Positive Discipline: Techniques for Promoting Desired Behavior in Children

Many parents equate discipline with the use of corrective measures for misbehavior. However, discipline means “to teach,” and handling problem behavior should comprise a relatively small part of parental discipline. Rather, effective discipline involves the use of positive teaching methods, including your personal example, explanation and guidance, essential structure, and frequent reinforcement of desired behavior – with the ultimate goal of instilling lifelong self-discipline, responsibility, and self-control. The following guidelines can promote desired behavior and minimize misbehavior in your child.

Create a Warm, Loving Parent-Child Bond.     Your relationship is your strongest tool to promote desired behavior in your child. A warm, affectionate bond and a positive emotional tone in the home convince a child that he and his parents are on the same team and promote a spirit of cooperation and understanding. Stop struggling with your child and put more energy into building closeness, trust, positive communication, and caring. 

Be a Good Role Model.     Your adult model of sharing, cooperation, handling disagreements, using good manners, and showing respect for others will powerfully shape your child’s behavior, since actions do speak louder than words. Consider others who influence your child’s behavior by monitoring what she watches on television and helping her choose playmates and friends whose behavior you want her to imitate.


Have Realistic Expectations.     Make certain your expectations for your child’s behavior match his age and developmental abilities. A child’s genuine inability to comply with the rules can make him appear uncooperative. Be prepared to show your child what you want him to do, and guide him as he practices the skill, before you expect him to do it alone.  

Reinforce Desired Behavior.     The best way to promote positive behavior is to reinforce your child for getting things right by providing attention (smiling, touching, patting, compliments, praise) and tangible rewards (treats, stickers, toys, or activities) for behaving well. An incentive given at the same time as the desirable behavior is the most effective.  Once children can understand delayed gratification, you can use token rewards for positive behavior (stars or stickers on a chart) that can be collected and exchanged for special gifts, treats, or favorite activities with Mom or Dad. Be careful not to overuse rewards, however, or your child may come to regularly expect a payoff for positive behavior. 


Set Clear Limits and Enforce Them Consistently.     Children who clearly understand the limits of acceptable behavior are better able to meet their parents’ expectations and gain the sense of belonging and approval they crave. When parents are inconsistent in enforcing limits, children are left confused about where the boundaries really lie. The resulting mixed message only provokes more testing of the rules as the child seeks reassurance that you in control. Having the fortitude to enforce rules – even when you are physically or emotionally depleted – reduces misbehavior and makes discipline easier in the long run.  


Help Your Child Gain an Appropriate Sense of Power and Control.     Children who are given an appropriate sense of their own power and control are less likely to provoke power struggles with their parents. Use the following strategies to foster in your child a healthy sense of her personal power.

  • Foster your child’s unique identity by spending individual time with her and acknowledging and accepting her feelings, listening to her opinions, and honoring her preferences (when possible). Avoid making sibling comparisons.


  • Allow children to make simple daily choices about what to wear, what to eat, or which story to read. Offering choices (two is enough for preschoolers) helps children feel in control, teaches them about making decisions, honors their individuality, and makes your rules more acceptable. Keep choices simple, however, and never offer a choice when none exists. Choices can also help children recognize that they have some control over the consequences they experience, “Either stop arguing with your brother or I will put the game away for the day. You choose.” 


  • Provide daily structure and familiar routines.  Children gain a sense of security and essential structure when certain activities– like mealtimes, bedtime, and play–occur with reassuring regularity.  Daily routines reduce uncertainty, anxiety, and misbehavior. Routines help children feel more in control by clarifying your expectations and giving them a comforting sense of predictability. 


  • Avoid the over-use of “No,” which can increase a child’s feelings of powerlessness.  Consider whether you can give a qualified “yes” instead of always saying “no.” For example, when your youngster asks, “Can I go outside?,” you can reply, “Yes you may, right after your nap.” 


  • Refuse to get into a power struggle with your child.  Power struggles do not teach children about appropriate, or healthy, personal power. Rather, they either make your child feel dominated by you or give him an inflated sense of his own power, thus causing him to wage more battles with you.


  • Help your child recognize her power to make a positive difference to others.  Point out her ability to comfort her baby brother, contribute to the family by performing her chore, help less fortunate kids by donating gently used toys, brighten Grandma’s day with a phone call, or make her new classmate feel welcome.


Promote Emotional Awareness and Acknowledge and Accept Tough Feelings.    

      Misbehavior often results when a child has trouble handling difficult feelings. The first step toward coping with powerful emotions is to identify and share feelings within a supportive family network in which each member is nurtured emotionally. The ability to recognize an emotional response greatly increases a child’s chances of exercising self-control and effectively handling the particular emotion. Understanding, accepting, and affirming children’s vulnerable feelings help convince them we are on their side. Acknowledge your child’s difficult feelings as you impose a necessary limit to help her feel understood: “I know you wish you could stay and play longer, and I’m afraid it’s time to leave now.” Practice active listening by reflecting what your child has said, without judging: “You’re angry because your sister wore your blouse again. I know it’s frustrating when she takes your things without asking.” Use the connecting word and instead of but. The constructive word and links two ideas of equal worth, while but tends to dismiss what comes before: “I know you want to wear that outfit, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for school.”

Copyright ©  2011  Marianne Neifert, MD, MTS     May be duplicated if authorship is cited.     www.dr-mom.com