As both a father and a psychologist for the last 23 years, I'm all about setting healthy behavior boundaries for my kids and giving my children "consequences" when necessary. I also make sure my kids show me the respect that all parents are due. But as a "yeller in recovery," I learned the hard way that shouting at your kids and issuing commands does little to stop defiant behavior. In fact, it tends to fuel defiance.
Many parents that I've counseled over the years tended to view discipline as the way to "show my child who is boss" or "make him pay for his mistakes." I'm all for supporting your parental authority and having your child be accountable for his negative actions. But you must consider discipline as a way to teach your child rather than a way to control him or her. This is the only way to make discipline work for you and your child.
Let me put it another way: Before you can discipline your child effectively, you must first have the self-discipline to understand your child. Understanding your child is just as important, if not more important, than loving him or her. Think about how many adults have felt loved but not really understood as children. You may even know some.
Consider the origins of the word "discipline." It comes from the word "disciple," which, of course, is a person who receives instruction from another person. Parents who have what I call a "punishment mentality" don't teach their children to make positive changes in their behavior. Instead, these parents use shame, and intimidation to influence their kids to behave differently. Nothing will fail more quickly when trying to encourage positive changes in your defiant child than blindly and rigidly adhering to this approach.
Here are six smart strategies for disciplining your child:
1. Set a good example. Like it or not, you're a role model for your child. If you want to teach your child that being inflexible won't help resolve conflicts or problems, then don't be rigid yourself. Remember, yelling is nothing more than a grown-up temper tantrum. Is that really the kind of example you want to set for your child? Is that the way you want your child to remember you?
2. Be consistent. Consistency is critical to effective discipline. If you give an "if, then" statement, you must follow through with the "then" part. Many fathers complain to me that they are just too tired to follow-up on their "thens." Look, we've all fallen into this trap at one time or another. But the more consistent you are, the more you will conserve your energy in the long run because you'll be putting a stop to the misbehavior.
3. Try to understand what fuels your child's defiant behavior. Over the years, I've seen countless fathers give consequences without ever considering why their children's problematic behavior occurred in the first place. To set consequences that make sense to the child and support the kind of behavior you want to support, you must understand why your child is acting the way he or she is. Consequences alone won't teach your child values, and without your valuable guidance they will not work. How many times have you seen a child with overly strict parents act out-or become lost?
4. Take emotion out of the equation. When you give consequences to your child, be firm and non-controlling — and, above all, stay calm. How can you give consequences and still appear non-controlling to your child? Good question. As long as you think about teaching your child proper behavior, and not forcing it down his or her throat, you'll come across as non-controlling. Trust me — the more emotion you take out of discipline, the more effective it is.
5. Use consequences that make sense. When most dads hear the word "discipline" they think of "consequences." This usually means taking away privileges. This may sound obvious, but you'd be surprised how many mothers and fathers forget that children learn from consequences only if they know that what they did was wrong. Yes, many defiant children know that their actions are inappropriate. But this is not always the case. Is grounding your child for three weeks going to help you get to the root of why she was acting so moody? Is excluding your child from the family vacation really addressing the underlying problem? Before you respond with "trigger happy" consequences, ask yourself, "Is my child aware that he has done something wrong — and does he understand the extent to which it creates a problem?" Taking away things from your child when you are frustrated may feel good at the time, but after he throws a fit, then what?
6. Make sure your consequences come on the heels of your child's misbehavior. The "wait till your father gets home!" school of discipline is a bad approach. Delayed consequences just give defiant children time to rev up and become more likely to avoid taking responsibility or their actions. Immediate responses that occur soon after misbehavior are much more effective.
Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein is a psychologist with over 23 years experience specializing in child, adolescent, couples, and family therapy. He holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the State University of New York at Albany and completed his post doctoral internship at the University of Pennsylvania Counseling Center. He has appeared on the The Today Show, Court TV as an expert advisor, CBS eyewitness news Philadelphia, 10! Philadelphia—NBC and public radio. Dr. Bernstein has authored four books, including the highly popular 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (Perseus Books, 2006) 10 Days to Less Distracted Child (Perseus Books 2007), Liking the Child You Love (Perseus Books, 2009) and Why Can't You Read My Mind (Perseus Books, 2003)