Disciplining Children: When and When Not To

Disciplining children is overwhelming. Knowing when to discipline and when to let it go is sometimes impossible. I know from personal experience how difficult it is in the moment to know when to discipline children and when not to. When we’re in the moment with our children, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees.

The best key to making the snap decision on whether to discipline your children or not is to assess the level of harm they are doing. Are your children being aggressive? Then you need to discipline children for such behaviors. Hitting, kicking, biting are all aggressive behaviors that warrant disciplining a child. Immediately stop the behavior and give your child a consequence for that behavior.

On the other hand, if your child is simply being annoying (Yes, I said it. At times even the most patient parent can be annoyed by our children!), then the best method for disciplining children is by ignoring the annoying behavior.

If your child is whining, ask him to use his “Big Boy words” and walk away.

If your children are bickering in the other room, ignore it. As long as no one is being aggressive, let them work the problem out for themselves.

There’s no need to discipline children who are bickering amongst themselves as long as no one is being aggressive. Your boss doesn’t get involved in every workplace spat and neither should you with your children.

Of course, there are gray areas when it comes to disciplining children. Let’s take swearing for example. If your child is swearing at another person, then this would be considered being verbally aggressive and you will want to discipline your child for this behavior.

However, if your child is playing alone in the other room and uses a swear word, then this is a situation where you might have a talk with your child about appropriate vs. inappropriate language, but you wouldn’t necessarily need to formally discipline him.

Ignoring is a very effective discipline strategy when it is used appropriately. It can help manage a variety of behaviors and can help kids learn appropriate ways to get attention. When combined with other discipline techniques ignoring can be a great tool.

Ignoring can help kids learn to how deal with their feelings in socially appropriate ways. For example, instead of screaming and stomping his feet when he’s upset, your child can learn other coping skills to deal his feelings of sadness or disappointment.

So what behaviors should you ignore?

  • Whining
  • Repeatedly asking the same question
  • Mildly talking back
  • Temper tantrums

Without the audience, these behaviors usually aren’t much fun and kids will give up (eventually).

How to Actively Ignore:

  1. Ignoring requires that you completely ignore your child’s misbehaviors. This means no eye contact, no conversation, and no physical touch.
  2. You will know that your attempts at ignoring are effective if the behavior gets worse initially. When a child is not getting the response he wants, he may scream louder, try to get in your face, or whine even more.
  3. Don’t give in if the behaviors start to get worse. Otherwise, this will reinforce to your child that these behaviors are effective. Once you start ignoring, make sure you continue to ignore until the behavior ceases.
  4. As soon as the behavior stops, provide your child with attention again in order to reinforce to your child that being calm gains attention and together you can talk about his feelings and find solutions to the problem that upset him.
  5. It can be helpful to sit your child down when he is calm to explain the plan. Tell him when you will ignore him and explain how he can regain your attention. Then, your child will be aware of the direct link between his behaviors and your reaction.

Common Concerns about Ignoring:

  1. Parents may be concerned that ignoring will be emotionally scarring to their child. It’s important to remember that you aren’t ignoring your child; it is the negative behaviors you are ignoring.
  2. Parents may worry that they cannot tolerate ignoring their child’s behaviors. It can be helpful to distract yourself with a book or television to help you ignore. It can also help to keep reminding yourself that although it may be distressing in the short-term it will help your child in the long-term.
  3. It’s important to work with other caregivers on discipline strategies. If you are trying to ignore your child’s tantrum and Grandma steps in to say “What’s wrong honey?” it will reinforce to the child that his behaviors are effective.

Disciplining children is a challenge that all parents face, but if you use this one key principle or ignoring the minor, irritating behaviors of your child as your guide, it will make the challenge much less daunting. Soon you’ll find yourself confident in knowing when to discipline children and when to just let it go.

For more discipline strategies, check out our Parenting Success System.  There you can discover additional discipline strategies and more discussion on when to discipline and when to not discipline your child.