5 Reasons Discipline Isn’t Working with Your Child

Parents Pointing at Daughter“Discipline just doesn’t work for my child! We have tried everything and nothing works!”

Does this sound familiar? Are you frustrated that timeouts, positive reinforcement, or even threats don’t seem to be effective at addressing your child’s oppositional behavior? Here are five reasons your attempts at discipline may not be producing the results you would like:

  1. Giving up too soon: One tricky thing about implementing an effective discipline strategy is that things can sometimes get worse before they get better. There is a logical reason for this (no matter how disheartening it may feel): children are smart! They use the behaviors they use because they work. If throwing a fit, crying, and screaming in the store convinces you to buy a toy or treat that you did not intend to buy, then the strategy worked. If that strategy stops working, the child may increase the behaviors—scream louder, cry harder—to attempt to change the outcome. Before the child will abandon the strategy, he or she will have to become convinced that no matter how long or loud he/she screams or cries, it will not accomplish his/her goal. Give a new technique time to work. Behaviors take time to learn and unlearn.
  2. Poor execution: Children are not the only ones who need time to learn new behaviors! Parents do, too. Expect that you will make mistakes and that mastering new skills may take some time. Be patient and forgiving with yourself as you try out new strategies. I recommend choosing one skill to focus on at a time. Then, choose one specific issue, event, or time of day that you will practice implementing that skill. Once you have mastered that, consider what skill you would like to work on next.
  3. Inconsistency: All too often, parents implement a great strategy but it is not effective because they do not use it consistently. Children need repetition, predictability, and consistency to learn and to feel safe. Consistency is vital to the effectiveness of any discipline strategy. In fact, consistent implementation of discipline is more effective, and predictive of success, than harshness of punishment. Remember, discipline is intended to teach your child. Harsh punishments teach children to hide unwanted behaviors. Consistency teaches children where the boundaries are and allows them to anticipate the consequences of their choices.
  4. Stuck in a power struggle: If your child immediately disagrees with everything you say—regardless of what it is—you may be stuck in a power struggle. When parents sense they are losing control, the instinct may be to “tighten the reins” or “crack down” on unwanted behaviors. However, oppositional children rarely respond favorably to micromanagement or coercion. The truth is that it is a developmental task of children to seek independence and learn to express their own will and choices. To a strong-willed or oppositional child, it may feel like an insult to his or her very personhood to lose control of his/her choices. Unfortunately, this can lead to a cycle of increasing escalation between a parent and child who are struggling to gain control.
  5. Not following through: You have to mean what you say. There is just no way around it. If you tell your son he can play with Legos after dinner, he should be able to count on the fact that, unless something extraordinary happens, he really will get to play with Legos after dinner. (No, feeling exhausted after dinner does not count as something extraordinary happening!) Telling your daughter that you will put the crayons away for the rest of the day if she colors on the table will be effective only if your daughter believes that you will follow through and put the crayons away. Children have to trust what you say if you want to be able to provide effective guidance or discipline.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Betsy Smith, MEd, LPC-S, Oppositional and Defiant Behavior in Children and Teens Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • marianne

    February 18th, 2015 at 9:20 AM

    A big part of this when your kids know that you are bluffing then they know they don’t really have to do what you are asking (telling?) them to do. If they don’t think that you are serious, and they know that they can do what they want and there will be no consequences for that, then why are they going to bother to mind you?

  • christopher

    February 18th, 2015 at 9:49 AM

    Well written informative article.. good to read..
    thanks chris

  • Betsy

    February 18th, 2015 at 10:14 AM

    Great point, Marianne. Kids are experts at calling a bluff!

  • Betsy

    February 18th, 2015 at 10:15 AM

    Thanks, Chris!

  • Gloria

    February 18th, 2015 at 12:42 PM

    My daughter and I definitely went through a time when we were just push and pull, always one of us trying to get the best of the other. We spent more time thinking about how to be adversarial with one another than we did about how to be in this together. It took both of us doing a little growing up to come to the conclusion that we were all we had, so lets make the most of it.

  • Janna

    February 18th, 2015 at 1:59 PM

    I want to be friends with my kids but I want to be their mother first and I think that this is where a lot of people are making their mistake. They think that they have to be best friends with their kids and I just want to look at them and tell them that your kids likely have enough friends- what they need is someone who will lay out the rules for them and keep them in line. This does n’t have to be done in a mean spirited way, as a matter of fact it should be done with love and kindness, but they need that discipline and it needs to come from the home.

  • dylan

    February 19th, 2015 at 5:04 AM

    Easy for people to talk about who don’t have kids but when you have a willful child and you feel like you have tried everything and nothing is working… you kind of feel like why keep trying if nothing is gonna work anyway>

  • Betsy

    February 19th, 2015 at 9:03 AM

    Dylan–I think that a lot of parents can relate to what you just expressed! Thanks for being honest about that; I imagine it is encouraging to other parents to hear that they are not the only ones who feel that way.

  • dylan

    February 19th, 2015 at 10:35 AM

    Thanks for the kind words Betsy. We have a child that nothing seems to ever go right with and then has been from the word go. We have tried most everything and have been persistent but he is still kind of out of control. You know, I never wanted to have the kid that teachers hated to think about having in their class, but there it is and I am sure that this has been what he experiences at school. We are so afraid of him being blackballed socially or doing something to hurt someone and we feel just a little lost.

  • Jane

    February 20th, 2015 at 4:10 AM

    I know that for a while we got into this thinking that if it worked for one it should work for the other and that is so not true.
    We had to completely modify what we did with our oldest and try something different with #2, and once we started modifying a little, that gave everyone more of a feeling like ok, we can do this.

  • wallace

    February 21st, 2015 at 9:20 AM

    Can I just say that I think that young couples today are doing everyone a grave disservice by not making their kids behave? Listen, I am a parent and I know it can a struggle but no one ever said ever that they like to be around a kid who won’t behave while in the company of others. It just doesn’t happen. So find something that will make them mind and don’t really care about what others have to say about it. Your child, your problem, and your responsibility.

  • Leah

    February 23rd, 2015 at 3:43 AM

    Yes, I think that we for the most part look at what the child is doing to contribute to the problem without really thinking about what the parent is equally doing to contribute to the problem.

    We forget just how important it is to be repetitive, to be consistent, to be thorough… all of these things we think that we would like to see in others we tend to forget about when it is our own child to discipline.

    But we have to stay the course if we ever want anything to work, it has to become habitual for all of us, and if you try and don’t succeed, then that is not the time to give up- it might just mean that it is time to try something new.

  • georgette

    February 23rd, 2015 at 10:22 AM

    I think that you will see this alot when you have kids who have kids. They are still babies themselves- how are they supposed to know how to discipline a child when they aren’t yet even grown up?

  • Kaylin

    February 24th, 2015 at 3:50 AM

    What happened to instilling a sense of respect in your children? I never felt the need to act out because somewhere along the way I learned that I trusted and respected my mom and dad. Of course we all have our teenage rebellion issues, that’s a given, but as a child I thought that the sun and the moon revolved around my parents so to go against what they said wasn’t something that I would have ever even considered.

  • Dominique

    April 29th, 2015 at 12:43 AM

    Before anyone judges parents of oppositional children consider this: the child may have autism or some other neurological or mental health issue. It’s so easy to judge the parents. I used to do it myself until I had my son who is on the autistic spectrum. He is incredibly oppositional especially if things don’t go his way. We are good, loving, consistent parents who are at our wit’s end! I think we will try family therapy.

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