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Struggling to discipline your child? Here's what works

4/9/2020 by Shawna Wollbrink, RN, and Arne Graff, MD

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Are there times when you struggle to discipline your child? While yelling and spanking may be the first approach, it may not be the best. 

These are often disciplines ingrained in families, cultures and religions, not just in the U.S., but worldwide. However, a growing volume of research is showing that spanking or hitting children actually can have the opposite effect parents were trying to achieve. Research reveals that: 

  • Spanking can increase anger and aggression, instead of teaching responsibility for behaviors. 
  • It can confuse children, especially if you're also teaching them that hitting others isn't right. 
  • Kids learn that hitting is acceptable. 
  • Physical punishment can foster depression and anxiety in children and even affect their performance in school. 
  • Spanking damages the whole parent/child relationship because someone they love hurts them. 
  • Infants don't understand hitting — they expect love and comfort from adults — and it won't change any behavior, but it will scare them. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against using spanking or other physical punishment to discipline children. Through discipline, the goal is to teach children appropriate behavior. As a result, they learn skills to manage emotions, solve problems and interact with others around them. It's up to parents to model these successful behaviors and skills. 

Some discipline techniques that have proved to be more effective include: 

  • Redirecting or distracting. This is particularly effective with young children. For instance, if a child is upset that a sibling took their toy, give them another toy to play with. Redirection/distraction takes some practice to find out what works in different situations. 
  • Catching them being good. Paying attention to kids is a powerful tool for parents. If you try to catch kids being good, they'll respond by wanting to repeat the good behavior. Give positive praise and do it right away. If you see your child sharing, say, "Oh, I love that you asked your sister nicely for the toy." Sometimes all that's needed is a smile to let them know you've noticed. It's about downplaying the bad behavior and rewarding the good. For a rule of thumb, use a ratio of five positive "catches" to one negative catch. 
  • Taking a time out. This works for both parent and child! Sometimes parents just need to step away from the situation with their child. While their child is in a time out, they can put themselves in one, too. That can be going to another room or sitting outside. Or, if the parent prefers, they can sit next to their child and say something like, "I need to calm down, too. Let's both take a break." Once everyone is calm, the parent and child can discuss what happened and what would have been a better behavior. This approach makes time outs effective on two levels: the situation is handled more calmly and parents model self-control to their kids. 

Mayo Clinic is currently working on introducing No-Hit-Zones at its clinics and hospitals. These zones are a way to promote calm, safe and caring environments for children where no hitting of any kind is allowed. You can learn more about this movement here

Learning new discipline techniques takes thought and practice on the part of parents. If you need help, talk about it with your primary care provider. The AAP also offers tips about discipline and giving a time out

Shawna Wollbrink works as a registered nurse at the Mayo Child and Family Advocacy Program (MCFAP) in Rochester. Her position involves caring for children who are suspected of being abused or maltreated in some way. 

Dr. Arne Graff is a consultant in the Departments of Family Medicine and Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at Mayo Clinic. He specializes in family medicine and child abuse and is the medical director of the Mayo Child and Family Advocacy Program (MCFAP) in Rochester.