Should You Discipline Your Kids Differently?

Effective Discipline Strategies for Everyone

Discipline options

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

Any parent of multiple children knows that siblings can have very different personalities. And the discipline strategies that work well for one child may not work as well with another.

Creating completely different behavior plans for each child, however, could be overwhelming. A different set of rules and completely different consequences for each child could lead to complete chaos as you try to remember how to handle each child's misbehavior.

You can, however, tailor your discipline strategies to meet each child’s needs. A slightly different approach to a sensitive child as compared to a fearless child can be instrumental in helping everyone in your family grow together.

So while you don’t need to raise kids completely different, you should discipline each of your children a little differently.

The Goals of Healthy Discipline

Discipline shouldn’t just be about getting kids to comply. An obedient child who feels terrible about themselves isn’t likely to succeed in life.

Instead, healthy discipline should be about teaching kids how to make better choices—not shaming them for making a mistake.

A child who believes they are a good person who made a bad choice is much more likely to behave better in the future as compared to a child who believes they’re a bad person who isn’t capable of making good choices.

Rather than punish kids for "being bad," provide consequences that teach them to do better in the future.

Every child learns a little differently. Therefore, your teaching methods should vary a bit and be tailored to your child’s specific needs.

Healthy discipline should also encourage autonomy. The amount of freedom a child can handle, however, is highly dependent on their personality, maturity level, and intelligence. To help them become their personal best, it’s important to find the right balance of freedom and guidance so that your child can thrive.

Match Discipline to Your Child’s Temperament

While you’re overall discipline style may remain the same (you might be authoritative with all your kids for example), and your discipline approach (from positive discipline to behavior modification) might remain consistent, the specific tools you use should be matched to each child’s unique temperament.

Temperament is the set of inborn traits that organizes a child’s approach to the world. So while one child may approach new people and experiences with curiosity and excitement, a child with a different temperament may be more fearful and slow to warm up to new people.

There isn’t one temperament that is better than another. They’re just different. And your disciplinary strategies should match those differences.

One child may respond well to praise and rewards for good behavior. A child with a different temperament may need a lot of structure to excel. And another may respond best to the loss of privileges.

In addition to noting your child’s temperament, it’s also important to pay attention to your own temperament. It will likely fit better with some children’s temperaments than others.

For example, if you are an introvert who enjoys a lot of structure and organization, you might find parenting your children who appreciate similar things to be easy. But you will likely encounter some struggles when parenting a loud, rambunctious child who thrives when they’re surrounded by people and new activities.

Similarly, if you love lots of activity and you enjoy being spontaneous, you may easily overwhelm a child who is slow to warm up to new people and experiences.

Understanding your child’s temperament can help you accept qualities that you can’t change while also assisting you in developing an approach that will help your child thrive.

Things to Consider

When thinking about how to best discipline your child, consider all of your child’s needs. A clumsy child with few friends who is struggling academically may have very different needs than an athletic, happy-go-lucky, confident child. Here are some specific questions to ask yourself:

  • How much structure does your child need? Some kids do well with chore charts, bedtime routines, and checklists. Others need less structure to thrive.
  • How does your child respond to praise and rewards? Kids who respond well to praise may thrive when reminded that they’re staying on task, working hard, and following the rules. Others may need more negative consequences to help them stay on course.
  • Does your child have good social and emotional skills? Misbehavior often stems from a lack of skills, not just defiance. So it’s important to consider if your child’s outbursts, meltdowns, or interruptions are a sign that they need more support.
  • Does your child need opportunities to practice certain skills before entering new situations? Some children need to practice skills, like “walking feet,” before entering the library. You may need to do more pre-teaching with these kids, while other kids may grow more anxious if they hear about rules ahead of time.
  • How much of an explanation does your child need? Some children are happy to follow the rules as long as they understand them. These kids need a simple explanation of the reason behind your rules or the reason for your consequences.
  • What types of consequences are likely to work best? Taking away TV might be a major consequence for some kids, but others will be unfazed. Think about what types of consequences will teach the best lessons. Keep in mind that some consequences might do more harm than good with certain kids. Taking away social activities from a child with depression, for example, might take a bigger toll on their mental health.
  • What does your child need to feel safe, secure, and loved? Kids behave best when they feel sure about themselves and your love for them. So while long talks may help some kids feel good, others may need reassurance that you’re willing to give them consequences when they can’t control their behavior.
  • How can you see things from your child’s point of view? It’s important to understand your child. Do their behavioral problems stem from fear? Are they trying their best? Do they struggle to see how their behavior affects others? Understanding their viewpoint will help you craft a response that speaks to them personally.

Discipline According to Your Child’s Maturity Level

Your disciplinary strategies should be appropriate to your child’s development. Consider each child’s ability to handle responsibility. Pay less attention to your child’s age.

Don’t worry about having a specific age where kids can stay home alone or own a smartphone. Instead, make those responsibilities contingent on your child’s ability to show they can handle those responsibilities.

If your child doesn’t pick up after themselves and they constantly lose everything, they may be showing you that they aren’t yet ready for a smartphone, no matter how old they are.

Or if you have a child who can’t pay attention to potential safety issues, staying home alone isn’t a safe option. You may need to wait until they develop the skills and emotional maturity to demonstrate that they can take care of themselves and the house while you’re away.

The behaviors you are addressing should also be appropriate for your child’s maturity level.

A preschooler who struggles to sit still at the table during dinner may respond well to a sticker chart that helps them get through a meal without running around.

But a tween who has mastered that skill may need a reward system to help remind them to do their chores.

Consequences should be age appropriate too. Younger kids may respond well to timeout while older children may need to lose privileges, such as their electronics, in order to learn a lesson.

Establish specific expectations for each child. Assign older kids more responsibilities, such as chores and later bedtimes.

Create Household Rules for Everyone to Follow

While it’s important to pick your battles wisely and discipline each kid according to their needs, there should be some household rules that are non-negotiable and that you expect everyone to follow.

Whether you don’t allow running in the house or you insist everyone wash their hands before dinner, create household rules that are the same for everyone.

Household rules might involve matters of respect—such as knocking on closed doors or asking before borrowing items. They might also involve morality—such as telling the truth.

Keep the household rules simple. And make sure that the adults are willing to follow these rules too.

You might establish similar consequences for everyone who breaks the rules. For example, if someone breaks something, the consequence might be paying to replace it. Finding the money to cover the costs may involve doing extra chores.

You'll have to consider the age range of your children when determining consequences since toddlers and teens should have different consequences for their actions.

Fair Doesn’t Always Mean Equal

There will be times when your kids are likely to complain, “But that’s not fair!” when they see their siblings being treated a little differently.

Explain that “being fair” doesn’t always mean “being equal.” Some kids naturally require more attention, more praise, and more support than others.

Here are some tips for talking to kids about issues of fairness:

  • Avoid comparing your kids. Saying things like, “Well, if you’d be more like your sister, you can have that too,” will breed resentment. Instead, focus on reminding kids of their strengths and telling them what they can do to earn more responsibility.
  • Acknowledge the differences when they’re obvious. It’s OK to point out that you discipline everyone a little differently. The kids will likely notice regardless of whether you say it out loud, so you might as well point it out. Say something like, “Your brother needs a little extra help getting ready for school in the morning. That’s why he has a sticker chart. You don’t need one because you get ready for school on time.”
  • Validate your child’s feelings. When a child expresses frustration or sadness over the differences in discipline or issues of fairness, validate their feelings. Say things like, “I know it must be hard to feel like this sometimes.” Kids often just want to be heard.
  • Encourage kids to compete against themselves. In an effort to reduce sibling rivalry, encourage kids to compete against themselves, not each other. For example, say, “You’re hustling so much more on the soccer field than you did last year,” or “Look how much better you got at math just this week!” This will help each child strive to become their personal best.

A Word From Verywell

The point of all good discipline is to help kids develop the self-discipline they need to make good decisions on their own. Each child will need a slightly different process to help them do that. So show some flexibility in your teaching methods, and work to help each child thrive so they can grow up to become responsible adults.

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By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.