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How To Discipline a Child That Won't Listen

Setting specific expectations and praising good behavior is crucial to cultivating discipline

little girl in trouble drawing on wall

It’s a familiar drill. You’ve asked your child to do a simple task and they flatly refuse. You’ve tried all the tricks: You’ve used your “parent voice,” counted to three and broken out all the stops but your child still defies you. It’s enough to make anyone frustrated!

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When it’s time to get serious and discipline your child, how do you know if you’re disciplining them correctly? How can you be sure you’re making the right choices? Where do you draw the line?

Pediatrician Edward Gaydos, DO, has some do’s and don’ts for you to follow when it comes time to discipline your little one.

Disciplinary challenges and strategies by age

Your kiddo is learning and growing every day. It’s a wonderful thing, but it can also make it hard to know what disciplinary strategy is best. Dr. Gaydos explains the unique challenges and opportunities that you’ll encounter as your little one develops.

As you read, keep in mind:

  • Not all children develop in the same way or at the same time — And that’s okay. Take what works from this framework and leave what doesn’t.
  • Our brains don’t finish developing until well into adulthood. So don’t expect your child to have the same reasoning skills or worldview you have. Even for teenagers, that’s still a ways away!

Babies (0-12 months)

Discipline isn’t a big concern with infants, because … well … they can’t do much. That doesn’t mean infants won’t try your patience. They will. But they aren’t old enough to correct in a meaningful or lasting way. They’re still learning about their environment, so many of their day-to-day experiences are new.

With newborns and infants, your focus is protecting them from danger. If your little one tries to grab your hot coffee cup, for example, you might say “Hot! Ouch!” or hand them something safe to play with. Dr. Gaydos also recommends modeling good behaviors, like gently petting the cat. If you’re lucky (rather, if the cat’s lucky) they’ll mimic you.

Toddlers (1-3 years)

Toddlers test boundaries. They still want and need attention, but they go about getting it slightly differently than they used to. Backtalk, saying no, making demands and even biting: Dr. Gaydos says it’s all part of a larger effort to build an identity and claim independence.

Toddlers have big ideas and even bigger feelings. But they lack the words and emotional regulation skills needed to communicate clearly. That frustration leads to tantrums and aggression.

Parenting a toddler’s tough. But staying calm, helping them express themselves, distracting them and strategic use of time outs can help manage the chaos.

Preschoolers (3-5 years).

Once your kiddo’s preschool aged, they can better understand cause and effect and more effectively communicate thoughts and feelings. And so do their friends! Expect conflicts to arise as preschool-age children learn how to interact, follow directions and pay attention.

While their emotional regulation skills have improved since toddlerdom, preschoolers aren’t masters of self-expression. And they’re still working on concentration and self-control. Anticipate plenty of whining and frustration at this age. You can also expect lots of imaginative storytelling and — since they don’t fully understand the difference between right and wrong — outright lying.

According to Dr. Gaydos, this is a great time to build routines, set expectations, reward positive behaviors and establish consequences for misbehavior. But your kid’s still young. You’ll need to show them, remind them and explain repeatedly. And they’ll still have occasional issues behaving or following through.

School-aged children (5-12 years)

Once you have a school-aged child, discipline can be a more co-creative activity. That means meaningful conversations with your kid about right and wrong, what it means to be in a family, what privileges and responsibilities are, how every action comes with consequences — all that good stuff.

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But it’s not all rainbows and roses. The older children get, the more individualistic and independent they become, which can lead to power struggles and disobedience.

Your child’s still doing the hard work of figuring out who they are and what it means to be a responsible, ethical person. Dr. Gaydos recommends offering them plenty of opportunities to reflect — and doling out “do-overs” whenever possible.

“Let them make decisions, take on new responsibilities and face new challenges,” he advises. “Making mistakes is how they learn.”

Teenagers (12-18 years)

Oh, teenagerdom. Wasn’t it fun? The raging hormones, outsized emotions, peer pressure and demands on your mental health: Wouldn’t you love to go back and do it all again?

Yeah, we didn’t think so.

Parenting a tween or teen is all about push and pull. Your child needs to make decisions, be independent and try new things. But they also need attention, clear boundaries, unconditional support and guidance. Neither of you are going to strike the perfect balance all the time. That’s why Dr. Gaydos says active listening and clear, respectful communication is crucial.

Most teenagers occasionally break rules, challenge authority and make impulsive decisions. Minimize the damage by building a relationship based on mutual respect and trust. Teens who feel they can confide in and confess to a parent still make plenty of mistakes – it’s practically their job. But they’re less likely to magnify their problems by hiding them.

Healthy discipline strategies

Every stage of child development comes with new disciplinary challenges. But some principles are evergreen. Dr. Gaydos shares 11 pearls of wisdom that’ll serve you well throughout your parenting journey.

1. Don’t be afraid of discipline

It’s tempting to treat your kids like you’re their best friend. But children need you leading and teaching them as they grow. Disciplining your child and setting limits instills confidence as they navigate through life.

“With discipline, we’re not passive observers suddenly required to react. We’re actively involved as teachers,” says Dr. Gaydos. “It’s an ongoing process that requires work.”

It’s not always easy, but discipline pays dividends as you watch your youngster grow, become more confident and develop a good moral compass.

2. Remember that discipline isn’t the same as punishment

The word “discipline” may feel a bit icky — as though you’re punishing your kids. But that’s not quite right. Dr. Gaydos explains that discipline is a means of actively engaging with children to help mold their moral character — a way to teach them right from wrong.

“With discipline, we’re teaching our children self-control and restraint,” explains Dr. Gaydos. “Punishment is a direct, pointed penalty or a loss of privilege that serves as retribution.”

Discipline is far more effective than punishment. It’s also a process that requires more work.

3. Set and maintain limits

We all — as members of a society — abide by certain expectations. Your child must learn those boundaries too.

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Take the time to let youngsters and adolescents know the appropriate behaviors you expect from them. But once you set your limit, stick to it.

“We set these limits, then we follow through with them,” says Dr. Gaydos. “If your child falters, they should know that there will be a consistent, expected consequence. There are no surprises, no new negotiations and no retractions.”

Notice Dr. Gaydos’ word choice: Consequences are more effective than threats. Nobody’s the best version of themselves when they’re operating from a place of fear.

4. Be specific

Don’t assume your child knows what you want or expect of them. Being unclear only leads to frustration for both of you. Set clear, realistic rules and expectations ahead of time. And be specific.

Warning a child that “You better be good,” is too broad and general a message, according to Dr. Gaydos. Instead, enumerate the tasks they need to complete or the way they should behave — and walk them through the how.

“Letting them know exactly what ‘good’ looks like in specific situations helps them understand what’s expected of them,” Dr. Gaydos explains.

5. Be positive

Let’s be honest: the words “no” and “stop” are words we most enjoy hearing coming out of our own mouths. That’s why the way you frame rules and correction makes such a big difference. Here are a few examples:

Instead of...
No hitting!
Try saying...
Keep your hands to yourself, please.
Don’t pinch the dog!
Try saying...
Pinching hurts and scares the dog.
Stop talking back!
Try saying...
We can talk when you’re ready to speak respectfully.
No playing ball in the house!
Try saying...
If you want to play ball, you need to go in the backyard.
Don’t throw your food!
Try saying...
Food isn’t a toy.
No running!
Try saying...
Running isn’t safe. Let’s do something else instead.

Helpful as positive framing is, there are some occasions that call for a hard “no.” Try to reserve it for health and safety issues. That way, when you bust it out, they know it’s serious.

6. Set your kid up to succeed

Let’s say you want your child to put their toys away before school every morning, without having to be told. That seems like a reasonable ask. And it is, if:

  • There are toy baskets (that they can reach) in all of their standard play areas.
  • There’s plenty of time carved out of their morning routine for toy reconnaissance.
  • Your child’s old enough to self-cue — and has a chore chart or morning checklist to remind them.

It’s not about coddling your kiddo. It’s about making sure they have the tools, training and time needed to follow your rules.

7. Model good behavior

Whether you’re dealing with a toddler or a teenager, it’s important to practice what you preach. After all, behavior that’s important enough to teach is important enough to model.

That doesn’t mean you need to be perfect. You’re human, too.

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If you lose your temper, Dr. Gaydos says, apologize. If you break a promise or family rule, discuss it with your child. Let them see you accept the consequences of your actions and problem solve so it doesn’t happen again.

8. Praise proper behavior

Discipline isn’t just about pointing out what your kid does wrong. It’s equally important to pay attention to what your child is doing right, Dr. Gaydos advises.

Notice when your child’s engaging in appropriate behaviors and compliment them accordingly. Positive attention goes a long way. It can help mold your child’s behavior and build their self-confidence.

9. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Most people don’t take kindly to arbitrary rules. Some quietly resent them. Others protest. Still others make a show of breaking them.

Kids need to understand the point of the rules, instructions and expectations governing their lives. “Because I said so” doesn’t help them appreciate your goal or motivate them to do as they’re told.

Maintaining an open line of communication with your child isn’t always easy. It requires active listening and acknowledging their feelings — even when you disagree.

“Take the time to really hear what your child has to say, empathize and agree when appropriate,” Dr. Gaydos says. “If you disagree, say so. But do it respectfully. And make sure you take the time to explain why. Parents who are available to — and show interest in — their children serve as excellent role models.”

10. Don’t hit or spank your child

The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) is crystal clear when it comes to hitting and aggressive behavior: don’t do it.

Their 2018 policy statement says hitting, spanking, yelling and shaming are unlikely to create the change you want to see in your child. They can also have negative psychological and behavioral consequences, from impacting brain development and self-esteem to raising your kid’s risk of developing mental health issues later in life. The same principle applies to punishments that involve neglect, isolation or extended solitary confinement.

The (bad) lesson children learn from corporal punishment and verbal abuse is simple: violence is an acceptable way to handle conflict.

Instead, Dr. Gaydos recommends speaking in a calm but firm voice, explaining why you’re upset and — if necessary — using non-aggressive forms of punishment.

11. Pediatricians and teachers are your partners

Some of you reading this story are probably thinking Been there, done that. It didn’t work!

All children are different. If nothing you’ve tried changes your kid’s behavior, Dr. Gaydos recommends talking to their other caregivers, like their teachers and their pediatrician. There are many health and developmental issues that can impact a child’s self-discipline. Sleep disorders, hearing loss or vision impairment, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are just a few examples of conditions that can make rule following difficult.

It might be hard to reach out for help with parenting issues. But there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Nobody’s got it all figured out. If you’re advocating for and supporting your child, you’re doing the right thing.

Don’t forget to care for yourself

Teaching a child discipline is tough under the best of circumstances. So, it’s natural to feel frustrated, impatient, disheartened — or even downright angry — from time to time. And no matter how hard you try you’re eventually going to play a wrong note. Dr. Gaydos urges you to show yourself the same grace and compassion you show your child when they fall short.

Also be honest with yourself about — and prioritize — the things you need to be a good parent. That may mean making more time for self-care. It definitely means knowing when to ask for help.

  • Do you feel like you lack the skills you need to discipline your children?
  • Are you having a hard time managing your emotions or behavior when your child misbehaves?
  • Does it feel like your fuse is always short?
  • Is your child’s behavior starting to scare you?
  • Have you resorted to corporal punishment or verbal abuse?
  • Do you ever worry you might hurt your child?

If your answer to any of these questions is “yes,” Dr. Gaydos recommends seeking out support.

In addition to healthcare providers and social workers, you can call or text the National Parent & Youth Helpline, join an in-person or online parenting support group or turn to friends and family for extra help in difficult moments.

Taking care of yourself and asking for help when you need it sets a powerful example for your child — one they’ll appreciate all the more if they go on to become parents themselves.

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