Is time-out not working for your child? We take a closer look at why children misbehave and discuss various discipline techniques that might work for you.

Were you spanked as a form of discipline when you were a child? I’m not talking about abusive hitting, but rather about that stinging, burning sensation on your behind when you did something naughty. I think many of us were and although we may have turned out to be quite decent, loving people, experts believe that children shouldn’t be spanked as a way to discipline them. Adversaries of corporal punishment argue that frequent spankings teach children that violence can be used to resolve conflict situations. So, if a spanking is not in order, how can you effectively discipline your children?

By being an aware parent for one. Joanna Kleovoulou, a clinical psychologist and the Director of PsychMatters Family Centre Bedfordview explains that being an ‘aware parent’ means that you have an understanding of your child’s needs, your own voids and pains and can act in the best interest of your child by making the most effective decisions for your child’s wellbeing. She says disciplining your child is really about supporting her positive goals in her daily life and teaching her to ultimately become responsible, co-operative, confident, loved and a loving young adult one day.

You can start this discipline journey by encouraging positive behaviours in your children, try to meet your child’s underlying needs, setting realistic goals for your child and balancing out the discipline with fun and playful times. However, you should also know when to ignore your child’s inappropriate behaviour and when there should be consequences for her actions. Joanna Kleovoulou says by setting limits and giving children choices, you are empowering them and this gives both you and your children a sense of control.

But, in order to effectively discipline your children, you’ll need to understand why they misbehave, test your patience and throw tantrums.

So, why do children misbehave?

Because they are scheming, little rascals who are out to give us grey hair and alcoholic tendencies might be your first response to this question. But the root of the behaviour is a little more complex than you might have thought. Kerry Skinner an educational psychologist explains that children misbehave for many reasons, but more often than not their naughty behaviour can be attributed to a positive pay off when they misbehave. She believes children often behave badly because it’s the only time they get attention from their parents. Joanna Kleovoulou agrees and adds that the basic underlying factor for most children’s misbehaviour is to belong to and to have their physical and psychological needs met, so they may use both positive behaviour and misbehaviour to get that. “When they feel they cannot belong with positive behaviour they use misbehaviour, which may be acted out usually on an unconscious level.” In order to get behind the reason for your child’s behaviour you’ll have to sit down and really think about the benefits she is getting from misbehaving before you’ll be able to remedy the situation and effectively discipline her.

Testing behaviour, which I’m sure all parents are familiar with, is perfectly normal behaviour for children, according to Joanna Kleovoulou. She says testing your patience is a way for your children to assert themselves and to see how far they can push you to get what they want. Her solution to control this behaviour is to be firm with your child and to set appropriate limits based on your child’s age and stage.

Parents’ worst enemy, the tantrum often causes embarrassing scenes in super markets and busy restaurants. Joanna Kleovoulou explains that children display these actions when they perceive that their needs are not being met. Sometimes it may be best to ignore your child’s tantrums and be oblivious to the judging stares you’re getting from fellow shoppers, because you’ll only add fuel to the fires of the tantrum if you try to calm your child down. But on other occasions you may need to step in and put a limit in place by giving your child appropriate choices. Joanna Kleovoulou adds that many children do not have the capacity to tolerate frustration and may need to be held firmly and soothingly until the tantrum has subsided.

Why rewards shouldn’t be used to discipline children

Buying your child a toy or chocolate every time she is good won’t do your child-parent relationship any favours. Kerry explains that so much of what children do, they do because they are looking for acceptance and approval. “If we teach our children that when they behave or do something right, they’ll get a reward, they’ll constantly rely on an external reward system as a way to feel gratified with themselves.” So, instead of making the connection that they’ll feel good and proud about themselves when they behave, they believe that they are good kids when they receive a sweetie or a toy and bad kids when they don’t, even though they haven’t done anything wrong. Kerry says that everything parents do when teaching and disciplining their children should be in balance. She adds that there are opportunities when you can provide a reward for your child, because it does create a motivating factor to be good, but you have to ensure that your children have enough internal motivation to alter their behaviour. “We all want a little bit of external motivation, recognition and reward, but it needs to be in balance and accompanied by a parent acknowledging to their child that they know she tried hard and to tell the child that she can be proud of herself.”

Discipline techniques that work

There are many ways to effectively discipline your children, but there is no one right way to do it and all the methods won’t work as well for everyone either. The consequences your child will have to face when she behaved badly will depend on both your and her personalities as well as the circumstances in which she misbehaved. If you are struggling to nip your child’s misbehaviour in the butt, why not try one of these techniques:

The choice and consequence technique

At PsychMatters parents are encouraged to use this technique. Kerry explains that it differs from the punishment and rewards system in a sense that parents are asked to provide a choice for their child. By providing your child with a choice of how she wants to behave you can still channel her behaviour in the right direction and she’ll feel in control of the situation. But, when a child is disciplined according to an autocratic system, her sense of self is minimised, her need to be responsible for her behaviour is taken away and she thus relies on her parents to mediate and monitor her behaviour. The choice and consequence technique, however, teaches children that when they choose to behave in a certain manner, they are choosing the consequence for their act as well. This system aims to bring back the responsibility to behave well to the child instead of the parents letting the child know when her behaviour is unacceptable.

Focus on good behaviour

Catch your child doing something good. We already mentioned that children usually misbehave because they know they’ll get attention from you when they do. So, next time when you are on the telephone and your child quietly sits on the floor next to you building blocks or drawing a picture for mommy, praise her on how well she behaved and kept herself busy while you were having an important conversation. This technique will work much more effectively than you overreacting when she tears up your emails while you are on the phone, because next time when she wants attention, she’ll find something even more mischievous to get attention from you. Try to always give a quick appraisal of what she is doing, whether you’re commenting on her beautiful drawing or giving her a quick hug, even when you are busy. By doing this there’ll be little need for her to misbehave just to get some attention from mom or dad.

Establish rules

Explain to your children what kind of behaviour you expect from them before you discipline them. For example, make it clear to your children that under no circumstances are they allowed to draw on the walls and furniture with their crayons. Explain to them why they cannot do this and what will happen if they do (you may decide to take away the crayons for the rest of the day). If they do draw on the walls, remind them that they can draw on paper, and that you’ve told them they are not allowed to draw on the walls. Remind them once more what will happen if you catch them doing it again. If they’ve chosen to ignore your warnings and draw on your walls again, enforce the consequences – take away the crayons for the rest of the day and get them to help you clean the wall.


Time-out involves physically removing your child from the setting in which she misbehaved and taking her to a boring room or corner. Time-outs usually work great when children need a ‘cooling off’ period and it gives them time to think about what they’ve done wrong. Experts suggest one minute of time out to the age of the child. So, if you have a three-year old, she’ll have to stay in the room or corner for three minutes before she can come out again. If she refuses to stay put or sit still, take her back to the corner or chair as many times as necessary to keep her there. Time-out should be used wisely and not for first time offences. Only after you’ve warned her that there will be consequences if she continues taking her brother’s toys from him, should you send her to time-out. The time-out should also take place in a safe environment where parents can still see the child, she shouldn’t be banished to a dark room or somewhere where she can hurt herself.

Joanna Kleovoulou explains that misbehaviour is not just about being ‘naughty or having tantrums’. She says it can be defined as behaviour that may be dangerous to your child. If your child’s misbehaviour persists, even after you’ve tried the various discipline techniques and a positive outcome wasn’t gained for both yourself and your child, seeking professional help with a psychologist may be needed. Joanna Kleovoulou adds that a child’s misbehaviour may be symptomatic of other problems faced in the child’s life and she may be unable to communicate that adequately or she may not have the insight to explain her inappropriate behaviour.

Call Psychmatters Family Therapy Centre on 011 450 3576 to find out more about Powerful Parenting Workshops.

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