    • Be careful when considering grounding an older child as you are effectively punishing them by having to hang out with you. Not really the message you want to send! Instead, limit their curfews or where they can go with their friends.

Pre-teen and Teenagers (11-18)

Keep in mind at this age:

  • This is a very turbulent time for most young people. Try to be as supportive and understanding as you can without feeling like your teen rules your house.
  • Teens are starting to individuate themselves from their parents. Letting them do things that you would prefer they didn’t – as long as they are not unhealthy, morally wrong or life threatening –  is a way for teens to test out who they are. Just make sure you show your distaste, otherwise they are likely to go one step further in order to distance themselves as much as possible! Blue hair may look ugly, but it won’t last for ever. Now is the time to start pulling back, but ensure you have given your child the tools they need to be able to cope with their new freedoms.
  • Most of the tips for school age children will also work for teens.
  • Most teens will have a very strong sense of justice, especially as it concerns themselves! They are trying to turn into adults, so it’s great to try and treat them like one – if they’ve earned it.
  • The prefrontal cortex is now believed to fully mature around age 25. This part of your brain controls decision making, impulse control, judgement, planning and problem solving, among others. No wonder some teens do poorly in these areas!

Preventative management

  • Show your teen that they are loved unconditionally. Children at this age are often dealing with mixed up feelings, and they need to know you love them even though they may have just said some awful things to you.
  • Give them a strategies to say no to their friends without losing face so they don’t wind up doing things they don’t want to do.
  • Keep your sense of humour.
  • It is easy to try and be your teen’s friend, when they really need you to parent them just as much as ever. Try to get along with them, and have fun with them, but don’t try to be like them.
  • Make your house a fun place for your child and their friends to hang out. Getting to know their friends and seeing how your child acts around their peers is a great idea to help you understand how they tick.
  • Talk to your teen about the big stuff – relationships, sex, drugs, alcohol, depression etc. Try to be as open and honest as you can. Don’t let them learn about these topics from school or their mates – you may not agree with what they’re told. The car is a great place for these discussions, as they can’t get away! Plus you can avoid eye contact which may make it easier for some teens to open up.
  • Some teens benefit from having an adult outside their parents they can go to. This could be a parent of a friend, a friend of a parent, an aunt or uncle etc. If you see your preteen has a close relationship with another adult who you trust, talk to them and see if they would be happy to help mentor them through their teen years. Explain you want there to be someone they feel okay to talk to about anything, without judgement. Then try to set up times for them to get together and do stuff that will help their relationship.

 What works:

  • Approach teens gently whenever possible. They will usually respond like with like: if you go in with all guns blazing they will almost undoubtedly out-blaze you.
  • Use humour or indirect methods like notes rather than direct confrontation.
  • If your child has broken a rule, decide with them what they are going to do to regain your trust in that area.
  • Make sure any consequences are relevant and related to the mistake they made. If they mucked around on the computer instead of doing homework, it makes sense for them to miss out on things until their homework is done, if that means they miss the school dance, so be it. However, telling them they can’t go to the school dance because they argued with their sister is arbitrary and likely to cause resentment.


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Frank McColl is a primary teacher and writes teacher resource materials for primary and secondary schools. She has one quirky toddler who keeps her on her toes.

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