Core Components of Effective Child Discipline

Mother having a serious talk with a young boy
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When most parents think about discipline, consequences and punishment come to mind. But effective discipline is more than just time-outs and loss of privileges. In fact, those consequences aren't likely to be effective if the bulk of your discipline focuses on negative consequences.

5 Core Components of Healthy and Effective Child Discipline

Healthy discipline should include these five core components:

A Healthy Relationship With Your Child

If you don't have a healthy relationship with your child, discipline isn’t likely to work. Your child will be much more motivated to listen to what you have to say when he respects your opinion. The need for a healthy relationship stems beyond biological parents. Step-parents, teachers, and daycare providers will be much more effective when they have a healthy relationship with a child.

Discipline as a Teaching Tool

If discipline is reserved for correcting misbehavior only, it won't be very effective. If you find yourself constantly saying things like, “Don’t do that,” and “You’re in time-out,” without teaching him the correct behavior, he won't learn. And that means he'll be more likely to repeat that mistake again.

To really help a child change his behavior, discipline should be used as a teaching tool. That means helping your child identify what to do instead. So rather than tell him not to hit his sister, make sure you also invest time into teaching him to resolve conflict peacefully.

Consistent Discipline

If you only put your child in time-out one out of every five times that he hits his brother, he’s not going to stop hitting his brother. After all, it’s worth the risk if there’s only a 20 percent chance he’ll get into trouble.

To be effective, discipline needs to be applied consistently. Discipline also needs to be linked to new skill-sets. Your child will continue a behavior if they are unsure what the healthier replacement behavior is. Although time-out might seem like an effective strategy, it doesn't teach a new skill. It doesn't teach the child what to do instead.

In other words, if your child engaged in a behavior due to poor impulse control, teach him ways to pause, stop, and think before doing something. Practice this while playing, making meals together, crossing the street, and responding to a question.

Immediate Consequences

Immediate consequences help kids connect the dots between their behavior and the consequence. If a child doesn’t lose her phone privileges for at least a week after she lied about getting her homework done on time, the consequence won’t be as effective.

There may certainly be times that you can’t give an immediate consequence. Sometimes, you may not discover your child has broken the rules until hours – or even days – later. In those instances, a late consequence may be your only option. But it’s important to avoid saying things like, “Wait until your father gets home,” because a consequence served several hours later will be less effective.

Fair Consequences

If your 12-year-old forgets to do his homework one night, and you ground him from using any electronics for a month, your child isn’t likely to perceive that as a fair consequence.

So he may sneak in some phone time when you’re not around. Or, he may turn on the TV when you’re not paying attention. He isn’t likely to abide by the consequence if he doesn’t think you’ve given him a fair deal.

When kids are convinced they’ve been served an injustice, they’ll fight it every step of the way. That doesn’t mean you should always negotiate with your child and give in when they protest about the consequence you have handed down, but it does mean you should ensure that the consequences are not overly harsh.

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.