Ever told your child not to start playing blocks and then watched as they dump out the whole basket?
Have you asked your child repeatedly to feed their pet and still find the food bowl empty, day after day?
Did you ever set a limit on screen time, only to find your child peering into their phone, TV, or iPad every time you enter the room?
As children grow, we see them increase their bids for independence. And we see them become frustrated when they can't communicate their feelings or act in a way that seems appropriate or rational to us. Setting up boundaries and limitations is an essential element in raising kids, but finding ways to do this can be it's own battle.
As parents, we know it's essential to offer guidance, and it can be infuriating when our attempts go unheard. Power battles break out and behavior escalates into wild anger and aggression. Parents tell us every day that their children’s defiance brings out their powerful emotions – from annoyance and frustration to rage and overwhelm.
If you are here, you may have felt one or more of these feelings when your child says no. So what can you do when you want to set effective discipline that reaches and teaches your child?
But how do you get a child to listen?
Any Internet search will give you thousands of discipline ideas. You’ve probably tried a range of so-called “solutions” with varying results. Maybe what you are doing works some days and then stops. Or maybe they work but don't feel good. They overpower your child's spirited nature, or they cause huge power struggles.
Understand why common discipline strategies often start off well but then stop working.
In this post, we’ll review and evaluate three common discipline strategies – and one less well-known method for setting limits that’s incredibly effective and emotionally supportive for your child.
Strategy #1: Are rewards really a positive choice?
Rewards are touted as a warm and friendly route to setting limits. After all, stickers and charts are an alluring way to entice a child to do something and often you avoid the stand-offs and arguments that are so common when you set a limit.
It seems like a win-win. That is, until they stop working.
What happens you ask your son to feed the hamster and he asks what he’ll get for it? Or if your daughter refuses to poop once the supply of M&Ms you used for potty training runs out or are “not enough?”
Rewards give parents a small amount of control in the moment, but they have been shown to actually reduce natural motivation. Your child does something only to get the reward, not because they feel good or see the need to do what you are asking. In fact, studies have shown that sooner or later, the reward stops working.
This applies to bribes too – which can grow and grow until no treat can satisfy your child. What starts out as a simple pack of candy when you go to the grocery store becomes an endless supply of requests, most often for items your child knows are usually off-limits.
Your authority goes out the window as you cave to each new demand or until you lose it.
Strategy #2: Consequences seem logical but can you rely on them?
Consequences can seem like a positive way to guide a child. And they can be. If your child does not want to get out of the bath and the water runs out, they see that there is no longer a bath time at all. In most cases, they’ll jump out when that happens.
But it’s easy, high on these wins, to throw consequences around and get into games of chicken – and guess who “loses” most? (Hint – it’s not your child).
The wisdom that maturity brings most often means you won’t see the consequence through to its natural conclusion.
Say you tell your child that if they don’t brush their teeth it’s “ok” but their teeth will get brown and fall out?
You say this in the hope that they care about brown, rotting teeth. But it’s hard for a child to imagine this. It looks like they blatantly don’t care. It certainly brings them no closer to the toothbrush. How long before you begin getting into more battles because you don’t want to wait around and see if the brown teeth appear?
In these situations, consequences cannot play out safely and naturally. Where does that leave you? Back to square one. Back to battle.
Strategy #3: Punishments can work, but at what cost?
It’s probably no parents’ wish to yell, scream, or drag their child into some kind of submission. Yet it happens so often.
Why does it so often happen? Because, as we’ve seen, Setting Limits Strategies #1 and #2 don’t work effectively, at least not in any consistent way.
They wear you down. You lose faith in them. You lose faith in you. You frantically try to find a way that works, and you freeze. You get stuck and in desperation, you lose it.
Punishments are also what most of us grew up with, so they feel familiar and effective.
But they leave you feeling yucky. In the best case, you feel like you lost your authority because your child won’t listen until you lose your voice. Maybe you feel guilty about abusing your power. In the worst case, you feel like a failure who is damaging your child.
That’s because punishments, whether you send a child to their room, move them to time-out, or sternly withdraw privileges, all work on a fear-based power system. And they carry the sting of shame and the pain of your child suffering.
When your child is defiant, when they don’t listen, you increase your dominance. You yell or lose it and you threaten or give punishments. This strategy forces you both into a fight or flight state that causes reactive feelings of anger and shame.
You may also see your child rebel (backing you into another corner) or they may become sneaky to avoid being caught. (Let’s be honest, the idea that they might actually sit in a timeout and evaluate their behavior and change it next time is, at most, doubtful.)
When fear is the motivator, your child acts without any sense of co-operation or willingness. In fact, science tells us that in conflict, the brain enters shutdown. You, as the parent do not think well in these times, you are reactive, and sometimes filled with rage, while your child also shuts down. Their tears and upset are ignored and resentment and frustration boil away inside, repressed and unheard.
Gradually, this becomes a pattern. Although you want to approach setting limits with calm and consideration, it becomes a vicious cycle where you ask, ask again, maybe try a workaround solution, and then blow, no matter how many times you try to do things differently. It is a hard wagon to leap from.
Strategy #4: Does a simple way to set limits, without shouting, rewards or punishment exist?
Thousands of parents worldwide have adopted a simple strategy for setting limits without shouting, or the need for rewards, bribes, or punishments.
Developed over 30 years, the approach is backed by brain science and research into behavior and emotions. This science shows that when parents respond to the cause of their child’s defiance, it activates the sense of connection that a child needs to think well and co-operate. As a result, this lowers the children’s defences so that they can become more open and willing to work with their parent.
And rather than conditional strategies, this non-conditional approach builds trust between the parent and child, fostering warmth and understanding.
Parents using this simple three-step strategy tell us:
- Setting limits with calm and confident authority
- Experiencing major mindshifts around why, when and how they set limits
- Facing less battles and arguments and less tension and stress
- Decreased feelings of failure around their parenting
- More empathy and understanding of their child’s inner world and emotions
- More enjoyment in parenting and the relationship they have with their child or children
- Seeing less aggression, defiance, and anger in their children
- Feeling less frustration, annoyance and rage in themselves
- Less resistance to requests and greater co-operation from their children
- A sense that they are working with their child to foster natural motivation
- Setting limits in ways that work with, rather than at odds, with their child’s strong-willed, spirited and/or persistent personality.
The three connected steps in the approach help you address your child’s defiance and respond warmly rather than reactively when they say no. You are able to reach a positive outcome, without stress or shouting.
You’ll see what your child’s tantrums, sibling squabbles, defiance, and refusals say about their emotional needs in the moment, and you’ll have a framework you can always turn to. What's more, this system is always warm, always empathetic and always respectful.
When you adopt this simple-three step strategy for setting limits, you no longer need to offer rewards, bribes or consequences. You don’t have to threaten timeouts or give punishments.
You can set limits without shouting and yelling. And your kids will listen.
More on Setting Limits Without Losing It
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