“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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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