How should I discipline my child?

Parents wish their pre- and early adolescent had more self-control and better judgment. They want to spend less time supervising and disciplining their child. Yet, kids these ages continue to be irresponsible at times. They may make bad decisions, spend too much money, stay out too long, show disrespect, curse, skip a class, or neglect chores.

In some families, discipline becomes a major issue. Kids misbehave frequently or in serious ways and parents struggle for control. In other families, misbehavior is minor, and discipline is not a source of stress. The difference often lies in the nature of the parent-child relationship.

Parents who show continual love and respect for their child, spend time with her, and communicate their values give her a strong incentive to behave well. She values her relationship with them and wants to please, not disappoint them. In addition, the guilt she feels if she lets them down helps keep her from doing something wrong, even when they aren’t there to supervise.

To improve your child’s behavior, begin by strengthening your relationship with her. The closer you are, the more effectively you can influence her conscience and help her become self-disciplined. Take an interest in her activities and include her in yours. Let her know that you care about her opinions and feelings, and that your love—although not necessarily your approval—is unconditional.

If she does something wrong, show your anger and disappointment, but don’t yell insults or use put-downs and sarcasm: “I told you that you couldn’t watch TV until you finished your homework and I expect you to listen to me.” It can be useful to stir up some feelings of guilt or shame to help her remember how to act: “When you didn’t call, I was worried that something happened to you.” You want her to think about the consequences of her behavior. She may act more responsibly next time in order to avoid feeling bad. One twelve-year-old said, “Feeling guilty is worse than getting grounded.”

Talk to your child about her misbehavior: “Why did you go home with Jeremy when I told you not to?” Listen to her side, and then explain what was wrong with her actions and what the consequences will be. A discussion is more effective than a lecture, especially because at these ages she feels that her good intentions should count as much as her actions: “I went home with Jeremy because he needed my help with homework.” She will tune you out or react angrily if you do all the talking and she’s forced to listen to long, negative comments about herself.

Don’t slap or hit her. Her behavior will become worse rather than better. She’ll be so angry that she’ll continue to misbehave or she’ll aim her resentment at siblings and peers, becoming aggressive, rebellious, and selfish.

Although physical punishment is not effective, let her know her misbehavior will have consequences. Use whatever seems to work best: grounding; taking away allowance or privileges; refusing permission to use the phone, computer, or TV.

Be sure the consequences you pick will have the desired effect—to get your child thinking about and improving her behavior. If you always ground her for a day or two, she may continue to misbehave, knowing the punishment is short-lived and not severe.

On the other hand, don’t be too harsh or strict. If she’s grounded for weeks or months or constantly loses her allowance, she’ll focus on her unfair treatment. She’ll be unwilling to change her behavior, and if she’s forced to, she’ll misbehave in other ways. She may become sneaky, resentful, or withdrawn.

In general, be flexible about consequences. If one technique doesn’t work, try another. You may need to talk more and punish less. Or, if you depend too heavily on reasoning with your child, you may need to set firmer limits with heavier consequences. If you’re having trouble finding an effective punishment, ask her what she thinks a fair consequence for her misbehavior would be. While her suggestions may be too mild or too harsh, you may get some useful ideas.

Remember that setting limits alone won’t solve ongoing behavior problems. Continually work on establishing better communication and understanding. Look for the causes of inappropriate behavior. Are there frequent family conflicts? Is she dealing with your divorce? School difficulties? Does she feel neglected or less favored than a sibling? You may need a therapist’s help to find the roots of discipline problems.

Finally, set a good example. Show her, through your actions, how you expect her to behave and treat people. Try to be thoughtful, concerned, and courteous with others as well as with her.

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