How to Punish a Child in the Right Way

Three Parts:Redirecting Toddler BehaviorUsing Timeout with Young ChildrenApplying Consequences with Older Children and Teenagers

Disciplining a child often includes some level of punishment. However, it’s important to remember that the ultimate goal of punishment is to change behavior; not to hurt the child. Since children respond differently to behavioral interventions based upon their age and developmental level, discipline will look different at each developmental stage. It is important to learn how to apply age appropriate punishment without sacrificing your child’s dignity or self-esteem.

Part 1
Redirecting Toddler Behavior

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    Instruct the child to stop. It is normal for toddlers to try to assert control over their environment. However, when their desire for autonomy results in aggression, destruction, or it jeopardizes their own safety, it’s your job to intervene. Toddlers are still quite nonverbal and unable to process a lot of verbal exchange. [1] Therefore, it’s important to stick to very brief instructions.
    • Typically the word no is overused and children are desensitized to it. In urgent situations such as a hot oven, use the word, "no," but in other situations is it better to offer a statement of fact that also gives the child a reason why the behavior is not correct. For example, instead of "no hitting people" parents should say "people are not for hitting." Or instead of "no throwing of toys" parents should say "toys are not for throwing."
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    Alter the unwanted behavior. Immediately after you give the brief verbal instruction, modify the behavior.[2] This can be done by removing the child from the unwanted behavior or situation. For example, if the child is pushing another child, you can remove her hands from the other child by placing her arms at her sides. Alternatively, you could pick her up and place her a few feet away from the other child.
    • If she is trying to access something that is dangerous, take the item from her. For example, if she is holding a breakable glass, you can take the object from her.
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    Redirect the toddler’s attention to another activity. Toddlers have very short attention spans and can be easily distracted. Try to engage her with an alternate activity.[3]
    • For example, if she is being aggressive with another child on the playground because she wants to play with a ball, you could distract her by taking her to the swings. Be creative; toddlers are easily entertained.
    • You should continue to monitor the child to make sure that the behavior does not recur.
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    Remove the child from the situation if a tantrum occurs. Toddlers often have trouble controlling their emotions. This behavior is not always willful disobedience but usually demonstrates their low frustration tolerance.[4] Help your child to regain control by removing her from the place of misbehavior.
    • You should be empathetic with the child but still establish limits. Do not yell at the child or disrespect her in anyway. The point is to help her regain emotional control, so that means that you have to remain emotional control yourself.
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    Hold the child gently. When a child is having a temper tantrum, she may not willingly stay were you place her. To avoid injury to herself and to help her regain control, try gently but firmly holding her on your lap until she is calm again.[5]
    • Toddlers are very vulnerable to feelings of abandonment, so be sure to never leave a toddler unsupervised in a timeout situation. Always remain with her.
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    Reassure the toddler. Once she has regained emotional control, be sure to provide some verbal reassurance.[6] Again, it’s important to keep the verbal exchange short so that she understands. You could say something like, “Looks like you’re feeling better” or “Kaylee is calm now.”
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    Reintroduce the toddler to another activity. Now that she is calm, redirect her to another activity.[7] It is best to guide her toward an activity that is not near the place where the tantrum occurred. This will help to prevent the recurrence of the unwanted behavior and tantrum.

Part 2
Using Timeout with Young Children

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    Select an area for timeout in advance. The area should be a safe, boring place that is not entertaining for the child.[8] Try to avoid high traffic areas and places that have distractions such as a television, toys, or other children.[9]
    • The timeout area should be selected in advance so that you aren’t distracted trying to find an appropriate space when misbehavior occurs.
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    Give the child a warning. If your child is misbehaving, start by giving her a warning.[10] Make sure that the warning is clear and spoken in simple and concrete language that is easily understood. Emphasize choice and responsibility when giving consequences, such as, "Kylie, if you choose to hit your sister again, then you choose to take a timeout."
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    Tell your child to take a timeout. If the behavior continues, it is time to immediately implement the consequence. Always follow through with the timeout; this way you will avoid making empty threats. If you don’t follow through, then your child will learn to not take you seriously.
    • Briefly tell your child why she is being required to take a timeout. Do not spend a lot of time talking and avoid arguing altogether. A simple statement such as, “You are going to timeout because you kicked the wall” is sufficient.
    • Physically guide the child to a timeout area if she refuses to go on her own. Escort her gently but firmly by the arm or pick her up and take her to the timeout spot.
    • Remain calm when your child misbehaves. Remember, misbehavior on some level is developmentally appropriate for children. It is your responsibility to model appropriate behavior.
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    Set the timer. Determine how long the timeout should be based upon your child’s age. Most child development experts agree that the appropriate timeframe for timeout is one minute per year of age.[11] Require your child to stay in timeout for the designated timeframe. A timer that sounds when the time is up will help you and your child keep track of the time.
    • Your child may try to refuse to stay in timeout. If she tries to leave the timeout seat, gently and consistently guide her back to the chair.
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    Resume normal activity. Reintroduce the child back into a positive activity when the appropriate amount of time elapses. If she is still engaging in agitated behavior when the timeout is over, it may be helpful to tell her that once she is calm that she is free to rejoin the rest of the family or her peers.
    • Before resuming normal activities, you may want to have a discussion about what happened.[12] Don’t berate or lecture the child but use the experience as a learning opportunity instead. For example, you could say, “Kicking the wall can leave holes in the wall. Let’s try to use your words when you’re frustrated."

Part 3
Applying Consequences with Older Children and Teenagers

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    Establish the rules. Make sure that all caretakers are on board with the rules. It is very important that everyone is on the same page with discipline so that the children are unable to split or undermine adults.
    • Try to include your children in making some of the rules. However, it’s okay to have some nonnegotiable rules on important issues like curfew, grade expectations, church attendance, or anything else that is important to your family.
    • Identify “off limits” behavior.[13] Examples of off-limits behavior might include things like saying “I hate you,” engaging in aggressive behavior, calling people names, cheating, using profanity, or playing derogatory music. You choose the off-limits behavior that is the most appropriate for your lifestyle and establish rules around them.
    • Make sure that the rules are concrete and specific so that there is no room for misinterpretation. For example, it is better to establish the rule “You must be home by 7pm” then to say “You must be home before it gets dark.”
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    Decide on the consequences. Be sure to explain the consequences of any rule infractions in advance. The child or teenager should know exactly how violations will be enforced before any actual violation occurs.[14]
    • Consequences should be things that can be easily implemented and you should always follow through with them. Empty threats will weaken your influence and your kids will learn to not take you or the rules as seriously.
    • Try making a list of activities or privileges that your child enjoys. Withdrawal of these privileges can be effective consequences.
    • Sometimes natural consequences are more appropriate. These consequences are the direct result of the child's actions and are not inflicted upon her by the parent.[15] For example, the natural consequence that occurs when your daughter does not put her jeans into the hamper is that the jeans are not clean for school the next day.
      • Natural consequences should ONLY be used if the child is not in danger of being harmed.
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    Apply consequences consistently. Be consistent with the application of consequences so that your child or teenager will take you seriously.[16] This means that if the rule is that your child is home by 7pm and she walks in at 7:15pm, then the consequence should be applied.
    • If there is no rule in place about a particular behavior when it occurs, then take time to establish the rule at that point.
    • Do not alter natural consequences. For example, if your daughter's jeans were not washed because they were not in the hamper, do not do a special load of laundry just to accommodate her.
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    Avoid arguing with your child.[17] Older children and teenagers are notorious for testing boundaries. If you have made the rules clear and she has clearly violated one or more of them, then the consequence is applied. If you find yourself in a fighting match with your child, it is okay to remove yourself from the no-win argument. Keep in mind that the consequence is still valid but you have removed yourself from the argument.
    • It is important to empathize and recognize feeling prior to reaffirming the rule. For example, if your 13 year old is screaming, “It’s not fair, Stacey was allowed to stay out until midnight,” you could respond by saying, “I can tell you are upset and feeling let down, but this is not Stacey's family and my decision is final."
    • This approach should only be used if she continues to argue with you after you’ve already reminded her of the rule and the consequence of violating it. It minimizes the power struggle and makes it clear that the rule still stands.


  • Always use praise and approval liberally to reinforce desirable behavior.
  • It is important to share the established rules and consequences regarding your child with relatives, babysitters, and other caregivers outside of the home. If the caregiver is unable or unwilling to adhere to your guidelines, then you should consider putting your child in the care of someone whose has child rearing practices and beliefs that are more similar to yours.
  • When disciplining a child, always be sure to address the behavior while not criticizing him/her. For example, you might say, “It is not okay to hit your brother” rather than saying “You are a bad boy/girl for hitting your brother.”
  • Always treat your child with respect. You can modify behavior without humiliating your child.
  • It is important to apply consequences as soon as possible after an undesirable behavior occurs.
  • Try to word rules in an affirmative manner. For instance, you would want to say, “You can only drive the car to school and back home” rather than saying, “Do not drive to the mall after school.”


  • Most experts agree that spanking is not a very helpful way to discipline children.[18] In fact, there is some evidence that suggests that spanking actually promotes negative behavior while hindering brain development.[19] The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend spanking children.[20]

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Categories: Behavioral Issues