When My Child Misbehaves: Deciding on Discipline

Consequences are a byproduct of behavior – at all ages. As an adult, if I run a red light while driving my car, I may be hit by another driver, or get a ticket if a police officer observed me run the red light. Both actions are a consequence of my behavior.

Families, too, implement consequences. Often they are meant to help shape and provide boundaries and safety for their family members. For example, a consequence of coming home later than curfew may be the loss of an evening out the following week! Or perhaps the consequence for staying on a cell phone past when it is lights out is the removal of the cell phone from the bedroom during the sleeping hours.

Another example is for preschoolers. If a preschooler won’t help pick up toys when playtime is over, then perhaps a favorite toy or two is removed from the toy bin for several days. This removal signals that some behavior was not followed.

The application of consequences must be followed with conversations about desired behaviors. The conversation communicates the reason for the rule or restriction. Sometimes parents have included the older kids when discussing rules and consequences. Reminders help even the youngest children to be mindful of their behavior.

The Science of Parenting team has been discussing child growth and development as it relates to guidance and discipline. Each session provides helpful research and strategies designed to support parents in their role as nurturing and loving parents.

Gauge by Their Age

Guiding children often comes with many decisions that impact how children grow and develop, and discipline strategies are one of the many decisions.

Depending on the child’s age and stage of development, the strategy will be different.  For toddlers and preschoolers, appropriate discipline may involve simply distracting children or giving them something different to do to redirect their attention away from misbehaviors. As children get older and can understand more complex reasoning and explanations, parents’ discipline approaches may be more adaptive as they rely more on reasoning to manage children’s behaviors.

The real goal of parental discipline is to teach children how to behave in desired ways. Rewards and punishments have long been used as a strategy. As children age, they begin to understand their parents’ rules and family values and begin to exhibit behaviors that align. The conversations parents have with their children about the rules and consequences can help children, especially if both parent and child are calm and regulated. The discussions that happen when emotions are high may have more harsh consequences than when discussed after emotions have calmed for both child and adult.

As teens, parents might find that removing a privilege is a fair consequence to bring about more desired behavior. Communication will again be a favored strategy so that the teen still feels connected to the parent even in the face of a consequence for undesired behavior. It is during this time of adolescence that the teen begins to assume the responsibilities that come with emerging adulthood and is rewarded with more privileges. Guiding preschoolers, school-agers, or teens means continual communication with one another and choosing discipline strategies that respect the age and stage of each individual.

Recognizing the Parent-Child Relationship

The relationships that parents have with their children can be some of the strongest bonds ever. Parents are the first educators of their children, so they have a big responsibility to provide the guidance, safety, and protection that allows their children to grow and develop into healthy children, teens, and eventually, adults!

Research from Grusec & Goodnow, 1994, reveals “the overall climate of the parent-child relationship affects how receptive children are to parents’ attempts to shape their behavior”. If the overall parent-child relationship is warm and loving rather than hostile or neglectful, children will be more motivated to obey their parents, making discipline attempts easier and more effective.

When children comply with house rules and their behavior is compliant with parental requests, parents may feel like guiding their children is easy. However, when children are curious, energetic, and don’t comply with house rules or are easily distracted and unable to comply with family guidelines, parents must step in and help them learn. This is the whole role of discipline. Helping children learn to modify their behavior so that they can experience inner self-control. Sometimes discipline can be expressed as a very harsh, negative consequence for bad behavior. However, discipline can also be thought of as a way of guiding individuals toward appropriate behavior. Even adults show their own self-discipline on a daily basis! A parent who remains committed to helping their child grow in happy and healthy ways will see discipline as a positive response.

Emotions: The Good, Bad, & Ugly

Each day brings a new set of experiences for everyone, including those parents raising children. These experiences include following a schedule for the day, planning meals, getting kids ready and off to school or early care and parents out the door to work on time! The competing activities can cause tension and frustration without the necessary coping skills!

Kids too can feel a level of frustration when they:

  • Don’t get what they want, when they want it!
  • Another child will not share a toy
  • They are overstimulated
  • Too tired to express their feelings in positive ways or

to name a few!

The result may be behavior that is expressed in ways that cause everyone upset. Parents quickly become aware of the signs their children express in reaction to the frustration they may be feeling. Many times, parents can act first and re-direct a child, offer a snack, provide a new activity, or offer a moment to snuggle resulting in a well-deserved nap.

When the emotions are high, something needs to happen to get everyone re-regulated. The Science of Parenting team has suggested the “STOP. BREATHE. TALK” campaign as one way to work through a tough time, without letting all the emotions guide our behavior. Learning to calm ourselves first can help us choose a positive reaction to the behavior we have to address!

Follow this eighth season of the podcast as we explore guiding childing and finding appropriate discipline techniques.   

Unspoken Aspects of Discipline

As parents learn they are expecting a new baby, they may be filled with joy, excitement and anticipation too! They may also have worries about how they will ever learn everything there is to know about raising happy healthy children. As we have explored in previous podcast seasons, our temperament is part of who we are from birth! As the great guidance and discipline season is upon us you might be interested to learn that some research has revealed that “Individual characteristics of both children and parents predict the form of discipline that parents use”.

The traits we have as children can even predict what type of discipline is used, for example the following childhood traits were found to increase the likelihood of harsh punishment:

  • Children with problems with conduct, attention, and disobedience
  • Children who are more negative emotionally and more irritable
  • Children who display behaviors that are particularly stressful for their parent
  • Children with disabilities, particularly those with communication difficulties

Adults who are aware of their own temperament and who can identify when they are being triggered by their child’s behavior, can be prepared with another, less harsh form of discipline.

Culture is another aspect that figures into our decisions regarding what measures are taken to guide and discipline children. Research confirms culture influences what child behaviors we view as desired or undesirable. It also influences what parenting practices we view as normal and acceptable.

As a society we rely on adults who are responsible and accountable, thus who have learned discipline from an early age. As parents navigate the journey of child rearing, they too have decisions to make regarding the best way to raise their children to become happy, healthy, well-mannered, and disciplined! We will continue to explore guidance practices and offer strategies for the parent toolbox.

The Great Guidance and Discipline Debate

While the goal of having a great family and good kids who get along and follow the rules and know-how to behave when out in public is a great goal, sometimes we miss the mark, and someone in the family just isn’t having the best day and their behavior will attest.

Because we are human, we won’t have a good day every day, and someone may bother us or say something to us to make us angry. Perhaps a sibling will not share a new toy with another, and a fit ensues. These are the situations that are common in most families from time to time. Parents are the first educators of their children and are called on to provide the rules and guidance necessary for the children to grow, develop, and feel safe in the family home.

Discipline is something all adults practice daily in order to be successful, complete daily responsibilities, and raise a happy, healthy family. This season on The Science of Parenting podcast, we will explore how guiding children and helping everyone learn discipline can guide behavior so that children learn accountability now and well into their teens and adulthood. 

Speaking on Special Needs & Temperament

Special needs, diverse abilities, individual differences. Over the years I have learned quite a bit about these words. What I have come to believe is this: all of us to some extent have special needs. As human beings, we all ‘need’ different things to help us learn, grow, and engage with the world. Some of us encounter more obstacles than others. Ultimately, those who care for us, guide us, and love us come to understand what our individual needs are.

When it comes to understanding temperament alongside diagnosed special needs and diverse abilities, we can utilize similar parenting tools. Temperament tools are ‘universal,’ Meaning they can be utilized for all children, regardless of ability.

When we give a five-minute warning to the child that is slow-to-adapt in transitions, it doesn’t matter what their ability is. All children can benefit from a ‘heads up’ about a transition. If we pack a bag of extra snacks for the child that has an irregular biological clock, we can do the same for a child with a diagnosed medical need. Similar parenting tools for all different kinds of individual needs.

As the parent of a child with diverse abilities, knowing that there are parenting tools I can tap into ‘just like everyone else’ made me feel that for that moment in time, my daughter and I could utilize the same ‘parenting book’ as others. Utilizing the tools specific to a child’s temperament, helped me recognize that ALL children have individual needs. When caregivers recognize the benefit of understanding individual temperament and how to engage specific temperament tools to guide children’s behavior (regardless of ability), both adults and children can be impacted positively.

Teen Traits

The teen years can be a whirlwind of changes, emotions, and growth! Not only the physical changes to the teen body, but the pressure that teens may feel from their peers to engage in risk-taking behaviors like smoking, early sexual experimentation, and alcohol or drugs. Teens wanting to “fit in” and who don’t have the refusal skills to use in high-pressure situations may feel very conflicted.

As teens age, they may engage in more social opportunities, and teens are likely influenced by individuals other than their parents. Neighborhood friends, school peers, and sports teammates all can influence how a teen responds in any given situation. Although parents have communicated boundaries, family values, and expectations for behavior, the pressure to belong and be accepted by others can impact the decisions that teens will ultimately make.

Decision-making is such a critical life skill for all, and for the teen whose brain is not fully developed until later adolescence, making the very best decision in any given situation may be impacted by emotions, peer pressure, temperament and so very much more. Parents can do the following things to support their teen as they navigate the teen years:

  • Intentionally listen to your family members
  • Be consistent when dealing with misbehavior
  • Involve family members, when reasonable, in developing rules and consequences for behavior
  • Encourage family members to learn new skills (4-H, Scouts, Youth Group, FFA, etc)
  • Check in with family members to encourage reflection on successes, setbacks and growth
  • Provide an environment in which kids can try new things and challenge themselves safely
  • Help kids set personal goals that align with their values

Additional teen resources for Understanding Emotional Changes; or for Understanding Physical Changes; Resources for teens and their Changes in Thinking.

School-Ager Set Point

The school-age years can be very busy with a flurry of activity for kids and added responsibilities for parents as they try to keep up! Depending on the age and temperament of your child, the school years can be both challenging and exciting, all at the same time.

Consider a school-age child who is curious, energetic, and ready to explore everything offered in and out of school time! For every child like this, we can also find a child who is more cautious, who finds the busyness of school overwhelming, or even overstimulating.

It is a fine dance for teachers, parents, and family members to provide the appropriate amount of stimulation, education, and opportunities all while supporting individual differences of kids.

Routines continue to be a valued asset for school-age kids, who need at least 8 or more hours of sleep, and healthy nutrition coupled with plenty of time for play. Spending time outdoors can provide both opportunities for play and additional exercise. Riding bikes, exploring a nature preserve, or hiking with friends are a few things that school-age children may like to do.

Routines help kids to know what to expect and when to expect them. So, for school-age children, knowing what time the bus arrives to pick them up can help them decide how early to get up and get ready while leaving time to eat some breakfast. For the school-age child who is sleepy in the morning, their routine may look different and that is ok. Perhaps they sleep a few minutes longer and choose to eat breakfast at school.

Knowing and respecting the individual differences of all kids and families can help everyone plan for and enjoy a successful school experience.

Preschooler Predisposition

Making predictions when it comes to kids is part of the job of a parent. Do you predict that today serving grilled cheese sandwiches will be met with glee or disappointment? Do you predict that having to make a quick trip to the store will be met with delight or dread by your preschool child? Depending on the age and stage of your child, your prediction may change. What is acceptable to one child may not be well accepted for another child, even in the same family.

Parents with a child who is three or four years of age will soon experience the preschool years. A time of excitement for some children and a time of worry or anticipation for others. A few factors, including temperament, interaction with other children or siblings, and the network of family support, will all impact how children respond.

Most children in this preschool age range have developed both fine and gross motor skills and enjoy reading and talking with others. Some parents will describe their preschooler as a chatterbox. Social skills are developing, and children often cue parents as to how they are feeling through their behavior. These parents can usually predict how their child may respond to any new situation. You may have seen the preschool child who is so nervous and fearful who may hide behind their parent hoping they can hop back into the car and return home to play and forget the school experience. Then there is the other child who bounds out of the car toward the school door, not waiting for anyone to direct them to the right classroom, only to find a room full of toys and other children just waiting for the class to begin.

Learning to help a distractable child to focus as they navigate the new preschool environment or assisting an intense child who may talk loudly to use an indoor voice will be some of the challenges parents face during the preschool years.

The Centers For Disease Control has a great child development resource parents may find very helpful! In addition, The Science of Parenting team is exploring the relationship between child temperament and growth and development milestones in this season of the podcast. Be sure to check out the preschool resources available at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

Toddler Tendencies

The toddler years are a time of learning and growth! As these children become more mobile, parents may be on high alert to protect and provide safety for these newfound movers! Each new skill learned is a proud moment for parents as they may be following the “Ages and Stages” milestone charts for assurance that their child is developing on schedule.

Each child, however, will develop at their own pace and will learn new skills in their own time. The guidelines are a helpful reference. Every day is an opportunity to help a child learn language through talking and reading to your child. Reading can happen anywhere and doesn’t just have to be at bedtime. Large and fine motor skills are developing and opportunities to enjoy outdoor play take on even greater importance!  

How much your toddler engages in play, learning, and talking can also be impacted by their individual temperament! Children who are sensitive may need individuals who communicate with a soft voice. Children who notice everything happening around them may need to have fewer play choices so that they can experience success.

Do you have a toddler who reacts to situations with intensity? This too is a temperament trait and learning to help your child navigate intensity can help you both reduce the stress and anxiety that intense emotions can raise. A toddler who is slower to engage in play with others may need the helpful encouragement of another adult or teacher.

The Science of Parenting team is exploring the relationship between child temperament and growth and development milestones in this season of the podcast. Be sure to check out the toddler resources available at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

From the podcast:

A full chart of temperament as it pertains to a toddler, as discussed in the podcast.

Infant Inclinations

A new baby joins the family and immediately parents look for cues from the infant to begin the communication process. The temperament and disposition of the new infant is foundational to who this child will become, and parents soon recognize the unique way this child begins to communicate.

Each of us is gifted from birth with a set of temperament traits that are expressed as we grow and develop and live day to day! The mood we have, our adaptability to situations, or our regularity! Everyone has a different combination of traits that create a unique being and as parents learning the fine dance of how these temperament traits can look different for each child is a task. 

In a family with several children, one may be an early riser, full of energy and ready to go all the time, while another child is a little slower to engage and takes more time to participate. Having a set of strategies to help one child slow down, while having a different strategy to encourage another to engage is helpful. Be sure to review the season three podcast featuring sleep and infants. In addition, explore the blog by author Mary Sheedy Kurcinka for additional support.

The Science of Parenting team is exploring the relationship between child temperament and growth and development milestones in this season of the podcast. Be sure to listen as Mackenzie and Lori explore the temperament traits and how they are expressed depending on a child’s age or stage of development! 

From the podcast:

A full chart of the nine temperament traits in an infant, as described in the podcast.
A chart capturing the green, yellow, and red zones as described in the podcast.

What is Temperament?

Parenting practices rarely are one size fits all. In fact, most parents will admit that because each child is unique, their approach to child guidance and support is also individualized. The good news is that parents can find a variety of resources to help in answering questions about temperament, child growth and development, child health, and more.

The Science of Parenting is one resource with several ways to connect including a podcast, blog, social media, and educational trainings! Often parents will find helpful information related to child nutrition, vaccinations, or well-child visits at a local health department. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach has an excellent resource for families entitled Spend Smart Eat Smart, designed to assist families plan, shop and cook recipes at home.

Parents can also learn about what their children might need through interaction, observation, and conversation with their children. Infants express their needs through facial expressions, emotions, and gestures! Preschoolers are now adding talk and questions to the ways they can communicate with parents and others. School-agers and teens are often ready to enjoy more independence and parents often still provide limits and boundaries designed to protect kids while still allowing room for more freedom. Every age brings opportunities for parents to encourage development while providing safety and protection too.

This season on The Science of Parenting, co-hosts Mackenzie Johnson and Lori Korthals will explore two topics: Developmental Milestones and Temperament and will discuss how together, these two topics influence how parents can effectively support, communicate, and celebrate the whole family!

From the podcast:

Reflecting for Resilience

The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted children and families in a variety of ways, both positively and negatively. You might wonder, how could families be impacted positively by a pandemic?  I can report, from responses to a questionnaire collected prior to delivering a webinar on pandemic parenting by members of the Science of Parenting team, many families found unique and supportive impacts from this most uncertain pandemic.

Families reported enjoying more time together at home. Because many heeded the advice to “stay home,” families appreciated newfound time for family meals and game and movie nights. Kids gathered in the kitchen and picked up some skills in meal preparation, including clean up! Parents reported that they enjoyed this time of bonding with their children.

Siblings learned they had to share screen time, internet usage, and even study space in the same house. Families learned to plan for and to negotiate needs among the family members, including some parents who found themselves working from home during the pandemic.

The pandemic had many unintended consequences. The network of face-to-face social support from neighbors and extended family members was very limited! The opportunities to share in rituals of birthday parties, graduations, and wedding celebrations, to name a few, were interrupted. Some families postponed events or simply found alternate ways to celebrate. The “drive-by” parties were very popular last year!

Parents took the time to listen to the stress, anxiety, and unexpected disappointments that family members expressed and then brainstormed together how to manage the feelings. Often, being heard and getting the chance to speak feelings out loud was a healing release. Some families used exercise and nature walks to release some of the stress they were experiencing. Journaling was another coping technique for both youth and adults. Keeping the lines of communication open during this time proved a positive protective factor.

As families navigated the pandemic, they learned tools that will translate into resilience during future tough times. Not sure how? Be sure to take time to reflect on what went well, what was tough, and how you learned from it all. You are RESILIENT.

How to Repair

When families experience “tough times”, it can impact the feelings and behaviors of family members. And when family members act out in response to the “tough times” parents may have to set limits or deliver consequences that may be met with further hostility, anger or additional outbursts.

These times are not comfortable for parents or for children, but they happen, and all families must find reasonable ways to manage and cope! Unacceptable behaviors may stem from disappointment when a child doesn’t get their way. When emotions are high, we can act unreasonable. We let the emotions drive our behaviors. Waiting until our emotions are regulated once again is important.

Our emotions stem from one portion of the brain, and our decision-making capability from a separate portion of the brain. To think clearly, and make a good decision, we need to calm down, and become re-regulated. We can say things we don’t mean when we are caught up in emotion! Using the STOP, BREATHE, TALK campaign is a great way to get ourselves and our family members re-regulated, so we can talk through the tough times.

This means that when we find ourselves in the heat of the moment, and when emotions are running high, we STOP what we are doing and pause. We then take some deep cleansing breaths; next, we think about how we want to talk about the situation we experienced. We intentionally change the direction of the emotionally charged situation, to prevent ourselves from acting out in ways that are harsh or emotionally unacceptable.

Adults and children alike who recover from an emotional outburst can benefit from learning how to apologize and make amends. The ability to tell someone else that we are sorry for our words or behaviors takes courage. Parents who model how to apologize can help their children learn to do the same. Once an apology is extended, the ability to accept the apology and move forward is essential.

The “tough times” are also teachable times. We learn to express our regrets and say “I’m sorry” and discuss how to prevent the same things from happening again.