17 Signs Your Kids Need Better Discipline
Today’s definition of "discipline" has evolved beyond shaming, threats and even physical punishment. Whether your parenting approach is more about natural consequences, “time-ins,” time-outs or treating behavior problems as a plea for more connection, discipline’s contemporary applications have more to do with guidance than with punishment. That means crafting healthy boundaries, teaching kids how to treat others, and instilling values like honesty, responsibility, cooperation and caring.
Bonnie Ocampo, a preschool teacher in San Diego, shares that, “the behaviors that indicate missing ‘discipline’ or boundaries vary a ton depending on the age. Hitting, for instance, is pretty OK in a 2-year-old,” she says, but not so much in an older child.
As kids develop, what we expect from them changes. Thus, their boundaries should change, too. While a 2015 study from Developmental Psychology showed that stubborn behaviors in children can lead to occupational success, parents still need to instill basic respect in their kids.
FamilyMinded talked to parents, teachers and experts to ascertain the most common signs that kids need better discipline — as well as tips on what to do about it — from age 2 onward. Do your kids happen to demonstrate any of these?
They Show Disregard for Others’ Safety and Well-being
Ocampo believes it’s a red flag when a child “seems not to care at all if they hurt others.”
While it takes practice for a younger preschooler to learn about consistently safe and kind ways to interact, research shows that empathy can develop as early as two years of age or about the time children are capable of understanding that others feel emotions different from their own. At this stage, children may seek to comfort someone who is hurt or upset.
The Solution: Role-Playing Appropriate Responses
At the preschool where Ocampo teaches, the discipline philosophy revolves around role-playing appropriate responses for different situations, reading stories about kindness and learning how to manage strong feelings. She strives to help children learn from natural consequences, but she says it’s important to coach them while giving those consequences. “You can’t really just leave it up to them,” she adds.
Try This: Teach empathy by modeling it in your interactions with your child, with others and even with yourself (a hard one!). Make sure to acknowledge how they’re feeling, but then encourage them to find ways to cope with it. For instance, “I know you’re tired. I am, too, but we need to get this done.”
Jaime, mother of a kindergartner and a preschooler in Boise, Idaho, shares her belief that “kids are allowed to make mistakes or bad decisions. But disrespect is where I draw the line.”
Disrespectful behaviors can range from name-calling to excessive whining to purposefully defying an important rule. When she notices these kinds of behaviors, she knows it’s time to have, “a heart-to-heart about how we treat others and deserve to be treated.”
The Solution: Keep It Private
While it may be tempting to discipline your child the moment a problematic behavior surfaces, it’s sometimes best to save it for a private conversation so that your child does not feel shamed in front of others. Instilling shame may temporarily solve the behavior but could lead to further lashing out in the future.
Try This: Write down the problematic behavior, and set aside a time each day or week (depending on how often it happens) to discuss it constructively with your child.
They Only Behave When You’re There to Monitor Them
Joanie, a mother of two young adults in San Diego, says that she sees signs that kids need more discipline when they suddenly act like all bets are off if a parent isn’t around.
For instance, if your sweet and cooperative 7-year-old waits until you and your partner are headed out on date night to start terrorizing the babysitter, that’s a sign that something is amiss.
The Solution: Set Proper Expectations
Teach your kids that cooperative behavior is expected not only when interacting with you — but also with their teachers, grandma and the babysitter.
Try This: Ask questions that encourage a response, and try to solve the problem together with your child. For instance, “How does it make you feel when I leave?”
They Consume Their Weight in Sugar Every Day
From cereals to juices to snack bars and even seemingly benign things like crackers, added sugar is everywhere. It’s also an important, and common, culprit in discipline problems.
Sugar can interfere with the brain’s neurotransmitters and thereby negatively affect mood stability. For instance, sugar floods the brain with dopamine, the so-called “feel-good” neurotransmitter, and induces the well-known sugar rush that’s inevitably followed by the sugar crash. Excess sugar is also associated with addictive behavior, which in turn can interfere with normal mood and development.
The Solution: Bring Snacks
Make a variety of healthy foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, nut butters, cheeses and other non-sugary snacking alternatives, available to your child. And don’t make sweet treats a reward for eating a healthy meal — or anything for that matter. Triggering the rewards system is always going to make sugar a more attractive option.
Try This: You can’t control everything your child eats, especially as they get older, but you can get in the habit of bringing healthy snacks with you wherever you go.
The Word “No” Makes Them Melt Down
There’s a certain moment in the life of most parents when we shift from the all-embracing yeses of caring for babies to practically living in the world of “no.” During the toddler years, many noes revolve around safety. As in: “no touching the hot stove,” “no petting the strange dog” and “no pulling Mommy’s earrings.” (For the record, experts say that babies can start to understand the word “no” at about 10 months of age.)
While it’s perfectly normal for toddlers to freak out from time to time when you refuse a third cookie or tell them it’s too rainy to go to the park today, it’s still important for you to set limits and stick to them. Kids are quick learners; if a toddler or an older child’s meltdown gets them exactly what they want, you better believe they’ll do it again. Whether you choose the actual word, “no,” or prefer a more positive reframe when speaking to your kids, limits are a part of life.
The Solution: Consider the Situation
Hunger, exhaustion, overstimulation or under-stimulation are all common reasons for a meltdown that have little to do with discipline. Some parents assume that once kids can walk and talk, they will tell you when physical or emotional needs are interfering with their ability to function — but that isn’t necessarily the case. When a meltdown occurs, it’s a good moment to assess your child’s needs and offer a snack, a nap or a change of environment.
Try This: If it isn’t one of the above issues requiring attention, Katherine Reynolds Lewis, a journalist and author of “The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever — And What to Do About It,” tells FamilyMinded that approaching your child with some questions and strategies once they’ve calmed down can help. “Ask your child what the experience was like for them,” she suggests. “How did it feel in their body when they were getting upset? Was it hot in their chest? Or prickling in their head? Your goal is to help them reflect on the experience and understand the physical sensation of the emotions.”
Then, Lewis suggests asking the child what would help him or her stay calm the next time big feelings arise, such as: “getting a hug from a parent, hitting a pillow, coloring, sitting in a cozy corner, doing 10 jumping jacks, playing with a pet, running around the block [or] putting a cool cloth on their forehead.” She adds that, though this isn’t an overnight fix, the process helps kids start to recognize their big emotions and learn healthy ways to handle them.
Their Sense of Entitlement Would Shock Jeff Bezos
We all want our kids to feel deserving of love, food, shelter, clothing and basic human rights. But an overdeveloped sense of entitlement — whether to treats or expensive toys or doing exactly as they please at all times — is a bullet most parents would prefer to dodge.
“The truth is that everyone on this earth has unalienable rights,” says Gretchen, a mother of three boys in Connecticut. “But infinite time on the Xbox is not one of them.”
The Solution: Change Up the Routine
When Gretchen’s kids start acting like it’s their right to play video games instead of helping out around the house or doing homework, she knows it’s time for a change in routine. Her boys’ cub scout pack hosts regular service projects such as food drives for their local food bank, and Gretchen believes those activities help shift their perspective — even if it’s “just a smidge” — around rights and privileges.
Try This: Volunteering to help those less fortunate can help kids understand the privileges they take for granted.
You’re Losing Your Temper on a Regular Basis
Unless you’re the Dalai Lama (who, it should be noted, does not have kids of his own), you will probably lose your temper once in a while. Look, parents are human. We get mad. We yell. We make bad choices from time to time.
But if you find yourself melting down on the regular, it could be a sign that you’re not proactively setting the limits and boundaries that allow home life to flow smoothly.
The Solution: Be Proactive
I can identify with this one. For instance, I try to avoid grocery shopping with my kids because, well, it’s grocery shopping with my kids. But if I must take them along, we chat about expectations on the drive to the supermarket. I tell them they need to have indoor voices and calm bodies while we shop and that they can both pick out one — and only one — small treat or salty snack to enjoy after we’ve successfully completed the shopping run.
Yes, it’s a form of bribery but I’m not ashamed; it’s so much better than screaming at my kids in aisle two or taking out my aggression on the hapless produce.
Try This: Be proactive! Don’t wait until a situation gets out of control to set limits. Instead, talk to your children about expectations any time something difficult may come up for them (and for you).
Your Babysitter Is Suddenly Busy Every Time You Text Her
If your go-to babysitter is suddenly too busy to answer your texts or says she’s studying for a test every time you ask her to watch your brood, she may just be a normal high schooler or college student who’s bitten off more than she can chew.
But it could also be that your little darlings have become more of a nuisance than a joy.
The Solution: Ask for Feedback
Communicate with your babysitter or caregiver regularly about how things are going when you’re not there. Ask if there’s any kind of support she needs from you in order to make the job more enjoyable and harmonious.
Try This: Make sure that you’re willing to listen to the good, the bad and the ugly that might be coming when you ask for feedback.
The Grandparents Are Fed Up
Now this one is a bit tricky because, honestly, times have changed. The way most of us parent today differs from the way we were parented. In some families the differences are nuanced; in others, they’re stark. Needless to say, not every grandparent accepts or embraces this fact.
Behaviors like negotiating — something our own parents perhaps wouldn’t have readily accepted from us — are much more common among kids today. And while personally, I’m OK with some level of negotiation with my kids and even consider it training for a valuable life skill, my mother doesn’t see it quite the same way. You’re bound to run into this generation gap here, and it isn’t necessarily a cause for concern.
The Solution: Find Common Ground
Certain things, however, haven’t changed. Respect, honesty and cooperation are all values that kids today can — and should — know. If your parents or in-laws are consistently disgruntled by their interactions with your kids, it might be a good time to assess the situation and find out if there’s a more skillful way to facilitate your family’s intergenerational relationships.
Try This: Remind your parents (and yourself) that, even though times have changed, you’re doing your best to instill the values you and they hold dear.
They Start Negotiating With You — and Winning
As kids grow, whining often gives way to negotiation. Jordan, mother of a sixth grader in the San Jose, California, area, says that if she sets a healthy limit only to find her kid pushing back and gaining ground, it’s a sign that something in their dynamic is a bit off.
Kids are relentless in going after what they want. We’ve all given into another snack or more screen time just to put an end to the verbal onslaught. But Jordan has a helpful reframe when she notices this kind of thing happening in her home. “It really just means that I need more discipline at that point,” she tells FamilyMinded.
The Solution: Evaluate Your Own Flaws
Giving into your kids’ relentless negotiating — especially when a limit has already been established — is more your problem than theirs.
Try This: Model healthy self-discipline for your kids because, oftentimes, it’s our own distractions and lack of self-control that make them believe they can get away with getting what they want.
They Refuse to Help Out
Wendy, mother of an elementary-aged boy and girl in San Diego, says that “not wanting to help with household chores” is top of her list of signs that her kids need more discipline.
Research shows that fewer American parents assign their kids household chores today than parents of past generations did — and that’s another conversation entirely — but if chores are the norm in your home, it can feel irritating and even deflating when your kids refuse to do their part.
The Solution: Emphasize the Family
Katherine Reynolds Lewis tells FamilyMinded that, “children do better with family rules and routines than being asked to help on an ad hoc basis.”
She suggests offering to teach your child a skill that’s a bit more advanced than their current ability — such as cooking or repairing a household item — that might get them excited about flexing their new know-how. “At a family meeting,” she recommends, “ask what jobs they see as needed around the house, and how to divide them up. Then, try out that method of dividing chores for a week or two, and see how it goes.”
Try This: Lewis also suggests using visual reminders such as a responsibility chart to keep track of household duties. She recommends against tying allowances or privileges to chores; instead, she says it’s better to emphasize relationships by creating, “a system where everyone helps because they're part of the family.”
You Hear “Just a Second” 20 Times a Day
This is my husband’s contribution to the discipline conversation. Our almost-10-year-old son has possession of my old phone, and while it’s disconnected from calling service, it does feature child-safe internet access.
And his new favorite video game involves endless rounds of battling superheroes that he always needs “just a second” to complete before making it to the dinner table.
The Solution: Put the Pause on Electronics
“When ‘just a second’ becomes ‘just a minute’ becomes a quarter hour of waiting for him to finish his game,” says my husband, “I know it’s time to take a break from electronics.”
Try This: Institute screen-free times and zones in the house so that devices don’t dominate at home.
You’re Burning the Midnight Oil — With Your Young Children
Kids need more sleep than adults, and adults need (at-home, non-working) personal time. Thus, early kid bedtimes are a clear win-win. In fact, studies show that school-age children should have a bedtime between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m.
Of course on holidays and some weekends, these parameters tend to slip a bit, but that should be the exception, not the rule.
The Solution: Create a Routine
Establish a consistent, realistic bedtime and stick to it.
Try This: If this is new for your family, it helps to establish rituals and routines around bedtime to help ease the transition. Read a book, take a bath, play some soothing music, you get the gist.
They Constantly Lose or Break Things
While it’s an objective truth that most kids are both clumsy and forgetful, when a child lacks consequences for losing or breaking stuff, they won’t learn the necessary life skill of being responsible for their belongings.
Even if it’s something essential like, say, a pair of winter gloves, instead of automatically replacing the lost or broken item, help your child retrace their steps. Then, replace them with a pair that’s not necessarily as nice as the one they lost in the first place. It’s a natural consequence and perfectly acceptable for kids to make do with something less appealing (or even a little less effective) when the loss is their own doing.
The Solution: Get Organized
Model the responsible care of your own personal belongings and talk about what you’re doing to keep tabs on things like your wallet, car keys and phone. Then, talk to them about how to keep track of their stuff and treat it with care.
Try This: Go to the Container Store and buy boxes, bins, bowls, whatever you need to fit your essentials, so that the important things your kid owns have places for safekeeping.
They Avoid Work Like the Plague
Nicole, a high school social studies teacher in San Diego, shares that signs kids need more discipline are really signs they need more attention. In class at the high school level, work avoidance is a big one. “They avoid what they’re supposed to be doing and find something disruptive to do,” she says.
She adds that they’re often “super chatty,” and they get distracted easily. It’s likely, in that case, that the student needs more structure, more help or simply more attention.
The Solution: Restorative Discipline
Nicole prefers discipline that’s “restorative, not punitive,” because it builds the teacher-student relationship instead of eroding it — making teens more likely to cooperate and learn.
Try This: Difficult behaviors are often a call for attention. Though it may be challenging to carve out the space, spending alone time with each child is particularly important when parenting more than one.
They’re Acting Out in Other Ways at School
Reyna, a high school Spanish teacher in Boise, Idaho, believes that students often lash out in an effort to “feel protected and know where their boundaries are.”
She adds that it’s natural for adolescents and teens to test this out to see how adults in their lives will react. When they’re lashing out at home, it usually means they feel confident enough that someone will be there to correct, guide and set limits. “But kids who don’t feel safe at home, like if their parents aren’t around or are struggling with addiction, often test those boundaries at school instead,” she says.
The Solution: Create a Loving Environment
Assert and maintain healthy boundaries at home in order to help older kids respond appropriately to authority at school.
Try This: Respond — but don’t overreact — if you get difficult feedback from your child’s teachers.
Your Kid Is Not Self-Aware
Self-awareness and self-discipline (including how eating and resting affect one’s mental state) are key in learning respect. After all, if you don’t respect yourself, why would you respect someone else?
Angie, a mother of kids who range from preteens to young adults in Washington, says that if her older kids use profanity or are disrespectful, she can see it’s time to talk about self-discipline. “That might mean sitting down and talking with them about how their actions are affecting others and asking them to have some alone time if the teens they were around were promoting the negative behavior. There are consequences for actions, of course, if behaviors continue, but I want to give them a chance at choosing self-discipline as a sign of respect for their family and themselves.”
The Solution: Create Space
Sometimes, less is more in parenting. To create self-discipline, have an initial conversation with your child, and then give them the space to try and fix and solve their problem on their own.
Try This: Encourage (or require) your child to write in a journal every day about the emotions they’re feeling, and then come up with solutions and consequences for the next time they act out.