7 Questions to Ask If Child Discipline Isn't Working

Start by Reexamining Your Goals and Expectations

If your child doesn't listen, ask yourself these 10 questions.
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Parents will often seek professional counseling when their attempts to discipline a child don't seem to be working. There may be problems at school, disrespect at home, or disruptive behaviors that are making life unpleasant for you or others around you.

When faced with these dilemmas, a counselor will try to understand the dynamics of the family to better pinpoint what is really going on. By working together and asking the right questions, parents can begin to identify where they may be coming up short and explore new strategies to better encourage discipline at home.

Here are eight simple questions that may help:

1. Are my expectations appropriate?

Children will test limits even if you are disciplining them appropriately. However, if your expectations are inappropriate, it can severely undermine your authority and encourage the very behaviors you are trying to change.

Start by educating yourself about normal child development to ensure your expectations are realistic. Two-year-olds, for example, is are meant to have temper tantrums, while it’s perfectly normal for teens to be mildly rebellious as they search for their own identities.

Learning about child development can help you identify the strategies that are not only age-appropriate but cognizant of your child's changing needs. There's no point, for instance, in giving a timeout to a 12-year-old. Make the house rules appropriate to the age group and establish consequences that your child will respond to.

2. Is my discipline consistent?

Discipline will only work if it is consistent. If you only follow through with consequences two out of three times, your child may risk punishment if there is a 33 percent chance he or she will get off scot-free.

Moreover, it's important to remember that it takes time for certain disciplines to change a child's behavior.

If you send your child to his or her room after a meltdown, don’t expect that to be the fix. Learning new skills takes time and practice.

As a parent, your job is simply to be consistent, patient, and realistic in what you can achieve within a specific space of time.

3. Am I doing anything to reinforce bad behavior?

Sometimes parents will unwittingly encourage a negative behavior in their children. For example, if your child purposely misses the bus and you drive him or her to school, you have signaled that the consequence of the bad behavior is a free ride.

Attention can be a big reinforcement for kids, even if it’s negative attention. To avoid power struggles and attention-seeking behaviors, try to ignore the behavior rather than respond. By doing so, your child will eventually tire and seek new (and hopefully productive) strategies to gain your attention.

4. Is there a way to motivate good behavior?

Just as most adults won’t go to work without receiving a paycheck, many children won’t embrace change without some sort of structured incentive.

Instead of only giving your child a negative consequence for misbehavior, offer a positive consequence for good behavior. A sticker chart works well for younger kids, while older kids benefit from a token economy system using pennies, poker chips, or marbles.

Even teens like an acknowledgment of good behavior or healthy choices. Don't withhold praise simply because a child is getting older.

5. Are there ways to teach new behavior skills?

Some behavior problems stem from skills deficits. For example, if your child behaves aggressively toward another, telling your child to stop may not be enough. Instead, you would be better served to have a discussion about feelings and how your child would feel if the shoe were on the other foot.

Even little children are able to come to logical conclusions if given the chance to interact freely. In cases like this, role-playing can be an effective tool to "trying out" new behaviors.

Be sure to provide ample praise and positive feedback whenever your child makes the right choice.

6. Might others be undermining me?

If other adults are setting rules and limits for your child that are contrary to your own, you need to step in immediately. Whether they are daycare providers, grandparents, or step-parents, you need to remind them that conflicting messages only confuse a child and tacitly allow the child to question or challenge authority.

Instead of butting heads, try to recruit the adult to participate in a coordinated effort. Advise the adult about your house rules, but don’t place yourself in a position of negotiation. Stay consistent with both your rules and strategies. If you are unable to come to an agreement, you may be forced to change, limit, or monitor interaction with the offending adult.

7. How important is it that my child's behavior change?

It is easy to become so fixated on changing a child’s behavior that you lose track of why you are doing it.

For instance, if a child refuses to go to school, that's a problem. However, if the same child refuses to join Little League, that may not so much be a problem as it is a choice. Even if you believe the child will benefit enormously from participating, it may simply be inconsistent with your child’s interests and temperament.

Doing something for "your child’s own good" usually means doing something opposed to what your child wants. What this can lead to is conflict over something that may or may not make any difference in the long run.

If in doubt, step back and try to get a little perspective. If a choice isn’t negatively impacting your child’s life, don't punish the child for wanting something different. Rather, encourage the child's interest and participate as fully you would any other activity.

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