What Is the Difference Between Discipline and Child Abuse?

Young female child holding a stuffed animal while an adult's finger is pointed at her

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Children are blank pages, and it's the parents' responsibility to teach appropriate behaviors and life skills, and help kids learn right from wrong. At one point or another, this will likely involve employing some form of discipline to teach children why they should not repeat certain actions in the future.

While there are many different schools of thought when it comes to discipline and the methods that are most effective, none should ever toe the line of child abuse or come close to harming the child in any way. Here, learn how to differentiate clearly between discipline and child abuse and how to make sure you maintain a large chasm between the two.

Discipline vs. Child Abuse

On its most basic level, discipline means to teach, which is what most parents are hoping to do when disciplining their kids. “Teaching kids what your expectations are around behavior is great. But what a lot of people mean by discipline is rewarding and punishing,” says clinical child psychologist Ross Greene, PhD, founding director of the nonprofit Lives in the Balance and author of "Raising Human Beings."

The key to separating discipline from child abuse is to look at it from the perspective of teaching, not punishing. It’s when parents start to employ the latter that the potential for harm to the child starts to become a possibility.

“Punishment can turn into abuse when a caregiver is unable to self-regulate,” notes licensed psychologist Jaclyn Halpern, PsyD., director of the SOAR program at Washington Behavioral Medicine Associates. “Leaving a child alone for a few minutes while a caregiver is calm, nearby, and available to attune to basic needs like using the bathroom is very different than denying a child access to the bathroom, or withholding food, drink, sleep, clothes, or safety.”

Types of Child Abuse

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, child abuse is anything that results in harm, the potential for harm, or the threat of harm to a child under the age of 18. Here are the different types to be aware of.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is the intentional use of physical force against a child that results in an injury. This could include acts such as hitting (with a hand or an object), kicking, shaking, burning (with hot water, a cigarette, or an iron), restraining a child (by tying them up), depriving a child of air (by holding them underwater, for example), or any other act in which an adult is using force to physically hurt a child.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is any act, be it words or other actions, that is deployed to purposefully hurt a child’s self-worth or emotional well-being. These include strategies like name-calling, shaming, withholding love, threatening, rejection, and hurtful criticism.

Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse is when a child is involuntarily involved in a sexual act that violates the laws or social norms of society. This means they do not fully comprehend, do not consent to, or are unable to consent to a sexual act because they don’t understand what is going on or are not developmentally prepared to. The vast majority of child sexual abuse—91% of cases—is perpetrated by someone the child or the child’s family knows personally.

Neglect

Neglect occurs when a parent fails to meet a child’s basic physical and emotional needs. It includes failure to provide housing, food, clothing, education, and access to necessary medical care.

Abandonment

Often considered a type of neglect, abandonment is classified as any time in which the child’s parents' identity or whereabouts are unknown, the child has been left in a situation in which they suffer serious harm, or when the parent has failed to maintain contact with or provide support for the child for an extended period of time.

Parental Substance Use

There are a wide variety of circumstances related to substance use that are classified as abuse. While they vary from state to state, they generally include: exposing a child prenatally to substances due to the carrying parent's use; manufacture of a controlled substance in the presence of a child or where the child lives; keeping the chemicals or equipment used for manufacturing in the presence of a child; selling, distributing or giving drugs or alcohol to a child; or when a caregiver uses controlled substances in a way that impairs their ability to care for the child.

Types of Discipline

Research is continuously being done on the most effective forms of discipline, which are the ones that teach children better behavior as opposed to punishing them for "bad" behavior. Here are some of the most common discipline techniques.

Natural Consequences

Dr. Greene says that letting children learn from natural consequences can be effective. “These are inescapable, unavoidable, and inevitable,” he explains. “If you don’t study for a test you are likely to do poorly. If you don’t share your toys, Billy won’t want to play with you. These consequences are powerful and persuasive.”

While natural consequences can be a helpful learning tool, they should only be employed if they are safe. A child neglecting to bring their sweater into a restaurant, then being chilly, is relatively harmless. But allowing them to touch a hot stove to learn not to do so again can cause serious injuries—so it's best to use another type of consequence.

Logical Consequences

Logical consequences are adult-imposed results of misbehavior and should be directly related to the reason they are being used. For example, if a child draws on the wall rather than the paper that's been offered, the logical consequence would be to take away their crayons or markers. If a kid is watching shows on their tablet that have not been pre-approved, a logical consequence might be revoking their tablet privileges. It would not make sense to take their tablet away if they drew on the walls, or vice versa.

Catch Your Child Being Good

Positive consequences, like praising your child when they do something good, don’t limit discipline to just when your child misbehaves. Instead, you want to go out of your way to point out and commend when your child behaves in the way you want them to. If they offer to share their toys with a sibling or friend without being asked, you could say something like, "I really like how you shared your toys with Ellen. That was kind of you." Reinforcing good behavior will encourage them to choose it again in the future.

Collaboration and Proactive Solutions

Collaboration and proactive solutions focus on uncovering and solving the problem that is causing a child to act out. “We can’t be satisfied with improvements in the behavior if the problems that are causing those behaviors remain unsolved,” Dr. Greene says.

To reach a solution, Dr. Greene employs a three-step process: “Step one is gathering information from the kid about what’s difficult for them. You get that through communication.” This might look like you asking your child why they did what they did, or why they didn't do what they knew they should. For step two, you as the parent or caregiver should determine why it's important for the child to behave in the requested way.

“[In the final step], the child and their caregiver collaborate on a solution that addresses the concerns of both parties, rather than the adult just imposing their will,” Dr. Greene explains.

Of course, as the parent, you get the final say in what the repercussion will be. But asking your child what they think would be a fair consequence of their action can help them understand why they should avoid repeating it in the future, and help them learn.

“Going through this process solves the problem, improves the behavior associated with the problem, improves communication, and improves your relationship with your kid. And hopefully, it also enhances the skills the kid is lacking," Dr. Greene notes.

Time-Outs

Time-outs can be an effective discipline strategy when used correctly. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the best way to employ a time-out is to warn children they will get a time-out if they continue to misbehave, tell them what they did wrong in as few words and with as little emotion as possible, and then remove them from the situation for a preset length of time. The AAP recommends one minute per age or letting children who are at least three years old determine the length of their time-out themselves (within reason), which helps teach self-discipline.

How to Make Sure Discipline Doesn't Cross the Line

While it might not seem immediately obvious, the discipline strategies you employ—especially if they are utilizing punishment—may be closer to doing harm than you think. “Discipline is not punishment, so it is easy to distinguish it from abuse,” says Dr. Halpern. “However, there is often a fine line between punishment and abuse.”

A parent or caregiver may approach this line if the way they are behaving toward the child starts to mimic the way the child is behaving toward them. “There are times when children simply can’t self-regulate and they yell, cry, scream, or hit, often over a prolonged period,” explains Dr. Halpern. “In response, a caregiver may first reprimand, then yell, then threaten, and they may ultimately end up shaking or hitting their child once they can no longer control themselves.” This is a very clear sign that discipline is no longer effective and has crossed that line.

Discipline that starts as a reprimand can spiral in a similar way into emotional abuse. “When a parent shifts from focusing on the ‘why’ beneath the behavior, or even on the behavior itself, to attacking the child’s character, they are engaging in emotional abuse,” Dr. Halpern says. “Emotional abuse also occurs when a parent gives their child 'the quiet treatment' or withholds affection in an attempt to manage behavior.”

Neglect is also a possibility if a parent or caregiver shifts from sending a child to their room to cool down to locking them in so that they can’t leave to use the bathroom or access food and water.

The bottom line: Focusing on the “why” behind your child's behavior, using discipline as a teaching opportunity, and not escalating the situation will help ensure that your discipline methods remain firmly outside the realm of abuse.

A Word From Verywell

Using discipline to teach your child the difference between right and wrong by employing strategies such as natural consequences or time-outs can be a healthy and effective parenting tool. But if you are using discipline to dole out punishment or if you forget to regulate your behavior, it can escalate toward child abuse. If you’re concerned about your child or at a loss for how to effectively teach them proper behavior, contact their healthcare provider or another mental health professional for guidance.

5 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. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect.

  2. National Library of Medicine. Child physical abuse.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing Child Sexual Abuse.

  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families. Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect.

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics. What's The Best Way to Discipline My Child?

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.

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