Younger than three years
As a parent, you want to teach your child right from wrong. Discipline is often part of your strategy. How do you know what discipline strategies are right for your child’s age?
Your baby or toddler is learning about the world around them. You can help them learn right from wrong by removing items from reach that you don’t want your child to have. They are naturally curious about what things feel like and do. The desire to throw or put things in their mouth is normal.
When you remove an item, tell your child no and explain why the item is off-limits. Your child may not understand the “why” at first. Over time, they will. By the time your child is old enough to understand, you’ve established a habit of offering a reason.
You can also offer a distraction when you take an item away. This helps prevent a tantrum over being told no. It also teaches your child appropriate toys or activities.
As your baby gets closer to age two, you can begin to introduce timeouts. Keep in mind that timeout is not used to punish your child but instead to give an opportunity to calm down. If you can, frame timeout in this way, so your child learns to use that time to calm their emotions.
A timeout of one to two minutes is appropriate at this age. Any longer will only frustrate your child and make the situation worse. The timeout can be a designated chair, stool, or bottom step to your staircase.
Three to eight years
By the age of three, your child begins to understand rules. You must be patient in repeating rules and expectations as they learn. You can help your child by giving a single instruction at a time.
You can still use timeouts. Try having your child sit for one minute per year old. You can also begin to introduce other forms of discipline that make sense for each misbehavior. For example, if your child makes a mess, they should help clean it up. If your child breaks a toy, playtime is over.
You can also help your child by offering an alternative to what they shouldn’t do. For example, you may want to say, “Don’t put your cup on the floor.” Instead, you can say, “Please put your cup on the kitchen table when you’re done drinking.” This helps your child to understand what the expectation is.
Most important, follow through with consistent discipline. In these early years, you teach your child how you make rules and how they follow the rules. When you make empty threats and don’t follow through with consequences, you teach your child that they can test your limits.
You should also avoid threatening discipline that you can’t follow through on. You don’t want to tell your child they can “never” do anything again. It’s unlikely that they’ll never watch TV or play a game again over a single incident.
Week-long or month-long punishments are also not great because they discourage your child more than teaching them a lesson. If you do deem that a longer punishment is needed, outline ways your child can earn privileges back sooner.
Remember that rewarding good behavior is just as important as disciplining bad behavior. You can reinforce discipline strategies by praising your child when they make the right choice the first time. “Great job, you remembered to put your cup on the kitchen table.” Children thrive on encouragement, so offer positive reinforcement as often as you can.
Nine to twelve years
Continue to look for ways you can tailor discipline to a child’s behavior. Your child is now old enough that discipline should teach independence and responsibility. You have to balance varying forms of discipline with allowing your child to learn from their mistakes.
In some cases, the best course you can take is allowing your child to face the natural consequences of an error. For example, if your child doesn’t complete a project for school, you have several options:
- Make them complete the project against their wishes
- Help them complete the project
- Allow them to go to school without the project
When you swoop in and save them, you don’t allow them to learn about consequences. If you send your child to school without the project complete, they have to face the consequences at school. They may receive a failing grade or feel embarrassed when they don’t have a presentation to give like the rest of their classmates.
Thirteen and older
By the time your child reaches the teenage years, they should know the difference between right and wrong. They understand basic safety concerns and what is expected of them. But discipline and teaching are just as important as at any other age.
Removing privileges is a great way to offer discipline to teenagers. You can help your child by setting clear expectations for friends, curfews, technology, and homework. Give your child some control over decision-making and setting boundaries. If they have real choices and expect real rewards and consequences, they feel empowered.
General discipline tips for all ages
The foundation of discipline is the same across ages, and these tips can help you no matter how old your child is:
- Model the attitude and behaviors you want to see in your child
- Listen to your child when they are upset
- Problem-solve together
- Be very specific when disciplining and giving praise
- Know when to ignore behaviors instead of engaging
- Plan ahead for times when you may expect your child to act out
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American Psychological Association: "Positive Discipline by Age."
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