Effective child discipline

November 22, 2013 at 12:01 AM

A common reason parents will seek therapy for their children relates to “behavioral problems”.  This can range from homework refusal, to not listening, to actively and intentionally breaking rules.  Parents are often inclined to punish bad behavior and hope for the best.  While this can sometimes work, with more sensitive children, there are a plethora of reasons that punishment can be ineffective or even harmful.

Some reasons punishment might not work:

1.       Reactionary punishment:  Your child does something that upsets you, so you punish them.  You don’t tell them why they are being punished; you simply need a break.  The problem with reactionary punishment is that your child can internalize the wrong message.  For example:  A child might be crying because they are searching for a lost toy and make a huge mess.  If you punish the child without explanation, they may assume it was because they were crying.

2.       Attention seeking behavior:  Sometimes children misbehave because they feel ignored or unattended.  They may intentionally engage in a behavior they know will upset you so that you pay attention to them.  While this might seem strange, if a child perceives they are more apt to get your attention when they do something wrong, they are more prone to behaving badly.

3.       Lengthy punishment:  Children have short attention spans; the younger the child, the shorter their attention.  As adults, an hour to cool off after an argument might seem perfectly reasonable, but, for a child, that can seem like eternity.  If a punishment is protracted, children often forget why they were punished in the first place! 

4.       Punishment immunity:  Many parents will express frustration that their child won’t respond to a “time out” or similar punishment.  While it’s reasonable to consider what might actually convey the severity of the infraction to the child, it is unlikely that they are as “immune” as you might think.  Often punishment immunity occurs when a child either perceives that they rarely ever receive rewards/attention or they are unclear as to the reason for the punishment.  Older children may also seem immune if they focus on another aspect of the disagreement, such as whether the punishment was “fair”.  While punishment immunity can make parents want to punish a behavior even further, it may be a sign that the pertinent issue related to the punishment hasn’t been addressed.

Therapy can aid both you and your child in reducing conflict and in improving the efficacy of any punishments administered.  Depending upon the age of your child, a checks/balances system (behavioral reward system) can work wonderfully.  Older children may respond particularly well to collaborating on their punishment.  If you are finding that you’ve tried, without success, to modify your child’s behavior, and it’s not working, it may be time to further facilitate the process by seeking therapy for yourself and/or your child.  

If you are interested in more information about therapy for yourself, your child, or both, please contact the psychologists at Verdant Oak Behavioral Health (VOBH) in South Pasadena, CA at 323-345-1402 or by visiting our website at


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