The Most Common Discipline Mistakes Parents Make
It would be great if, when your little bundle of joy entered the world, he or she also came with a manual specific to their strengths, weaknesses and personality type. But since we don’t live in a dreamworld, it is guaranteed that moms and dads will make some mistakes on the road to raising healthy, happy humans.
And while no one likes being the bad guy, disciplining kids is one of the essential parts of parenthood. Several family experts have shared their wisdom on the most common parenting discipline mistakes and how you can avoid making them. Or at the very least, you can get assurance knowing that others are making the exact same ones you are.
While there are a variety of parenting techniques for your family to consider, experts agree that being consistent should be a significant goal.
"Applying discipline inconsistently is definitely the most common mistake that parents make. This frequently happens either because both parents are not on the same page with one another regarding discipline or just because they are tired from all of the responsibilities that they have on their plates," says Daniel Olavarria, who has served as an expert consultant for the National Institute of Mental Health and is a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in New York City.
Being consistent with the rules in your house will help you and the kiddos. "Children benefit from knowing exactly what is expected of them and what the consequences are for not abiding by those rules. Having those clear guidelines can also help parents feel less like they're figuring things out 'on the go' and reduce conflict between parents," Olavarria says. "By investing time and energy early on to establish and consistently enforce consequences for children's unwanted behaviors, parents will set their kids up for success in and out of the home and reduce future challenges.”
Not Being on the Same Page
In an effort to truly be consistent, parents have to be on the same page when it comes to rules and consequences for the kids.
"Since the most common challenges tend to occur when parents are not on the same page with one another, they should consider therapy if they find that they are having a hard time seeing eye-to-eye on how to discipline their children," Olavarria says. "If these parental disagreements are a relatively new issue, it is often an indication that there are emotional challenges present in their relationship that are expressing themselves through their divergent parenting approaches."
Disciplining When Angry
Just like you wouldn't send a fiery email off to a coworker when you are angry, parents should avoid disciplining when they are upset.
"A common mistake that I encounter is parents applying a certain consequence out of anger instead of out of a desire to intentionally redirect a child's unwanted behaviors," says Olavarria. "We want to make sure that we are addressing the behavior as unwanted without sending the message that the child is inherently 'bad' in some way."
Disciplining based on consequence will avoid unneeded stress on your child later in life. "Forgetting to connect a consequence to a specific behavior directly can lead to a child experiencing a deep sense of shame that often manifests into larger issues later in life," Olavarria says.
Forgetting the Three F's
A handy way of getting through discipline issues is to remember the three F's of parenting: firm, fair and friendly.
• Firm: "Being firm means being specific and clear regarding what the expectations and consequences are — and then consistently applying those consequences immediately. No delay and no negotiations," Olavarria says.
• Fair: "Being fair involves ensuring that consequences match the behavior, match the age of the child and that they are not excessive," Olavarria says. "If you implement a consequence that is too harsh, it can give children the sense that they 'can't win' since they inevitably will fail to meet expectations from time to time."
• Friendly: "Friendly means being generous with praise when children do meet expectations and incorporating rewards consistently as a known consequence of good behavior," Olavarria says. "Children seek and rely on approval from their parents and other caregivers."
And Forgetting That Kids Need the Three S's
"Remember that children need to experience a sense of safety, stability and security. These are best achieved by providing them with nurturing praise, consistent expectations and reasonable consequences," Olavarria says. "Ensure that whatever your discipline structure involves, that it is being enforced as a way to redirect your child's unwanted behaviors instead of as an outlet for your anger."
Assuming One Solution Works for All Kids
Experts agreed that a common discipline mistake they see parents make is assuming that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to disciplining kids.
"As a mother of three, I figured out very quickly that what worked for one child did not always work for the other children," says Dr. Tammy Zacchilli, an associate professor of psychology at Saint Leo University, where she teaches a course called the Psychology of Parenting.
"Parents need to be flexible in their approach to discipline and also consider the developmental stage of the child,” she adds. “For example, the same approach that worked with a three-year-old will likely not work with an older child.”
Forgetting Their Age
It's important to consider the child's age when determining their discipline because it's a good reminder of what they're able to understand and process based on their development.
"When choosing books, parents should look for options that focus on the developmental stage of the child," Zacchilli says. "I used a textbook called 'Parent-Child Relationships: An Introduction to Parenting' by Jerry Bigner and Clara Gerhardt in my Psychology of Parenting class. Although this book focuses on psychological perspectives, it includes some very valuable resources for parents."
Kids can't read minds, and they're still learning all the ways humans express emotions, so it's essential to communicate your choices with them.
"Parents may fail to communicate during the process, which can leave children unsure about why they are being disciplined," Zacchilli says. "Communication is extremely important at all stages of development."
While there are countless books, articles and blogs on parenting, there isn't one method of discipline that has a 100 percent success rate. So, it's perfectly fine to learn and accept suggestions from a variety of sources.
"I think it is fine to ask questions of other parents. However, keep in mind that your child may be different from their children," Zacchilli says.
Another good source for suggestions on your child's discipline could come from caregivers, teachers or family members that spend a lot of time with your little one.
Learning how your child responds to different types of discipline is crucial, too. "Be aware of your child’s reaction when you discipline him or her," Zacchilli says. "This reaction can provide insight into the effectiveness of your chosen strategy."
It's no surprise that parents feel beyond busy nowadays since work is never more than an internet connection away. So, it's common for moms and dads to be reactive instead of proactive with their kids' discipline.
"Taking the time to choose the behaviors you want to see improved in your child is the first step," says Jennifer Edmundson, co-founder of the parenting solutions company, Kenson Kids, and a psychiatric nurse by trade.
By setting clear expectations, parents can help kids learn to be proactive with their actions as well. "Visual reminders work for both parents and kids," Edmundson says. "For example, a reward chart on your refrigerator not only tells kids what is expected of them, but it also prompts parents to consistently monitor and recognize those behaviors when they see them in their child."
It happens to the best of parents: Your child messes up, and you feel bad for them, so you consider skipping the disciplinary action. Unfortunately, this can do more harm than good.
"Too often, busy parents threaten consequences without following through. This can be very confusing to children," Edmundson says. "Being considerate of a child’s feelings and clear about behavioral expectations — while also being firm and consistent with the consequences of not meeting those expectations — takes patience and effort, but it will make a lasting impact on a child."
Reading Very Little
"Read everything you can get your hands on," says Donna Bozzo, a national parenting expert who has published various books, including "Fidget Busters 50 Ways to Keep Kids Busy While You Get Things Done."
She adds: "This is your new job in a way, so create your own training. Also, beg, borrow and steal from any parent, teacher, etc., who you think has it going on when it comes to earning respect with children and shamelessly copy them!"
Not Staying Positive
Discipline doesn't just mean punishing bad behavior, which is why parents have to remember to keep it positive when it's appropriate.
"Be positive — always, always, always," Bozzo says. "When they are succeeding — being good, keeping their room clean, doing whatever it is you ask — tell them. Many times they are dying for you to notice. If you only notice and react when bad things occur, you are only going to get more of the same."
While disciplining wrong actions is necessary, you can go ahead and skip the screaming matches.
"Don't yell. Unless you are trying to stop a child from running into a speeding car, it's degrading and ineffective," Bozzo says. "You want to earn respect, so treat children in a way that they will want to listen to you because they respect what you say and the way you say it."
Rewarding Whining, Begging and Tantrums
"Why do kids whine, beg, cry, scream and throw tantrums when they want something? It’s a learned response," says Wendela Whitcomb Marsh, a board-certified behavior analyst, who has worked with countless parents on discipline issues. "They are learning all the time — things we want them to learn, like how to say please and thank you, as well as things we don’t want them to learn, like how to get on our nerves until we give in."
Since kids are such good learners, if parents reward their whining, begging and temper tantrums, they'll keep escalating the lousy behavior, Marsh says.
Not Being Clear and Calm
Kids aren't the best with nuance, so experts advise parents to be as transparent as possible when communicating their expectations.
"You must be clear, so your child knows what you expect from them and what they can expect from you," Marsh says. "Tell them the new rule, whatever you decide that rule is ... then stick to your guns."
Being calm while continually restating the rule is the more laborious task, but Marsh says it's vital. "Keep on being a broken record, repeating the rule every time. It helps if you can do this dispassionately, without getting more upset the 10th time than you were the first time they asked," she explained. "The calmer you are about it, the better."
Not Determining Consequences
"If you are co-parenting or have other significant caretakers in the child's life, the first step is to work together to come up with agreeable expectations, consequences and rewards for your child that can be consistently applied," Olavarria says. "Consider writing those rules down and having them posted somewhere where all children and parents can see them."
Every parenting expert FamilyMinded interviewed mentioned not determining consequences ahead of time as one of the most common discipline mistakes.
"Even the best kids sometimes sneak that extra dessert when you’re not looking, or they snag your phone out of your purse while you’re reading," Marsh says. "Be prepared in advance, and let them know what the consequences are. You don’t have to be mean about it. Just have in writing what the consequence will be, and then calmly point it out and follow through when the issue comes up."
Excluding the Kids
While it is the job of parents to determine the rules, it's recommended that moms and dads include the kiddos in on the process when it feels appropriate.
"Communication between the parents is key, and then having open discussions which include the kids becomes imperative," says Kelly Greggerson, a licensed professional counselor who counsels youth and works with families to overcome a variety of challenges. "Parents who allow kids to be a part of the decision-making process when it comes to establishing household rules, promote their child's autonomy and set the standard that the child’s opinion is valued."
By including kids, parents can reduce the fear and shame that can accompany discipline. "Parents can tap into their strengths and find ways to openly communicate with their kids, value what their kids have to say, and be consistent in their expectations," Greggerson says. "Kids really want to have a sense of belonging in their families."
Avoiding Family Therapy
When I was a kid, my brother nearly died in a horrific car accident. Naturally, our family dynamic was shaken, so my mom took us all to family therapy, which it turns out was exactly the right decision to make when our family unit was in a time of crisis. If your family is going through one, consider seeing a therapist that specializes in family dynamics.
"If discipline issues persist despite the parents being on the same page, family therapy should be considered. This does not mean therapy for just the child who is exhibiting the unwanted behaviors — family therapy means the entire family," Olavarria says. "Children do not develop and grow within a vacuum. If unwanted behaviors are persisting, this means that there are changes that need to occur in the entire home 'ecosystem,' which involves the parents and other children in the home."