How to discipline kids in a smart and healthy way

Lashing out in anger can lead to verbal or physical damage that cannot be undone

In Summary

• It is better to praise the positives and set realistic goals than to react to failure

A girl reacts to caning
A girl reacts to caning
Image: OZONE

Most parents at some point struggle with how best to discipline their children. Whether it is a two-year-old with tantrums or an angry teenager, the issue is very real. Most will resort to shouting and hitting, which does not work, and can do more harm than good in the long run.

An alternative is the positive discipline approach, which puts emphasis on developing a healthy relationship with your child and setting expectations around behaviour. How can this be achieved?

Plan one-on-one time to build a good relationship with your child. This does not have to be too much time on any given day. What one can do is simply dance to some music, play a game or perform chores like washing dishes or washing the family car together. What is important is that you focus all your attention on the child and turn off distractions, such as the TV and phones.

Praise the positives. As parents, we often focus on our children’s bad behaviour and call it out. This sometimes reinforces bad behavior as the child sees it as a way of getting attention. Children thrive on praise as it makes them feel loved and special. Watch out for good behaviour no matter how trivial and praise the child.

Set clear and realistic expectations when you instruct a child. Telling your child exactly what you want them to do is much more effective and increases the likelihood that they will do as they are asked. Be realistic with your expectations as you know what your child is capable of. If you ask for the impossible, they are going to fail.

Explain calmly the consequences of bad behaviour to your child. Part of growing up is learning that if you do something wrong, something can happen as a result. Defining this for your child is a simple process that encourages better behaviour while teaching them about responsibility.

Warning a child about the consequences of bad behaviour gives him or her the opportunity to change their behaviour. If they don’t stop, it is important to follow through with the consequences firmly and without showing anger. If they do stop, give them lots of praise. Being consistent is a key factor in positive parenting.

Distracting your child with a more positive activity when they are being difficult is a useful strategy in disciplining kids. This can be done by changing the topic, introducing a game, leading them into another room or going for a walk. Doing this diverts their energy towards positive behaviour.

Timing is also crucial. Distraction only works if you know your child well enough to spot when things are about to go wrong and take action. Being mindful of when your child is starting to become fidgety, irritable or annoyed, or when two siblings are eyeing the same toy, can help diffuse a potential situation before it blows up.

While engaging the younger children might be easy, the older children (teenagers) may be more challenging. Their one-on-one time may be different, like going camping together, watching a game or a musical concert or discussing their favourite artiste.

While setting expectations, it is good to ask them to help with the rules and the consequences of unacceptable behaviour. This helps them know that their parents understand they are becoming independent beings who can make decisions.

With the stresses of day-to-day living, it is important for parents to pause or take a step back whenever they are disciplining children. Disciplining in anger can have drastic consequences and the damage inflicted, whether verbal or physical, cannot be undone.

Lucy Simiyu is a psychologist with Crawford International School                

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