5 Discipline Strategies That Actually Work

An illustration with discipline strategies to try with your child

Verywell / Alison Czinkota

All kids occasionally do wrong, break the rules, and test limits. That's part of being a kid and learning proper behavior. It's the parents' role to set boundaries and offer effective discipline to discourage undesirable behavior and reinforce the good. Parents know this, but the job is often much easier said than done. In fact, just about every parent will admit that figuring out the best way to react to misbehavior can be really challenging, especially in the heat of the moment.

When adults respond in a calm, helpful, consistent manner focused on teaching their kids to do better, they learn to make improved choices in the future, says Caroline Fulton, PsyD, a child and adolescent psychologist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, Illinois. However, not all adult interventions are created equal, and some may do more harm than good.

Namely, parents tend to use either consequences or punishments. Punishments typically fuel more negative behavior—and may harm a child's self-esteem and the parent-child relationship. Consequences, however, turn discipline into learning opportunities and help kids understand what they did wrong. Learn more about discipline practices that will actually work to curb future transgressions.

Consequence vs. Punishment Differences

While both consequences and punishments aim to shape and manage kids' behavior, there are big differences in how they impact kids, says Dr. Fulton. Punishments are about making kids suffer or feel shame for their mistakes. They may be intended to make kids feel bad. While consequences may involve some discomfort, the goal is for the child to link their behavior with the results of their actions to gain the needed motivation to make a different choice next time.

Examples of Punishments

Punishments are not necessarily related to the child's behavior and may include yelling, criticizing, embarrassing, threatening, taking away privileges, or physical harm (also called corporal punishment or spanking). For instance, if a 5-year-old doesn't pick up their toys when asked, their parent might spank them. The physical pain is intended to become a reminder to the child never to do the behavior again. However, research shows that instead, the child may simply feel fear, anger, or resentment for being hit.

Other examples include responding to a child's misbehavior at school by giving them an embarrassing haircut to "teach them a lesson" or shaming a tween who isn't keeping their room picked up by taking pictures and posting them on social media.

"Punishments often cause children to feel bad about who they are—as opposed to what they did," says Aliza Pressman, PhD, a psychologist at Mount Sinai Kravis Children’s Hospital in New York City and an assistant clinical professor in the department of pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Additionally, children who experience self-worth issues become more likely to misbehave in the future.

Punishments can also be counterproductive because they cause kids to focus on their anger toward their parents, rather than think about what they can do better next time, explains Dr. Pressman. For example, a child may think, "My mom is mean," instead of, "I made a mistake." 

What Makes a Consequence Effective?

Consequences are an effective strategy when they link the child's actions to the end result, allowing them to truly learn from their behavior choices, says Dr. Fulton. Rather than intending to make a child suffer for a mistake, consequences focus on teaching children how to do better in the future. Children aren't embarrassed or shamed by their mistakes. Instead, they experience a reasonable or expected consequence from their behavior. This is a tremendous learning opportunity.

For instance, if a 5-year-old doesn't pick up their toys when they're told to do so, their parents may take their toys away for the rest of the day. This is effective because the experience will help the child to remember to put them away next time so that they can keep enjoying their toys.

If a 7-year-old talks back to their parent, they may assign an extra chore for them to complete. This tactic works because then the child is more likely to curb their disrespectful talk to avoid doing extra chores. Likewise, if a 12-year-old doesn't clean their bedroom, they may not be allowed to use their phone until their room is clean, a reaction that acts as a motivator to get the job done.

Discipline Strategies to Try

Effective discipline is tailored to the misbehavior and developmental stage of your child. Using consequences aims to teach rather than punish. Here are five effective discipline strategies to try.

Set Clear Expectations

Clearly defining your expectations helps to set your child up for success. It may seem obvious to adults what behavior is acceptable, but kids don't necessarily know until they are explicitly told—and can practice. Be sure to go over the behavior you do and do not want from them.

Additionally, talk to your kids about what the consequences will be if they misbehave before it happens, advises Dr. Pressman. You can even include them in coming up with the consequences for common mistakes. Making them part of this process can encourage buy-in and will help reinforce the need to follow your rules and expectations. Plus, it ensures they know the consequences if and when they don't comply.

Logical Consequences

Logical consequences are created by adults and are directly related to the child's misbehavior, explains Dr. Fulton. If a child is abusing their phone privileges, their phone gets taken away. If they don't put their bike or other sporting equipment away when asked, then those items may be sequestered for a certain length of time by the adult so that the child learns to be responsible for their belongings.

Natural Consequences

Natural consequences are another effective form of consequences. These require the parent to simply allow the results of the child's actions to occur. Natural consequences are a direct result of a child’s behaviors and can help them develop intrinsic motivation to improve behavior, explains Dr. Fulton. Adults may allow kids to face the natural consequences of their choices when it's safe to do so and when a child is likely to learn an important life lesson.

For instance, if a child forgets to bring a coat to school, they may end up cold during recess. If they don't study for a test, they may not do well. If they don't get ready on time, they may end up missing their soccer practice.

"Both logical and natural consequences are instructive for children, helping to cultivate their awareness of their behavior, the results of their actions, and motivation to do better next time," says Dr. Pressman. Using these discipline approaches does not shame or seek to upset a child, rather they are a respectful way to help your child become more responsible and learn and develop autonomy.

Note that it's important to make sure that natural consequences are safe and appropriate for your child, says Dr. Fulton. While it's acceptable to let an older child set their bedtime or go without a coat or a snack, a toddler or preschooler isn't mature enough to make these choices for themselves. Likewise, children need to be protected from potential harm, such as burning themselves on a stove or cutting themselves with a knife.

"Healthy consequences help children continue to feel good about themselves while also giving them confidence that they can do better next time," says Dr. Pressman.

Time-out

Time-out is an effective tactic to use with younger children, particularly toddlers through preschoolers. The time-out needn't be long; in fact, it's ideal if it's short, such as one minute per year of age. The aim should be to allow for a reset. It's not about making the child feel bad, but rather it's a chance to stop, calm down, reflect, and try again. Name the behavior that is unacceptable. Let them know the time-out is a chance to start over.

Time-out also doesn't need to be done in solitude, instead choose a place where the child feels comfortable, calm, and safe. Typically, you have your child sit for a set amount of time before discussing what happened and what your expectations are for next time. However, they could also lie down, go to their bedroom, or go on a walk.

Consistency and Flexibility

Consistency is crucial for discipline to be effective. Kids are primed to test limits and actually find comfort in set boundaries. If you move yours around constantly, they won't really know what is acceptable and what isn't. But if you stick to your agenda and impose the consequences you set, then your child will feel secure in knowing what they can and can not do—and be more likely to fulfill your expectations. Children learn self-discipline, patience, and self-awareness when rules are consistent.

That said, it's also OK to be somewhat flexible, says Dr. Pressman. For example, if you're on vacation, you might ease your screen time or dessert rules. Or for a special occasion, you may let your teen stay out an hour later than their typical curfew. Being flexible shows your child that you are responsive to their desires and doing so may help them be even more motivated to follow your rules the rest of the time.

How to Know If Your Discipline Strategy Is Working

You'll know your discipline strategy is working if and when your child stops doing the misbehavior you're trying to curtail. However, don't expect immediate compliance or perfection from your child, says Dr. Pressman. They may need to experience a consequence a few times before its lesson sinks in. Plus, kids tend to react against new discipline strategies at first in order to make sure you are serious. Following through consistently lets your child know that you are.

Also, know that you may need to try out several different discipline tactics before finding the one that clicks with your child, says Dr. Pressman. For example, if letting your child experience the natural consequence of not picking up their room doesn't encourage them to tidy up, then try a logical consequence instead, such as no screens until the room is clean. Adjusting your approach will help you get the results you're hoping for.

A Word From Verywell

There are a lot of discipline tactics to try if your child is having behavior issues. However, some are better than others. Punishments may work in the short term. Children may comply when they fear you or when they want you to stop inflicting pain or humiliation. But in the long term, punishments backfire and can cause low-self esteem and harm the parent-child bond. Also, they lose effectiveness because kids aren't learning the skills that they need to make better choices. 

Instead, using logical and natural consequences, consistency, time-outs, and clear expectations help children see that they made a poor choice, but they are capable of doing better in the future. Ultimately, consequences are more effective at improving behavior problems in children because they turn mistakes into opportunities for guidance in a kind, nurturing way.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. How to shape and manage your young child's behavior.

  2. Sege RD, Siegel BS. Effective discipline to raise healthy children [policy statement]. Pediatrics. 2018;142(6):e20183112.

  3. American Academy of Pediatrics. Where we stand: spanking.

  4. American Academy of Pediatrics. Independence, one step at a time.

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. What's the best way to discipline my child?

  6. American Academy of Pediatrics. How to give a time-out.

Additional Reading

By Sarah Vanbuskirk
Sarah Vanbuskirk is a writer and editor with 20 years of experience covering parenting, health, wellness, lifestyle, and family-related topics. Her work has been published in numerous magazines, newspapers, and websites, including Activity Connection, Glamour, PDX Parent, Self, TripSavvy, Marie Claire, and TimeOut NY.

Originally written by
Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin

Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, international bestselling author and host of the The Verywell Mind Podcast.

Learn about our editorial process