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Disciplining Your Child – Tips by Age Group

Geoff Nixon

By Geoff Nixon

Tailoring Your Disciplinary Approach to Your Child

Disciplining your child is a hazy and sometimes heart-wrenching concept. Turning less-than-good behavior into a learning moment is easier said than done.

It goes without saying, most importantly, you need to be proactive, rather than reactive when emotions can take over.  Proactive means having a plan, a consistent approach, and a way to assess what’s working and what’s not working.  Discipline needs to be intentional, aimed entirely at helping your child.

Your Child is Unique

Getting the tone right and conveying your intended messages through your disciplinary actions takes clear thinking on your part. Each child is a unique bundle of learning ability, maturity, personality, IQ, self-confidence and environmental influences that play out differently – in each situation.

For instance, if your child is a struggling reader or learner, there are probably more behavioral moments that could be addressed. But the chances are that child is also lacking in self-esteem, and so caution is advised.  In many ways, this forces your hand as a parent. With struggling learners, you need to pick your spots and focus on the higher priority behavioral issues.

Whereas, if your child is confident and strong, then you probably have more flexibility.

All you can do is your best–that’s what you owe to your child, and it’s what you’re doing by reading this article.

Discipline By Age Group

Discipline Tips for Preschoolers

Preschoolers navigate concepts such as sharing, manners, and getting along with others. Their world is growing more complicated, and they’re learning how to deal with it.  

For preschoolers it’s as much about do as I do, not as I say.  So be sure to avoid losing your cool in front of your preschooler in stressful situations. They’ll be likely to mimic your calmness.

Regarding improved listening, you shouldn’t ask your preschooler anything more than twice. Warn them the first time your repeat yourself about consequences, and if you don’t get a response, follow through with those consequences.

Lastly, be sure to point out good behaviors and positively reinforce them.

Disciplining Your Grade Schooler

At this stage, you’re laying down the foundation for future behaviors. Grade-schoolers understand more about regulating their behaviors and expressing feelings.

An issue with grade-schoolers is they aren’t always ready to do what’s asked of them.  Cleaning their room, putting away the dishes, getting out the door, and doing their homework are all examples of traditional stumbling blocks.

Discipline Tips:

Ask questions about the bad behavior, so your grade-schooler can explore and learn where they went wrong.  For example, ask, “how can you react differently?” if they’ve gotten into a fight with a friend.

2nd chances are also necessary after explaining where your grade-schooler stepped wrong. In these instances, give an example of the appropriate behavior. Then thank them when they get it right.

There’s also a need to be a logic to disciplinary consequences with elementary age children.  For instance, if your child was late for school because they struggled to get out of bed, don’t revoke television privileges. Make the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Instead, make bedtime earlier.

Disciplining Your High Schooler

Teenagers struggle to control their behaviors. Combine that with heightened peer pressure and a desire for independence, and you have one of the most challenging stages of parenthood.

Bad decisions from teenagers stem from them feeling like adults when they are still very much children. As such, when parents step in and speak their mind, eye-rolling and snarky remarks tend to be the response.

Discipline Tips:

You cannot afford to take a teenager’s behavior personally, as contentious as things might get. Remaining calm is essential in avoiding nasty arguments, helping you approach everything with a level head.

Boundaries based on homework and curfew should be a two-way street. Before the school year, collaborate with your teen about the ground rules, adding freedoms as they’re earned.

Age Isn’t the Only Factor in Discipline

The above section is a general framework on which you can base your disciplinary approach.

Note how there’s enough room for you to cater and customize your strategy based on your child’s needs.

To the above point, a child without learning challenges will benefit more from more steadfast, continual discipline. These types of children benefit from knowing their limits, and they respond well when you’re on top of them with boundaries.

Alternatively, disciplining a child with learning challenges or differences requires different standards.

If your child has reading problems or learning difficulties, you need a different discipline compass. For a start, your child has a lot more frustration points in a day – reading, homework or social misunderstandings where bad behavior is possible.   And of course, children with learning issues are as capable as anyone else of good and bad things. Thus, they can knowingly behave poorly, which requires a response.

You just need to pick your spots, using similar approaches to what’s already been discussed.

Punishments Versus Reward

This topic is hotly debated. However, one study says that losses (or punishments) had two to three times more impact than rewards.

Conversely, an article from the New York Times says that neither is better and are both conditional.

We tend to veer in the direction of the New York Times. Raising a child is fluid. At specific points, they’ll respond better to either punishments or rewards. In being mindful and focusing on how your child reacts in given situations, you’ll figure out which strategy works best and when/why it does.

However, there are other ways to shape behavior beyond create these punishment and/or rewards signals. Here are two.

Leading By Example

Experts speak to role modeling the behavior you want to see from your children.

This idea is based on the social learning theory, where people learn how to behave by watching others. An example frequently cited example is the Bobo doll experiment. During the study, children imitated how the adults played with the doll.

Yes, you should reward good behaviors and punish destructive behaviors. But practicing what you preach is one of the most effective ways to get the best from your young one.

Coaching or Guiding

It can be extremely effective to think of every moment of bad behavior as an opportunity.  If you can mirror your child’s behavior back to your child, it can help him see his actions more clearly. From there, you can work through other ways the situation could be handled that might have had a different outcome.

We have written about this in a separate article, about the Guidance Approach.

On a parting note, remember that discipline has to be constantly evolve as your child matures and as circumstances change.  And if you do need to change your approach, we hope this article might spark some new ideas for you.


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