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How to discipline a child: Why replacing harsh punishments with compassion will improve behaviour

how to discipline a child effectively backed by science

How to discipline a child effectively? So often, our children don’t listen, they act out, or don’t behave the way we have taught them. Inside you will read the most effective approach on how to use positive parenting to discipline a child.

Get a printable with tips on being a calmer parent at the bottom of this post.

“The issue with kids today is there isn’t enough discipline. They need consequences! My parents had a firm hand and I knew the real meaning of respect,” one father who was fed up with his 13-year-old said.

Then a mother chimed in, “Children need discipline. They need to learn to be law-abiding citizens who obey.

These are some of many statements from parents in a group trying to find ways to help their child’s behaviour around.

The truth is their statements made sense (and so do many others that I will address throughout this article).

We see an absence of family values and a rise in societal issues and figure the answer to chaos is more order (or law and order for that matter). On top of it all, the way we were raised largely acts as the foundation for how we parent.

So, if we were raised with threats of being spanked, lectured, and grounded when we misbehaved, these experiences act as a template for our own parenting.

Though this rationale seems logical, there is powerful evidence to suggest more rules and greater punishments work the opposite way we intend them to.

All behaviour is communication.

Part of providing effective discipline is understanding that all behaviour is communication. In fact, research on attachment shows that difficult behaviour gets the loudest when attachment needs aren’t met.

Instead of getting to the root of the behaviour, punishments like yelling, threatening or spanking are akin to mowing dandelions and expecting them not to grow back. Sure the lawn looks neater and tidier in the short term. But the root system will only get stronger. And, in time, there will be more dandelions than before.

When I step back from a situation where I have been short with my husband or kids, it makes sense. If I see there is no clean Tupperware when making lunches for school and slam the cupboard door, it has little to do with the missing containers. The root of my own behaviour is that I’m overtired, agreed to do too much for work and school, fear I don’t have enough time and I can’t find Tupperware lids.

If someone swooped in and coached me about better Tupperware storage, it would only cause me to choke back my feelings and accept advice that has little value.

The research on difficult child behaviour suggests the same. When kids backtalk, act out, or aren’t cooperative, it is best to get at the source – and often behaviour is communication about an unmet attachment need.

Read: It’s science: Attachment is the key to raising more emotionally stable children

Challenging behaviour is the communication of an attachment need. But what does this mean?

Attachment is a biologically-based need that humans use to co-regulate. Through attachment to others, our joyful experiences become more joyful, our sadness feels a little less profound and our stress starts to dissipate.

During infancy, the groundwork for attachment is laid.

Through extensive cross-cultural and longitudinal research (think: decades following the same group of people), we now know that how parents relate to their children determines both how emotionally regulated and how independent they will be. 

So when a child is dysregulated (e.g., when they are fearful, crying, having a tantrum or backtalk), parents can regulate the child’s emotions by being calm and compassionate. The co-regulation or calm interactions (e.g., “It’s okay. I’m here”) act as deposits into the child’s emotional bank of safety and security.

As they age, these deposits become mental representations as they go out in the world (e.g., “I know if things get uncomfortable at this party, I can call my parents and they won’t be mad. They’ll take me home.”). There is a constant interplay between feeling safe a secure and being able to venture out in age-appropriate ways.

This means that, regardless of age, when a child acts out, he needs his parents to make him feel safe and help him co-regulate.

So the changes in society many are witnessing aren’t due to a lack of law and order, but a lack of closeness, a sense of community and loving care.

“But children need discipline and know there are consequences in life!”

Children absolutely need discipline and consequences and sometimes those consequences need to be implemented by the parent.

Related read: Logical vs. Natural Consequences for Kids’ Moral Development

Before anything though, it is important to highlight what discipline means.

Merrian-Webster’s dictionary has two definitions, the first means to code behaviour by use of punishment.

The second is to correct or train the mental or moral faculties of yourself or another.

The former relies on outside forces to control behaviour and is associated with lower moral development and reasoning. The latter is associated with better outcomes, but it is a dish best served cold.

This is because yelling, threatening, or lecturing, feed the fight-flight-or-freeze response lessening the chances our words will sink in. Even if I am calm, if my child is dysregulated, chances are she’s absorbing very little of what I’m telling her.
So even though consequences may be necessary, it is better to diffuse the situation and then move forward.

Effective discipline starts with taking a step back.

It is challenging to jump into co-regulating a child’s big feelings when it feels like they are pushing our buttons or doing everything possible to not to listen. However, taking a deep breath in that split second before reacting can pay dividends. It is, of course, easier said than done.

But the good news is that children are built to withstand imperfect parents because every single parent since the dawn of time has been less than perfect. The goal is to strive to react less and step back more.

Then, make note of what you see and ask: What is my child’s behaviour telling me?

I will be the first to admit answering this isn’t always easy. Here is a recent example involving a power struggle between me and my five-year-old son.

My son had played with a freezer-sized ziplock bag full of sight words and they were everywhere.

For what seemed like half the day, I told him to clean them up and put them away.

No response.

Then, I realized I was half tidying half parenting and maybe he needed more direct instruction. Still, no action but now he was whining.

I was viewing this as defiant when I took a step back and thought he is likely as overwhelmed as I am seeing this pile of cards. I crouched down, offered to work together, and opened the ziplock bag. With that, he was cleaning and agreeable.

We can also look at this through an attachment lens.

The subquestion might be how does this relate to attachment?

In the standoff between me and my son over flashcards, his behaviour was telling me he needed to feel safe because he was overwhelmed and needed support. Honestly, so much of behaviour is about feeling safe, loved, and supported.

Attachment needs, according to clinical psychologist, Tina Payne Bryson involves feeling safe, secure and seen.

Safety often involves the parent co-regulating the child and offering their calmness to help the child get regulated. So after catching myself saying, “I’ve already told you to clean these up five times now!”, I told him that we both needed to deep breathe.

Security, especially as children age, involves children feeling secure with their parents despite disagreeing. For example, if I said, “You always do this! You never clean up when I say,” chances are my son would feel threatened and overwhelmed. Instead, something like, “It sure is frustrating having to clean up, isn’t it?” depersonalizes the standoff and also acknowledges his perspective.

And being seen refers to being validated and valued. The truth is every close relationship experiences conflict. When faced with that conflict, one of the fastest ways to diffuse the situation is to see the other’s perspective. It’s important to note this does not mean giving in. My son still had to clean up the flashcards. Simply, I stopped using a stern tone, and stopped to work with him (which ended up being much faster in the end).

Evidence shows that compassion, validation and empathy help shift children from a reactive to a receptive state of mind.

Clinical professor of psychiatry, Daniel Siegel suggests that what moves anyone from a reactive to a receptive state are feelings of:

  • love,
  • kindness,
  • compassion,
  • empathy, and
  • connectedness.

These expressions help calm the nervous system and get children to a place where they can listen more fully to what their parents have to say.

Related download: {FREE} Guide to Positive Discipline With Printable Cheatsheets


An additional question that can help, is to ask: What do I want to teach at this moment?

Is it calmness, sharing, or for him to use his words? Do I want him to learn patience, selflessness, kindness, or compassion? Establish what you want to teach before proceeding.

No matter what, teaching calm, appropriate responses start with parents.

Followed by, what is the best way to teach this lesson?

As mentioned above, it is not best to teach a child when he is in a reactive state. For instance, telling a three-year-old mid meltdown that we don’t cry when we don’t get our way doesn’t work – I’ve tried it.

Related read: Why you shouldn’t punish tantrums and what to do instead

Whether a child is four or 14, a great additional question that falls under this umbrella to ask is: Does this discipline lead to greater understanding or not? If the answer is no, there is always the chance to try again.

“I’m sorry but this still sounds too soft. Kids need to learn that there are laws and if laws aren’t followed society will punish them.”

The truth is that life is rife with harsh deterrents of behaviour from peers rejecting them to incarceration. Interestingly and also fittingly, research on the prevention programs for at-risk youth shows that attachment best interventions have the best results. Specifically, over 10 weeks, parents of at-risk youth learn about attachment, how to approach their children with greater sensitivity and how to understand the child’s perspective. The study found children experienced decreases in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and aggression. Parents reported feeling less stressed and less self-sacrificial. And both parents and children experienced greater happiness.

The TLDR on how to discipline a child

It is a common misconception to think that more structure and more rules will lead to better behaviour. However, rules and consequences only address the surface of a child’s behaviour and fail to get to the root of the problem which is often a need to feel safe, supported and understood. Instead of yelling and punishing, pausing, taking a step back and then addressing the behaviour from an attachment perspective has decreased the incidence of misbehaviour and improved the parent-child relationship.


Free printable cheatsheet

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28 responses to “How to discipline a child: Why replacing harsh punishments with compassion will improve behaviour”

  1. […] tension mounted. Each word of discipline I said was through gritted […]

  2. […] Parenting from the Heart, takes this disciplining idea a step further and identifies the psychological reasons that back up the seemingly hippie ways of the Mindful Mama approach. […]

  3. […] Avoid discipline when they are in the midst of a meltdown. Read why here. […]

  4. […] taken some practice, but now I wait to until the heat of the moment has passed before I discipline my children. Studies show that children in a reactive state, that is when they are angry, frightened, or […]

  5. […] patience is necessary is when the child is emotionally charged. People, regardless of age, are not receptive to listening in this state of […]

  6. […] How to discipline a child: Why science says this is the best approach […]

  7. […] aren’t defensive because they aren’t in trouble and their needs are being […]

  8. […] Related reading: How to Discipline a Child: Why science says this is the best approach […]

  9. […] Related reading: How to discipline a child: Science says this is the best approach […]

  10. […] Related reading: How to Discipline a Child: Why Science Says This is the Best Approach […]

  11. […] Related reading: How to Discipline a Child: Why science says this is the best approach […]

  12. […] Related reading: How to Discipline a Child: Why scientists say this is the best approach […]

  13. […] Related reading: How to Discipline a Child: Why Science Says This is the Best Approach […]

  14. […] How to Discipline a Child: Why Science says this is the best approach […]

  15. […] How to Discipline a Child: Why Scientist Say This is the Best Approach […]

  16. […] Science says this is the best way to discipline a child […]

  17. […] Science says this is how to execute discipline effectively […]

  18. […] alert, doesn’t work). Additionally, when your child is in a reactive state themselves, lecturing won’t help either. Negotiating and reasoning are the top two effective discipline strategies for most situations, […]

  19. […] best part? It makes how to discipline a child much easier. A desire for cooperation, listening, and respect will flow from intrinsic motivation, […]

  20. How to discipline a soft spoken, sensitive, nearly 4 yr old little girl when she screams at and hits her 18 month old brother without preaching, timeouts, shaming?

  21. Very beneficial

  22. […] hormones to course through their veins. This makes listening and learning next-to-impossible (1). In the heat of the moment, parents should take a deep breath and be matter-of-fact. For example, […]

  23. […] is necessary is when the child is emotionally charged. People, regardless of age, are not receptive to listening in this state of […]

  24. It says, “I highly recommend reading the following books:” But then nothing is listed. I would love to know what I could read next to help me on this journey!

  25. Totally Agree!
    Mere lecturing does not work.
    Connection always work.

  26. mountain miss

    But in the situation you describe, what DO you do? The kids have to stop hitting each other. Do you just attempt to separate them and say nothing? And when you have to take your son to his room to calm down (I face the exact same thing with mine), who watches your daughter during that time? I can’t leave my 2 year old alone for 20 minutes while I help my 5 year old work through his feelings. I want to practice gentle parenting but so many of the articles seem completely out of touch with the reality of modern parenting (busy and often solo).

    1. Hi Moutain Miss, Thank you for this question. It can be separating them by about arm’s distance having one child sit on the couch while you console the other and then addressing the child who hit to address his/ her needs and how best to communicate them in the future. Please let me know if I can be of further help.

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About Me

Hi, I’m Alana. When I’m not nursing cold, stale coffee, I usually can be found with the baby on my hip, barefoot, and racing after my two older kids.

Thanks to a degree in psychology and a free-range childhood backing onto an expansive evergreen forest, positive parenting and play-based learning are my passions.

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