Discipline Strategies That Work for All Ages


Have a hitting toddler, a mouthy grade-schooler or a defiant teen? Time for some loving discipline. But take note; modern kids require a new brand of parental guidance. “Unlike previous generations, children today live in a much more egalitarian world,” says Robert Ryan, LCPC, a licensed counselor in private practice in Chicago. No longer viewed as underlings to be seen and not heard, today’s children resist overly harsh punitive measures. In fact, these tactics can backfire and actually reinforce misbehavior.

So what’s a parent to do? Read on for age-by-age discipline strategies that build self-worth, squelch power struggles, foster thriving relationships, and put an end to endless yelling.

Ages 2-5
Time in

Parents of young children can find themselves dishing up “time-outs” left and right. A discipline strategy dating back to the 1950s, time-out entails removing a child from the scene of his misdeed for a period. It’s one of the most widespread discipline tactics around. But does it work?

Often, time-out is less than effective, says Stephanie T. Jones, M.S., parenting coach with Possibility Parenting and chair of the North Carolina Parenting Education Network. That’s because parents aren’t consistent about what behavior will result in a time-out; many only use it when they are angry. Though time-out may give parents a brief break from an unruly tot, it does little to address the underlying cause of the misbehavior. A more effective strategy: Look for the root cause of the behavior you’re trying to correct (often, exasperating behaviors are ploys for attention or control). Then employ logical consequences, like taking a child home if he can’t behave appropriately at the store or park.

Ages 6-12
Strength training

During the elementary years, misbehavior becomes more pronounced and harder to ignore; it’s no longer “cute” when your 7-year-old gets sassy. But reacting with harsh punishments can leave parents locked in a battle of wills that hurts the parent-child bond and fails to correct the misbehavior. Escaping this damaging downward spiral requires a fresh look at discipline, says Jones. “Many think of discipline in terms of punishment, but I think of it in terms of teaching, leading and guiding. And learning is best accomplished in the context of meaningful relationships.”

Developing a strong bond increases cooperation and reduces defiance and the need for punishment; children who feel connected to the adults in their lives are more likely to comply with their requests and are generally eager to please them, Jones says. Invest in mutually satisfying relationships with grade-schoolers by spending enjoyable time together, free of distracting screens, work email and wireless devices. Try hiking, touch football, fishing, planning meals and cooking together, family game nights, and movie outings. 

Ages 13-18
Ground game

Think twice before yelling “You’re grounded!” This “big kid” form of time-out provides a Band-Aid fix, not a long-term solution, says Ryan. A grounded teen who sits around stewing probably isn’t learning the intended lesson, he says.

That doesn’t mean teens shouldn’t experience consequences for their actions. Consequences should be tailored to the behavior parents want to correct, says Jones. Natural consequences and logical consequences foster learning and build life skills. “Natural consequences are those things that will happen without any intervention. Logical consequences are those things related to the misbehavior that parents do to help a child learn.” A natural consequence of forgetting homework is no credit. A logical consequence of neglecting to empty the dishwasher might be after-dinner dish duty for a week.

Above all, parents need to establish a relationship of trust and respect with their teens, says Ryan. Laying down ironclad rules without explanation is a sure-fire way to spark dissent. “Teens react positively to respect more than almost any other style of engagement.”

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.



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