Discipline and children: birth to 12 years


For many parents growing up, discipline often meant punishment - which could leave us feeling hurt, upset and unfairly treated.

However, discipline is not about punishment.

Discipline is warm but firm parenting that provides guidance. It’s better than punishment because it:

  • helps keep your child safe as they find out about the world
  • helps your child learn the values that are important to your family
  • helps your child learn to make good choices - because they want to do the right thing, not just to avoid being punished
  • encourages the behaviour you want
  • is less stressful for children
  • makes parenting more enjoyable
  • uses love instead of fear to teach life-long skills
  • strengthens the bond with your child
  • builds on your child’s strong desire to please you. 

Understanding your child’s behaviour

You may feel your child is being ‘naughty’ or playing up when in fact they:

  • are struggling with something
  • haven’t yet learnt what you expect
  • have feelings they don’t know how to deal with.

They may feel:

  • insecure - eg: because of a new baby in the family, problems at school, trying to make friends, scared by parents fighting or a family break up
  • ignored because you are always busy - angry attention is better than none
  • overwhelmed by changes
  • angry and frustrated
  • unfairly treated
  • they need more support or more independence than you give them - your parenting style may be too strict or too relaxed.

It’s important to understand what is causing your child’s behaviour so that you can deal with what’s really bothering them. 

Building positive behaviours and preventing difficult situations

If you help your child to learn self-discipline and to know what is expected of them, they may not need to act out or be naughty - and you will need to spend less time reacting to misbehaviour.

The following ideas can help. 

Help your child deal with feelings

Your child can have many different feelings in a short space of time.

For young children, their brain can’t yet stay calm when they have big feelings such as frustration, anger or disappointment - so they can feel overwhelmed and out of control.

If they don’t yet have the words to say how they feel, they can show their feelings in their behaviour.

This is a normal part of their development - it is not ‘bad behaviour’.

You can help a child of any age to manage their feelings by doing the following:

  • remain calm as you guide them through the situation
  • find out what your child is feeling by really listening and helping them talk about it - you might say:
    • ‘You seem very angry. Can you tell me what’s wrong?’   
    • ‘I think you must be hurting inside’
    • ‘Tell me if you need a hug’
  • help them to name and talk about their feelings - this can help them learn that all feelings are OK and that you will keep loving them, even when they’re upset. They also learn that feelings are not something to be avoided or ignored.

Connect with your child and build their trust

If your child feels controlled and forced to do what you want a lot of the time, it can make it hard to get them to cooperate with you. It can also affect the bond and trust you have with them.

You may need to reconnect with your child. It can help to:

  • spend time with them, playing and having fun
  • focus on their good behaviour - don’t just react to bad behaviour
  • show that you understand how they feel when they are upset
  • find positive ways to say things rather than using ‘No’ or ‘Don’t’ all the time - eg: rather than ‘Sit up straight’ or ‘Don’t slouch’ you might say ‘When you sit up straight in the chair your back grows nice and strong’
  • tell them what you like about them and how much you love them.

Avoid power struggles

Some children will do what you expect with very little stress - while others are very strong-willed and determined. It might seem they are stubborn, but strong-willed children just like to be involved, feel capable and do things for themselves.

It’s best to avoid power struggles and help your child to feel in control. When you feel a power struggle brewing it can help if you:

  • stay calm
  • don’t take their resistance personally - they’re just struggling with wanting to feel in control of their world
  • let them know you understand how they feel
  • try to see things from their point of view
  • find ways that you can both win - eg: say ‘We need to turn the TV off in five minutes - do you want to turn it off yourself, or would you like me to do it?’ You still get to decide what happens, but they get to decide how
  • use family routines and house rules - see Step 2 of the 7 Steps to Safety on the Department of Children and Families website.

Plan ahead

Think ahead about the needs of you and your child to help prevent a difficult situation - eg: your toddler might get bored, tired or hungry when you go shopping.

To stop them getting stressed and acting out you could:

  • plan to shop in short bursts when the shops aren’t busy and your toddler isn’t hungry or tired
  • let them help you in some way.

Teach children your values

Talk to your child about why you want them to do something, not just because you say so. They will learn what is important to your family - eg: doing things together, listening to each other and speaking with respect. 

Be a role model

Be a good role model by acting in ways you expect of your child.

They are likely to copy what you do and have a strong sense of justice and fairness. If they see you acting in ways that don’t match what you say, they might not do what you tell them.

Notice good behaviour

Make sure your child knows what is expected of them.

Notice the good things they do and praise and encourage them - it ‘rewards’ your child and builds on their desire to please you.

Don’t use treats too often as a reward - your child may learn to do things only if you promise them one.

Build responsibility

Help your child learn how to problem-solve and think about consequences - this builds confidence and skills and teaches them to be responsible and self-disciplined.

Let them learn by doing - they may not always choose what you like but as long as the choice is safe they will learn to trust themselves and to know that you trust them to make good choices.

Involve your child in making simple decisions to help them learn responsibility.

Encourage them when they make mistakes - this teaches your child how to deal with frustration and disappointment. Encourage them to have another go.

Be clear about rules and limits

Work out your family rules early with your child to avoid problems.

Rules need to be simple, consistent and predictable - they can be adapted as your child gets older and more independent.

It helps if you:

  • have a few simple rules about ‘how we do things in our family’ that are easy to follow - make sure you follow them yourself
  • all know what the rules mean - eg: ‘Be kind to your brother and share your toys with him’ is more meaningful than ‘Be kind to your brother’
  • choose your moment to talk about rules - when your child is upset or having strong feelings is not the best time
  • know what your child is able to do - if the task is too hard your child may fail
  • turn a ‘no-choice’ into a choice - eg: ‘We are leaving in five minutes - do you want to get in the car now or in five minutes?’
  • don’t give mixed messages - eg: don’t laugh at what your child is doing while saying ‘No’ - it will be confusing and can make them feel bad
  • explain your reasons if you have to make an exception to a rule
  • see Step 2 of the 7 Steps to Safety on the Department of Children and Families website.


The information in this section was adapted from the Parent Easy Guide series © Parenting SA, Government of South Australia.

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Last updated: 17 March 2016

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