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Discipline strategies

7-minute read

Key facts

  • You can teach your child appropriate behaviour by being loving, firm and a good role model.
  • Help your child behave well by setting clear rules, having a routine and making sure they get enough sleep and limited screen time.
  • Respond to difficult behaviour by withholding your attention, reminding your child of the rules and using relevant, immediate consequences.
  • 'Time in' involves staying with your child to help them calm down, while 'time out' is where your child spends a few minutes alone to think about their behaviour.
  • Physical punishment doesn't work as a discipline strategy, and may harm your child.

What is discipline?

Discipline means guiding and training your child so that they learn self-control and appropriate behaviour.

Discipline means more than just correcting misbehaviour. It means encouraging good behaviour and building a strong, secure relationship with your child. They will learn to make good choices because they want to do the right thing, rather than simply to avoid punishment.

How can I teach my child good behaviour?

Children learn best when they feel encouraged and secure. A positive parenting approach is both loving and firm.

Be consistent in how you respond to difficult behaviour, so your child knows what to expect.

Everything you do teaches your child something. It's important to be a good role model. For example, if you want your child to have good manners, set an example by being polite yourself. Your child also learns from watching how you cope when things go wrong.

Learn more about how to encourage good behaviour.

Why might my child misbehave?

Toddlers and young children are learning to control themselves and get along with others. They may have trouble knowing how to behave when they experience strong emotions.

This can lead to difficult behaviour, such as temper tantrums, saying 'no' to everything you ask or even hitting or biting other people.

Your child may be less successful controlling their behaviour when they are:

  • tired
  • hungry
  • feeling sick
  • spending too much time on a screen
  • experiencing a big change, such as moving house or having a new baby in the family

Keep in mind that babies don't misbehave. They cry when they need to be fed, changed, soothed or put to sleep. You don't need to discipline a baby — it's best to respond to whatever it is that they need.

What can I do to prevent difficult behaviour?

It's normal for young children to misbehave at times, but there are things you can do to help them learn how to behave appropriately.

Here are a few tips to help prevent difficult behaviour, and encourage good behaviour:

  • Make short, simple rules — and avoid having too many.
  • Set limits your child can stick to.
  • Have a daily routine.
  • Make sure your child gets enough sleep.
  • Limit your child's screen time.

What strategies can I use when my child misbehaves?

Here are some strategies you can try when your toddler or young child misbehaves:

  • Withhold your attention when they are not behaving as you wish. Give them attention when they start behaving well. Your child craves your attention, so this will reinforce good behaviour.
  • Use relevant and immediate consequences. 'You are not allowed to throw toys. I'm taking that toy away for 10 minutes.'
  • You may consider using 'time out'. This is where you send your child to a different room for a few minutes so they can calm down and think about their behaviour alone. It's not appropriate for toddlers — they are too young to reflect on their behaviour without help and they may feel scared.
  • It may be better to use 'time in', where you stay with your child to help them calm down.
  • Get down on your child's level, look them in the eye and say a short, firm phrase like 'No hitting'.

In addition, you can help them understand their behaviour and use this to teach and model appropriate behaviour:

  • Help them name their feelings. 'You seem angry that your turn ended. It will be your turn again soon.'
  • Remind your child how you expect them to behave and why. 'We always hold hands when we cross the road, because it keeps you safe from cars.'
  • Avoid humiliating them. If they've misbehaved in a group setting, take them off to one side to talk to them privately.
  • Sometimes a toddler's misbehaviour may be funny. If you decide to step in, use a firm voice as well as with a firm expression on your face and in your voice. Don't laugh about it in front of your child — you can do that later when they're not watching.

How should I react?

Whichever strategy you choose, stay calm while you carry it out. Try not to react out of anger.

Dealing with difficult behaviour can make you frustrated and angry. If you feel you might harm your child, put them somewhere safe (such as their cot), step out of the room and spend a few minutes calming yourself down before going back to your child, or call somebody for support.

If you feel you might hurt your child or you have hurt your child, you and your child need immediate help. If your child is hurt or injured, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

If you need support, call Lifeline on 131 114, or 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978, or a parenting helpline for counselling and support.

Is it harmful to smack my child?

Teaching children the right behaviour should not involve physical punishment, such as slapping, kicking, pinching or forcing children to stay in uncomfortable positions.

Smacking your child, even if you intend to use this as a tool to correct their behaviour, can be harmful. It doesn't help your child learn how to change their behaviour for the better. If you smack a child, you teach them that violence is how you solve a problem.

Smacking can damage your relationship with your child. It can lead them to behave in aggressive or antisocial ways. It can increase their risk of low self-esteem and mental health problems.

Try the strategies listed above as alternatives to smacking.

Resources and support

If you are struggling with your child's behaviour, talk to your doctor or maternal child health nurse.

Pregnancy, Birth and Baby's video call service allows you to speak face-to-face with a maternal child health nurse. Video call is a free service and is available from 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week (including public holidays).

The Royal Children's Hospital has advice on how to deal with challenging behaviour in toddlers and young children.

See the NSW Government advice on age-appropriate behaviour strategies, and using effective discipline for children in your care — as well as a list of parenting support services.

See this list from The Australian Institute of Family Studies to find a parenting helpline in your state or territory.

Check out Triple P for helpful parenting tips and to find a free online positive parenting course.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2022

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