Skip to main content
URMC / Encyclopedia / Content

How to Discipline Your Child with Love

All children need limits to feel safe. Discipline is an important and effective tool. But you need to use it in a way that keeps your child’s dignity intact. Discipline is not the same as harsh punishment. It is simply teaching your child which behaviors are OK and which aren’t.

With the right methods, discipline can be a positive, loving experience. On the other hand, physical punishment and yelling will only frighten your child and encourage aggression. Here are some tips to help you discipline your child with love:

  • Make corrections about learning rather than getting in trouble. Don't just tell your child not to run around with food in their mouth. Explain why this rule is important. Tell your child that it isn't safe because they could choke, and that your job is to help keep them from getting hurt. Make explanations short. Kids tune out long-winded speeches.

  • Speak firmly, but kindly. Don’t yell, blame, or call your child names to make them understand that you're not happy with their behavior. Use a firm tone, but stay in control. Be calm when you explain why you aren't happy with what they did.

  • Tell them what they should do instead of what they shouldn't. This is hard to remember when you catch your children using the sofa as a trampoline again. But rather than telling your children what they did wrong, tell them what they should have done instead. Here’s an example: “Use the floor for jumping, please. The couch is for sitting."

  • Set a good example. If your children repeatedly see you doing things such as cursing, leaving dirty dishes on the table, and name-calling, you will have a harder time getting them to understand why they should behave differently. Model the behavior you want, and your children will likely follow your lead, at least sometimes.

  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Your child may be angry and uncooperative because a playdate just ended. You can say, “I see you are feeling upset because Jack left, but you still need to pick up your train set.”

  • Never hit, spank, shake, or slap your child. Spanking teaches that violence is a way to solve problems. It can cause your children to fear you and ruin the trust they have in you. It may stop an unwanted behavior briefly. But studies show that children who are spanked are more likely to hit and fight with other children, steal things, and engage in other antisocial behaviors. They are also more likely to act out in violent, aggressive ways as adults.

  • Find alternatives to physical punishment. Maybe your loving parents spanked you, and you feel that you turned out OK. But if your parents had known what researchers know now, they might not have done it. Spanking encourages violence in children and teens. It can also be dangerous physically. And shaking a baby or toddler can cause brain damage and even death. If you’ve been spanking your children, tell them that you are going to stop. If you are having trouble controlling your child without the threat of hitting, call a parenting hotline or join a parenting and discipline class (often available at a local Y). There you can learn more about time-outs and nonviolent ways to discipline.

  • Make consequences realistic and stick with them. Don't threaten your children when you’re angry. For instance, don't tell your preschooler that if they don't get dressed, they’ll have to stay inside all week. Show an immediate consequence, such as taking them to preschool in their pajamas. When you say there will be a consequence to bad behavior, follow through with it so it’s not an empty threat. If you don’t, your kids will know that you don’t really mean what you say.

  • Hug your child after using discipline. Make sure your child knows it is the behavior you are not happy with, not your child.

  • Offer praise for a job well done. When your child is doing something well, such as picking up toys without being asked, show your appreciation. Teachers call it “catching your child being good.”

  • Forgive yourself. Parenting is a tough job, and you’re bound to make mistakes. If you yelled at your children for dropping peas in the heating vent, don’t beat yourself up. Apologize for losing your temper and start over. Your children will learn how to apologize from your example. And they will learn that parents can get angry at their children and still love them.

If you are so angry with your children that you are ready to explode, take a few moments to calm down before trying to discipline them. Go in another room if needed, count to 10 or 20, and take some deep breaths. Then think about how you will handle the problem. Taking time out, if needed, will help you discipline your children in a way that helps them learn from their mistakes and still feel loved.

Medical Reviewers:

  • Dan Brennan MD
  • Heather M Trevino BSN RNC
  • Liora C Adler MD