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The 7 Principles of Effective Discipline*

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Disciplining children is one of those ideas that sounds simple in theory, but is often far more difficult in practice. First and foremost, all children are not created equal. Specifically, some children are more easygoing and eager to please. Parents of these children are called “lucky.” Other children are more easily frustrated, strong willed and emotional. These children are far more difficult to discipline. Second, the day to day life of the family affects discipline. Parents who are stressed, parents who work different shifts or hours, and parents who are experiencing tensions in their relationship are often likely to have more difficulties with discipline. In addition, families coping with major life stresses such as illness or unemployment may be similarly affected. In this article we outline 7 principles that all parents can use to discipline more effectively. We also offer resources parents can draw on in their efforts to more effectively discipline their children.

1. Children and Adolescents Need Discipline

We are firm believers that children and adolescents need to follow rules laid out by parents and other adult authorities, and are not ready to run their own lives. While many teens, and even some children, will assert “I can run my own life,” this is far from true. Children and adolescents do not have the maturity (self-control, judgment, and wisdom) of adults. Parents need to remember that even the brightest and verbally savvy adolescent does not have the judgment and self-control necessary to structure their own lives. Thus, parents must be careful to not relinquish their authority prematurely. Moreover, parents need to back up their authority with action. For example, lecturing a teenager who comes home intoxicated about the risks of alcohol is not sufficient. Such a lecture needs to be combined with increased supervision and the loss (albeit temporarily) of some freedoms.

2. Parents Need to be in Charge

Families are not democracies. While parents clearly need to listen to and take into account their children's and adolescent’s needs, feelings and desires, parents need to be in charge of the family. Over the past few decades there has been an increased emphasis on understanding and respecting the feelings and wishes of children and adolescents. While it is important to consider the wishes and feelings of children and teenagers, the bottom line remains with parents. Parents need to be in charge of their family. This means that parents must say no, at times, whether this is saying no to a 10 year olds’ request for a “mature” video game, or an adolescent’s insistence that he can drive downtown on his own.

3. Effective Discipline Needs to be Done Calmly and Consistently

One of the greatest challenges for most parents is to react to negative behaviors in a calm, collected and consistent fashion. Discipline is far more effective if parents remain calm and are respectful when disciplining their children. If parents become angry, loose their cool, they risk undermining their own authority. Specifically, we have seen parents inadvertently undermine their authority by yelling, screaming and even swearing. When parents slip children and teens often will use this against them, focusing on their parents’ behavior rather than their own. Thus, it is of the utmost importance that parents keep their cool when disciplining. Obviously this is more easily said than done. The objective is to work to be as calm and consistent as possible.

4. There is More than One Approach to Effective Discipline

There is no one strategy that works for all children and adolescents. The child’s age, temperament, and experiences all dictate what types of strategies will be most effective. For some children, particularly younger children, reinforcement strategies, time outs and other more straight forward behavioral strategies are often quite effective. However, with older children or teens, these strategies may not work as well. Adolescents may react angrily to such approaches, perceiving them as efforts to control and manipulate them. Thus, using more communication and negotiation based approaches may work better. More emotionally volatile children, particularly those prone to explosive outbursts, may respond better to the Collaborative Problem Solving Approach developed by Ross Greene, Ph.D.

5. Children and Adolescents Misbehave for Multiple Reasons

Children and adolescents defy their parents for a variety of reasons. Some children may have difficulties managing their behavior and emotions, while others are acting out underlying problems, while some may be reacting to stresses in their lives. To be effective, the sources of defiance and misbehavior need to be understood and addressed. It is particularly important to understand the sources of defiant and negative behavior. For example, increased irritability and sullenness may reflect an underlying depression, which needs to be addressed.

6. Discipline is More than Stopping Negative Behavior.

We believe that acting out, defiance, misbehavior not only needs to be stopped, but that children or adolescents need to learn more adaptive and respectful ways of voicing their concerns and feelings, and negotiating with their parents. Thus, part of addressing problems with discipline is helping children and adolescents learn to negotiate more effectively. Children and adolescents need to be helped/taught to respectfully but assertively make their requests, consider their parents’ perspective, comprise, problem solve, and accept that they will not always get what they want.

7. Effective Discipline does not Occur in a Vacuum.

When parents disagree, fail to work together and do not support each other’s authority, problems are likely to occur. Thus, part of establishing effective discipline includes helping parents work together as a team to set and enforce rules. The importance of parents having a unified stance cannot be underestimated. There is no better way to undermine parental authority than by having one parent directly or indirectly not support a rule that the other parent has established. Thus, when parents are not working together, supporting each other, most efforts to discipline are likely to be compromised.

Resources for Parents

Your Defiant Child: Eight Steps to Better Behavior, by Russell Barkley, Ph.D & Christine Benton, Ph.D.
A very useful workbook that offers concrete advice to parents on addressing defiant behavior, which is a common problem for children with ADHD.

Your Defiant Teen: 10 Steps to Resolve Conflict and Rebuild Your Relationship, by Russell Barkley, Ph.D & Arthur Robin, M.D.
An informative workbook that helps parents resolve conflicts with and find more effective ways to communicate with their teenagers.

The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, "Chronically Inflexible" Children, by Ross Greene, Ph.D., York: Quill, 2001. An extremely valuable book that offers a new way of working with children who are inflexible and prone to volatile outbursts.

1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12, by Tom Phelan, Ph.D., Glen Ellyn, IL: Child Management, 1995. An old favorite that offers a very straightforward behavior management approach that is often quite effective with younger children.

When Parents Disagree and What You Can Do About It, by Ron Taffel, Ph.D. Guildford Press, New York, 2003. A practical guide to helping parents work through disagreements about discipline, and find ways to discipline more effectively.

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*(This is a preliminary draft of this article, an expanded version will appear shortly to take its place.)


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