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Positive Discipline

  1. What is Positive Discipline?
  2. How children learn best.
  3. Communication with children.
  4. Difficult children or children with special needs.
  5. Raising boys and girls.
  6. Behaviour that is harmful to children.
  7. Learning with our children.
  8. Parents/Caregivers also need ‘time out’.

Becoming a parent is a challenge for anyone and although mostly rewarding, parenting can be difficult and demanding. Even though you may shower your child with love and affection, you may still feel unsure of yourself and question your parenting skills.

There really is no one “best way” to bring up children, however, everyone loves to be praised and loved so if we give our children encouragement and love and we define and reinforce clear boundaries in respect of acceptable behaviour, they will grow up healthy and happy.

It is designed to teach young people to become responsible, respectful and resourceful members of their communities. Positive Discipline teaches important social and life skills in a manner that is deeply respectful and encouraging for both children and adults.

 Five criteria for positive discipline

  • Is Kind and Firm at the same time (respectful and encouraging)
  • Helps children feel a sense of Belonging and Significance (connection)
  • Is Effective Long-Term (punishment works short term, but has negative long-term results)
  • Teaches valuable Social and Life Skills for good character (respect, concern for others, problem-solving, accountability, contribution, cooperation)
  • Invites children to discover how capable they are and to use their personal power in constructive ways

For all children, learning is an important part of growing up. In many cases, adults are learning just as much from their children as their children are from them.  Parenting is never going to be easy, but it can be helped along by following some guidelines (as listed below).

It is very important that parents communicate positively with their children. Sometimes as parents, we talk to our children in negative ways because we are tired, stressed, have our own problems or do not know what to do.

  •  Always talk to your children with respect. Try not to shout at them.
  • Give your children choices. As your children get older help them to make their own decisions.
  • Parents have the right and responsibility to give advice and to teach children right from wrong. Older children may feel that their parents do not trust them to make decisions. It is important to give advice in a way that makes your child feel that they can make decisions and involve your children as they become older in setting the rules for acceptable behaviour and the consequences for not sticking to them.
  • Encourage your children to express their feelings in a safe way. You cannot tell your children what to think and feel.
  • Discuss with your children what you expect from them. Explain how you feel.
  • Be consistent. Do not make different rules every day. Introduce new rules when they become necessary.
  • Tell them things without yelling or screaming. When you are screaming, your child may become anxious and unable to listen – the message is lost on them. They will understand you better if you speak clearly and normally.
  • Do not deal with issues when you are angry.
  • Hold family meetings and encourage everyone to talk and listen.

Helpful and Unhelpful Messages

Talking is the best way of teaching. We can encourage good behaviour by simply explaining things to children. Children need to know that the lines of communication are always open. Helpful messages can make children feel loved, wanted, worthwhile and safe whilst unhelpful messages can make them feel angry, confused and worthless.

Unhelpful Messages Helpful Messages
Describing the person:

“You’re a lazy slob.”

Describing the behaviour you want changed:

“Please pick up your clothes off the floor and put them away.”

Giving “don’t” messages:

“Don’t leave your bike there.”

Giving “do” messages:

“Put your bike into the shed.”

Giving “always” or “never” messages:

“You never do it right.”

“You’re always so clumsy.”

Giving “next time” messages:

“When you tried to carry these dishes you dropped one – next time, only carry two.”

Giving “you” messages:

“You’re so annoying.”

Giving “I” messages:

“I feel annoyed when you don’t do your chores. It’s much more pleasant for both of us when you do them.”


Sometimes listening is difficult. We often have our own problems and do not give children all our attention when they talk to us. Sometimes we interrupt, assuming we know what they want to say, before children finish talking. Sometimes we only hear what we want to hear.

Tips for listening better:

  • Try to find out more about the issue. Ask questions.
  • Listen with all your attention. Try not to do other things when your children are telling you something.
  • Be patient as children may not know how to say what they think or feel, and may take longer than adults.
  • Watch the child’s face. Watch their bodies. The behaviour and expression of children can sometimes tell you more about how they feel than their words.
  • Repeat back to a child what you think they have told you. This will help you to check if you heard them correctly.
  • Acknowledge and accept your child’s different feelings and encourage children to express their feelings in a safe way. Children need to express all their feelings including excitement, disappointment and anger. However sometimes children may feel overwhelmed by their feelings and need guidance for safe expression.

Set Clear Rules and Stick to Them

Children need to know what is and isn’t acceptable. Make sure children know why rules are needed and that if they are broken, there will be consequences. As children get older, encourage them to discuss the rules, the reasons behind them and help determine appropriate consequences.

Praise & Reward Good Behaviour

Children, like anyone, feel good when they are praised, and will repeat the good behaviour. Tell children how much you like the good things they do and, if possible, ignore bad behaviour. The bad behaviour may disappear because the child will receive more attention if they behave positively.

Rewards work better than punishment. Whilst many parents reward their children with new toys or sweets, the best rewards are hugs, smiles, or showing an interest in them. This helps children associate good behaviour with emotional rewards and approval rather than material objects.

Criticise the Behaviour, Not the Child

Remember that shouting, name-calling and threatening can damage the child psychologically just as much as hitting can. So criticize the behaviour, not the child. For example, you can say; “I know you are busy but can you please tidy your room”, rather than “You’re such an untidy child.”

Let the Children Help in Some Decisions

Let the children help decide simple things like; “Would you like to eat breakfast or get dressed first?”  However, don’t give them a choice when none exists.

Behaviour You Don’t Like or Want

As long as it’s not hurting anyone, try not to take any notice of behaviour you don’t like or want. Many parents try to control every situation and then are constantly saying “NO!”  If you really don’t like what the child is doing, give them something different to do and if possible participate in the new activity with them for a while – attention reinforces behaviour.

Take Away Something the Child Enjoys or Use “Time Out”

If a child has behaved badly and they need to be disciplined, take of one of their treats or privileges away, for example, riding their bike or watching a favourite TV programme.  Never deny the child a meal, or any other basic needs.

When other techniques have not worked, put the child in a safe place where nothing is happening. Two or three minutes is long enough to give everyone time to cool down. The child’s bedroom is sometimes chosen for time out, but it is better not to use this for time out, as it is better for a child to regard their bedroom as a private, safe space. It is better to use somewhere like a hall or laundry (with detergents out of reach).

Keep your Sense of Humour

When all else fails, try and see the funny side – it may help!

Remember, NEVER:

  • hit a child
  • shake a child (it can cause brain damage)
  • ram bottles or spoons into a child’s mouth
  • push a child
  • put a child in a hot bath

Sometimes we have a child whose behaviour is particularly difficult. From the beginning this child seems to try our patience and wear us down. They seem “different” and because of this, we treat them with less affection. The child soon senses this, and starts to feel bad about themselves.

Sometimes these are children who may have a particular problem such as Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder. Sometimes these children need special assistance with diet and/or medication or even different methods of behaviour management than one might use with children without these difficulties. Children who have very difficult behaviour, or are unusually difficult to manage, or who do not seem to be able to concentrate may require assessment at a children’s clinic.

Children with these kinds of problems may be very difficult and frustrating to parent. When you feel at a loss as to how to manage a child’s behaviour, or if your child has special needs, it may be helpful to call Childline and chat to a counsellor, or to join a support group for parents of special needs children if one exists in your area.

Parents often treat girls and boys differently. Parents teach girls to be gentle and obedient, and to consider other people’s feelings. Boys are taught to be assertive, strong and to hide their feelings.

Children need to know that both boys and girls can show how they feel, be strong and assertive, and solve problems without violence.

Also, society has evolved to be a more equal one. This means that many jobs and roles between the sexes are now seen as being equal. By raising boys and girls differently, stereotypes are reinforced causing children not to live up to their true potential.

Guidelines for raising boys and girls equally

  • Make sure that both boys and girls help at home. This includes helping with all tasks eg washing dishes.
  • Let boys and girls play outside, and encourage both genders to play sport.
  • Encourage both girls and boys to give their opinions.
  • Encourage boys and girls to show and talk about all their feelings, even if they want to cry.
  • Teach both genders safe ways of expressing difficult feelings such as anger and frustration.
  • Do not tell your children, “Girls do this and boys do that”.
  • Give girls the same praise as boys.
  • Apply the same discipline to boys and girls.
  • Do not excuse your children’s behaviour by saying, “That’s what boys or girls do”.
  • Teach boys and girls that they have the right to say no.
  • Teach boys and girls to respect each other, and that being of one gender does not give rights to manipulate or control others of a different gender.
  • Remember that the parent/caretaker of a child is a role-model of their gender and of adult behaviour.

Most families are not ‘picture perfect’, where everyone talks to each other in a civilized manner, respects each other and are emotionally connected. Some families behave in a way that is harmful to the child. This also applies to families going through difficult times. Although the behaviour of some parents and caregivers is understandable it is never acceptable to harm children.

Behaviour that is harmful to children includes:

Constantly screaming at children.

Children are emotionally harmed by being yelled at. They may grow up to believe that shouting is the only way to communicate or to solve problems. Children may also then withdraw and never communicate with their parents and caregivers about issues that matter to them or about things that are worrying them.

Swearing, threatening and belittling children.

Apart from being another unacceptable form of communication, swearing in front of or at children may make them feel insecure and threatened. This leads to them growing up to be unhappy adults. Emotional or verbal abuse (such as threatening them or calling them names) can be just as devastating as physical abuse, and the effects just as long-lasting.

Sometimes parents caught in a cycle of family violence need help to look at what they can do to break the cycle, otherwise ‘violence will beget violence’.

Fighting or arguing in front of children.

Fighting or arguing in front of a child “even if you think they’re asleep or can’t hear” is harmful to that child.  When a child sees or hears their parents fighting it is very real and frightening for them. They don’t know how it will stop or what will happen. They may even become scared of their parent.

The whole family benefits when parents stop arguing, yelling, or swearing in front of the children, and stop using ‘put downs’ (insults). The family home becomes happier and more peaceful. Parents feel more in control, and the child is calmer, has more confidence, more respect for them, and responds better when asked to do things. Most importantly, children learn to resolve problems without arguing.

Remember that the behaviour you show a child is likely to be picked up by them and repeated – with their friends at school, and when they grow up, with their own children. 

Effects of Harmful Behaviour on Children

Children may feel:

  • fear, including fear for others
  • worth very little, and criticize themselves constantly
  • self-blame (guilt and shame, feeling responsible for self or others receiving poor treatment)
  • like taking feelings like anger, frustration, powerlessness and fear out on other people (bullying others, being violent or anti-social)
  • anxiety, depression, withdrawal
  • a need to act like a parent, caring for other children or parenting the parent

Of these, the longest lasting and the hardest to heal may be the damage to a child’s sense of being valued (self-worth).

There is no such thing as the perfect parent. Everyone learns something new about being a parent every day. There are often times when a parent says or does something they wished they hadn’t. The action or word can’t be taken back and sometimes it causes much hurt. It takes a great parent or caregiver to admit when they have done something wrong or behaved out of turn. Apologising does help the situation a little but should also include a statement on what will be done the next time conflict occurs. For example: “I’m sorry for yelling, swearing, calling you names. Next time I feel like that I’ll say how I feel in a calm voice. And I’ll go and let off steam before I talk about what I don’t like. I will alk about the action and not pick on you”.

If a parent or caregiver is constantly apologizing and not changing their behaviour, the child will soon recognize that the apology means nothing.  Conflict in the family is normal. Everyone has disagreements and it is naïve to think that everyone will agree with each other and there will be no conflict. Dealing with it constructively is what is important.

For example, if conflict in the family is ongoing, perhaps holding a family meeting to discuss the problems will be helpful. Not only will the child feel involved, but it will open the lines of communication between parent/caregiver and the child. Who knows, the parent/caregiver may learn a thing or two from the child!

Being a parent can be a very tough job. All parents need help sometimes – and it’s okay to ask for help from family, friends and neighbours. Sometimes hurtful things get said or done in the heat of the moment. This can happen more often when we are stressed or lack support.

If parents and caregivers don’t talk about their feelings with their partners or friends, they may start to take their feelings out on the children. Good parenting takes up a lot of time and energy, so it’s important to be healthy, confident and relaxed.

Staying healthy, confident and relaxed

We all need to have some time to ourselves occasionally, and to do something different. Try these suggestions:

  • get a babysitter and go to the movies or walk, exchange babysitting services
  • meet someone for a cup of coffee and talk
  • take up a hobby or do some different work
  • talk to someone if you are feeling overwhelmed
  • spend ‘alone-time’ with your partner – if your relationship is under strain, your parenting will also be
  • “families that play together, stay together” – do something fun with your children regularly
  • take time out from your routine – it may give you something else to focus on

Danger signs for parents and caregivers

It’s normal to have bad feelings sometimes, but it doesn’t do children any good to let these feelings build up. All have warning signs that tell one it’s time to slow down or take a break. Here are some of the danger signs:

  • If a parent has more bad feelings than good, and these feelings seem to be lasting longer and getting stronger.
  • If a parent can’t face getting out of bed in the mornings – a real dread of coping with the new day.
  • If one cries more than usual, and feels confused about this.
  • If one has feelings of anger, panic or despair when the baby cries, and one feels like one might lose control and hit the child or try to hurt him or her.
  • If one can’t think of any fun things to do with the child and feels too depressed and exhausted.
  • If one feels utterly trapped and alone and can’t talk to anyone because no one understands.
  • If a parent thinks the child would be better off without her/him.
  • If one feel anxious and then angry when the baby cries.
  • If partners are arguing a lot, or fighting.
  • If one’s partner leaves one alone to cope when there are problems with the children.
  • If one feels angry when the child dirties a nappy.
  • If one feels one of the children is especially bad.
  • If a parent is afraid to be alone with her/his child.
  • If one feels there are times when one can’t cope, and there is no-one to turn to.
  • If a parent feels the children demand too much when s/he gets home from work.
  • If one often leaves the house when the children are arguing or crying.
  • If one would rather go to the pub than go home and face the kids.
  • If one feels it’s not one’s job to help a partner change nappies or do the housework.
  • If one feels it’s a partner’s job to look after the children.
  • If one is hitting or hurting one’s partner or children or finding it hard to control anger.
  • If one feels one has no power over one’s life.

Childline is there for Parents too!

If you are feeling as though you cannot cope as a parent ask for help – phone Childline on 116 and talk to a counsellor. Ask if there is a parent support group in your area

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