How to Discipline Young Kids Effectively: 4 Steps Every Parent Can Take

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Every time Karen tells her 5-year-old son Jayden it’s time to leave a friend’s house, he explodes, throwing his toys, screaming and kicking her. “It’s gotten to the point that I don’t want to take him anywhere anymore,” she says. For Sarah, the problem is a little different. Her 3-year-old toddler has started biting other kids when she’s frustrated. “Lily’s having fewer play dates because no one wants her around, and I get it,” says Sarah. “And she’s already getting in trouble in pre-school.”

I believe that too often parents shy away from disciplining their children because it hurts them to watch their little ones become even more upset.

Disciplining young children can be challenging for parents, especially when their child’s behavior is especially inappropriate or obnoxious. There are few experiences more stressful—or more embarrassing—than having your child throw himself to the ground in the middle of a crowded store. But in the midst of all of these difficult years with your child, remember these two things: Bad behavior from children between the ages of two and six is completely normal—and as a parent, you have the ability to help your child learn how to begin to control him or herself.

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What’s Your Discipline Strategy? 4 Steps to Better Young Child Behavior

Teaching your child boundaries, learning to say “no,” and coaching your child to practice good behaviors are all part of an important discipline strategy. Helping your child through each phase of his life with loving discipline is an integral part of his development, a necessary requirement to help him grow into a healthy adolescent and beyond. Having said that, it’s also important to acknowledge that it is almost never easy! I say this because I believe that too often parents shy away from disciplining their children because it hurts them to watch their little ones become even more upset. So the most important thing for you to do before you read any further is to acknowledge to yourself that discipline is not fun and rarely easy. However, without it your child will be at an enormous disadvantage throughout their school years and in their social life. Discipline teaches the most important values we as parents can impart to our children: self-control, boundaries, respect, and the ability to honor those around us.

Related content: Am I Spoiling My Young Child?

Step 1: Be “Swift and Safe.” Discipline is different for each stage of your child’s development. For the young child between the ages of two and six, the main thing to remember is to keep the discipline simple and easy to understand. Parents of teenagers can spend a lot of time lecturing them on why not getting chores done is a violation of house rules, and the teen will get it (well, maybe!), but if you attempt an ongoing discussion with your four-year-old, you’ll find you won’t have a very alert audience for too long. My rule of thumb for attempting to change a young child’s behavior is to be “swift and safe.” By swift, I mean move in quickly to correct the behavior and place your child in an environment where he or she will be safe since young children have a tendency to lash out physically when angry or disciplined.  (Note: If your young child has issues with anxiety when placed in an environment away from you, such as her  bedroom, it may be helpful to put her in an area where she can still see and/or hear you.)

Here’s an example:

Three-year-old Charlotte has just smacked her best friend Joey in the head with a plastic plane they were arguing over. As Charlotte’s parent, your job is to move in swiftly, lowering your body to meet Charlotte’s eyes and stating: “We don’t hit,” while taking the plane away. Joey gets the plane to play with while you watch your daughter. If she continues to be aggressive or physical she is removed from the situation to a safe environment where she will sit until she calms down. At this point you can tell her “When you are ready to play nicely, you can return.”

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Most, if not all, of your young child’s discipline at this age will center around her acting out (hitting, biting, screaming) for not getting her way, or perhaps throwing a tantrum. A child between the ages of two and six does not have the frustration tolerance, the language skills or reasoning abilities that an older child or an adult has. It’s unreasonable to expect anything else, so while it can be frustrating for you as the parent to have to continue disciplining your child for what seems like the same offenses over and over, remember how frustrated your child is and how normal it is for her to act out. Your role as the provider of loving, consistent discipline helps her to feel safe and secure, which will help her through this stage in her development.

Related content: Hitting, Biting and Kicking: How to Stop Aggressive Behavior in Young Children

Step 2: The Consistency Piece. The second step to effective discipline is consistency. Kids of every age are smart and very adept at sensing indecision or wavering in parents. If a child thinks for one second that they can get away with an offense, they will try it—and if not called out by their parents for their indiscretion, will learn early on that they can work the system in their house! I know being a consistent disciplinarian can be overwhelming, particularly with young children, so I encourage parents to have a slogan for themselves that they use when things begin to get out of control. Here’s an example:

Charlie, age 5, deplores bedtime. He will use every ounce of his energy to stall his parents each night and usually has a meltdown, screaming and throwing stuffed animals until his parents give in and let him stay up “just 15 more minutes.” His  parents figure this is easier as his tantrums stop, at least momentarily. Instead of allowing Charlie to run the show though, his parents need a slogan to help them stay in control of bedtime. Before bedtime begins, I recommended they started saying to themselves, “I’m the parent here and I am in charge,” and then begin their bedtime ritual, which includes a declaration to Charlie: “From now on starting at 7:30 we will begin our bedtime routine. This will include your bath, your teeth being brushed and one story. If you are a good listener, I will consider reading you two stories. If you have a tantrum, you will go right to bed.”

When you tell your child matter-of-factly that you are in fact in charge and then propose a consistent routine each day, whether we’re talking about bedtime rituals or overall discipline, your child begins to know what to expect and feels secure within the rules of the house. Consistency equals calmness in a household.

Step 3: The Importance of Giving Choices. Kids at this age tend to feel like their lives are mostly mapped out for them on a day-to-day basis, so it’s important to give them some freedom of choice throughout the day. Think about your average day for a minute. What if someone told you what you were to wear and eat, when you would go to work and come home, and who you would socialize with each and everyday. Sounds boring, doesn’t it? Young children are no different and giving them some wiggle room each day is a loving form of discipline that is likely to decrease their tantrums and acting out. Here’s a good example:

Trey is a spirited, strong-willed 2 ½ year old child who likes to have his way. His mother shows her wisdom in allowing him to pick and choose various things throughout the day that really have no impact on Trey’s well-being or safety. At breakfast time she’ll ask Trey, “Do you want cantaloupe or grapes today?” Before naptime she’ll announce, “It’s time to take our nap in 15 minutes. Would you like to read a book or color before then?” When they get ready to run an errand, she’ll ask him, “Red sweater or green one today?”

The point here is to help your child avoid feeling so powerless on a daily basis that he reacts by acting out in inappropriate ways. Naturally this won’t always work and your child may simply tell you, “I don’t want to wear either sweater!” in which case you will repeat your parenting slogan to yourself and let your child know that if he can’t choose, you will choose for him.

Related content: Defiant Young Children and Toddlers: 5 Things Not to Do

Step 4: Give Consequences and Rewards. Make certain there are always consequences for your child’s actions, both positive and negative. Throughout life, we all have to live with the consequences of our actions. If you don’t go to work on time each day it is likely you will be fired. If a parent tends to be chronically lenient with their child, it is likely their child will be ill-behaved and not have many friends. One of the most important tools a parent can teach their child is that when they behave in a certain way, there will be certain consequences that follow. Here’s how an example:

Four-year-old Samantha continued to bite one particular little girl in her play group each week. Her mother attempted to talk to her about not biting, and she remained in charge of the situation by removing Samantha so that the other girl would be safe, and she was consistent with her discipline. Even so, Samantha still wouldn’t stop biting. So her mother finally said, “Biting is wrong. If you bite again we will leave immediately and will not come back to play group today.” Sure enough, Samantha tested the waters and bit again. Swiftly and safely her mother whisked Samantha out of the park, kicking and screaming. When she was safely belted in her car seat her mother said, “This is what happens when you bite. If you do it again, we will leave again.”

Children are able to understand that if you have a consequence that is not to their liking, their behavior will change pretty quickly so that they are able to join back in the fun. Yes, it can put a damper on your fun, but kids are smart enough to grasp the concept that naughty behavior equals serious consequences and will generally adapt to whatever expectations you have for them. And, just as adults receive positive consequences for their behavior (like getting a raise at work) there should also be positive consequences for your child, too. This is where a good behavior chart comes in handy in your home. Create any type of chart you’d like (Click here for free, downloadable charts created for Empowering Parents readers) and hang it at eye level for your child to see every day. When he succeeds at something, say not biting another child at the latest play date, he gets to put a sticker up for that day. At the end of the week after your child has earned so many stickers, he is rewarded with a  bigger treat, which can range from a trip to the ice cream shop, extra video time or staying up 15 extra minutes at bedtime. For younger kids, you might start off with letting them earn a small reward each day; you can then gradually build up to longer periods of time before they earn their incentive.  It is also helpful to ask your child what he would like to work towards earning; that way, you’ll also know what motivates him.

Disciplining a young child is never easy. It takes time, effort, and energy, which can all be in short supply when you are raising children, managing a career, a house, and the dozens of other day-to-day activities parents face. But just remember that effective, consistent discipline is the cornerstone to every child’s wellbeing and will follow them throughout their development and into their adult lives.

About

Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.

Comments (18)
  • Bianca
    I have a hard time getting my 3 year old to listen how should I deal with this
    • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach

      Thank you for reaching out to EmpoweringParents.com. Our main focus is children over the age of 5 because they usually have developed enough that our concepts will work with them. We have a few articles about younger children you may find helpful,

      https://www.empoweringparents.com/article-categories/ages-and-stages/younger-children/

  • Gemmalovesgems
    My kid starts biting,kicking and even stealing toys from other kids at playgroup. What should I do?
    • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      We hear from many parents struggling with aggressive behaviors from their children. We have several articles on managing aggression you may find helpful: https://www.empoweringparents.com/article-categories/child-behavior-problems/aggression/. Thank you for reaching out. Be sure to check back and let us know how things are going. Take care.
  • Cynthia
    My 4 yr old Granddaughter is constantly going against every house rule. No running in the house, no drink in bedroom ,and then she is will over talk an adult.This is very overwhelming to me. She knows the rules it's like she just don't care.Any suggestions or help of anyMore kind would be amazing
    • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach

      Thank you for reaching out to EmpoweringParents.com. Our main focus is children over the age of 5 because they usually have developed enough that our concepts will work with them. We have a few articles about younger children you may find helpful,

      https://www.empoweringparents.com/article-categories/ages-and-stages/younger-children/

  • Jessika

    I have two daughters, age 10yrs and 7yrs. My 10-year-old has always had trouble with outbursts, and as a young mother with 2 step-children in addition to my daughter, struggling with depression, I just didn't know what to do, how to handle it. I would put her in her room and close the door, telling her that I would open it when she calms down, but she would get bad anxiety being closed off from me like that. My youngest (now 7yrs) was always very even-tempered as a baby and toddler, she was honestly the easiest, happiest baby. We eventually had to move in with my dad when my youngest was 4yrs old due to financial issues, and my dad didn't want to hear the kids crying, throwing fits, etc., so my husband and I ended up just giving into them so they would be quiet. This obviously encouraged the bad behavior and this is when my youngest started with her behavior issues. After moving into our own place again, we could only afford an apartment, which led to us still having to do with similar issues, trying to keep the kids quiet and avoid them from destroying the apartment (hitting/kicking walls, doors, cabinets, etc.). My oldest mostly just has issues with aggression towards her sister and won't listen to me, will occasionally talk back to me, etc. My youngest has issues with hitting and kicking me, screaming at me, etc. as well as fighting with her sister and her youngest cousin.

    My daughters are perfectly behaved at school and with anyone else who watches them, they pretty much only behave this way with me (even in public), and only occasionally with my husband. I feel at a complete loss and a total failure as a mother to have children who don't listen to me, disrespect me and abuse me. Growing up, I was spanked as a child, so that's the discipline that I sometimes fall back on because I don't know what else to do. But I HATE doing that! I never want to hurt my children, I feel so terrible afterwards. I've tried talking to them when they're calm about things they can do when they're angry or upset, how it's okay to feel those things but that their behavior is not okay, I've explained how it hurts me, and they seem to feel bad. After they have an outburst and calm down, sometimes they will come to me and apologize, and I know that they do feel bad in that moment. But I also know that they will behave that way again. I desperately need help! They are very smart, sweet girls who love to help, but they turn into destructive monsters whenever they're upset. I know they can be better, and it's my job as their parent to teach them the right way to behave, but I don't know how. I don't want my children to be afraid of me, I just want them to learn how to behave when they're upset and to be respectful to me.

  • Andrea
    My 4 year old daughter started TK (transitional kindergarten) she is having a hard time adjusting. She went to a private babysitter for the first 1.5-2 years of her life then I sent her to a public preschool/daycare she had a little bit of a problem there. She switched schoolsMore and did good. She has been in this TK for a month now. The teacher uses an app called class dojo that gives positive and negative points. She is having a hard time adjusting here. She acts out. Does not follow directions. She is hitting others (which I am sure is not done unless done to her). Some weeks the positive out weigh the negative but how do I help her adjust.
  • Darius Morgan
    Thank you for these tips. This gives me good reasoning points to talk about with my partner. I am a stepdad and her son acts out all the time with her, but never with me. He realizes that he can take advantage of her and it causes many problems. SheMore is always making excuses and we do not come at parenting on a unified front. She strongly believes, due to her harsh, upbringing, that discipline is not right and she cannot stand to see him unhappy. I have tried to explain the importance of discipline for his future. I love them both and I think this will help a great deal.
  • Sarah
    Thank you for these brilliant articles. I am a very frustrated and upset parent to two children. Recently, since starting Kindergarten, my 5 year old son has begun to act out in school. Disrespectful to his teacher, hitting students and is steadily becoming the class clown and IMore don't know what to do. Consequences are not having the desired effect at school or home. I want to nip this negative behaviors in the bud. Please advise. These are new behaviors. He NEVER hit at his daycare or home.
  • ssdth
    Hi...my son is 4yrs old. ..whenever he goes to others house he become uncontrollable. . He tries to hit others, never share games with other children, never listen to my words. After returning home if i try to explain him that whatever he is doing is not right then heMore says ok...but after that he use to do the same thing again...
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      @ssdth 

      It can be quite

      embarrassing when your young child is acting out aggressively when you are

      outside of your home.  The truth is, it’s actually quite common for young

      children your son’s age to behave this way, as they tend to have a low

      tolerance for frustration, poor self-control, and few appropriate coping skills

      to use when upset.  While this type of behavior is normal, it doesn’t mean

      that it’s appropriate.  Reviewing his behavior when you get home after

      acting out is one way to enforce the rules.  Another way is practicing and

      role-playing the appropriate behavior at home before you go out, such as

      sharing games or techniques he can use instead of hitting if he becomes upset,

      and reviewing your expectations before you go over to another house to

      play.  Though you do not mention school as a troublesome environment, you

      might find additional useful strategies in another article by Dr. Joan, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/young-kids-acting-out-in-school-the-top-3-issues-parents-worry-about-most/. 

      Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are going.  Take

      care.

  • jbiggs4psu
    My three boys (6, 4 & 2) have taken to yelling at me, telling me they hate me and then hitting me if the first two tactics don't work. If I try to put them in a timeout, they just hit walls or throw things. If I put me InaMore timeout to catch my breath, they either try to destroy property or start hitting each other. Also, I can't get my oldest to go in time out because whenever I suggest it, he just runs away from me. I feel so powerless. They only act this way with me and occasionally my husband. We already have a behavior chart but it doesn't seem to be working. I'm out of ideas. Any suggestions?
    • Marissa EP

      @jbiggs4psu 

      I can hear how frustrated you are with your boys’ ongoing

      aggression and abuse, and I am so glad you found our Empowering Parents site.

      While it is not okay for your boys to hit you or each other, trying to put them

      in a time out in the moment can create additional power struggles, and sometimes

      only fuels the fire, so to speak. Instead, moving yourself and your other

      children to a safe place will be very important in the moment, and will take away

      the ‘audience’ for the child who is struggling. Kim Abraham and Marney

      Studaker-Cordner, Empowering Parents authors, have a great article called https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/anger-rage-and-explosive-outbursts-how-to-respond-to-your-child-or-teens-anger/,

      which offers some tools to help your boys learn more effective skills to deal

      with the problems they are trying to solve, without using abusive behavior. I’m

      glad you reached out, and let us know if you have any more questions!

  • Deepti
    Hi.... Please help.... My 2 and half year boy is very naughty ... He is going to play school from last 4 months but he don't sit in his class..even he don't sit for a minute at home... He is very hyperactive... I get complaints from his school that heMore hit his classmates, bits them.... I m feeling helpless.... How to teach him discipline.... Should I have to concern child psychologist.... Please rrply
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      @Deepti 

      I hear your

      frustration with your son’s behavior, and I want to assure you that many

      parents find themselves in similar situations with their young child in

      school.  You are not alone.  It’s actually quite common for young

      children to become aggressive with others, and to lack concentration and

      self-control in the classroom.  As a result of where they are in their

      development, young children typically have a low frustration tolerance, poor

      impulse control, and few appropriate coping skills to use.  It could be

      helpful to meet with your son’s teacher and the school psychologist to discuss

      how they typically handle this kind of situation, as it is highly unlikely that

      your son is the first to display this type of behavior.  In addition, you

      might find some helpful strategies to use at home in our article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/young-kids-acting-out-in-school-the-top-3-issues-parents-worry-about-most/. 

      I understand how challenging this type of behavior can be, and I hope you will

      check back and let us know how things are going.  Take care.

      • Deepti
        Thank you soo much for your wonderful reply.... I try to do.... Thanks again ....
  • Deepak
    Hi, my son is 8 yrs old. He is very brilliant in studies and always get good marks but the thing is he is very aggressive, naughty, push everyone in the class, he is very energetic but less in concentration. What should I do???
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