Discipline: Children’s Misbehavior and Parent’s Discipline


Every parent should remember that children are resilient and that they bounce back after disappointments.  They should also remember that nobody is perfect and that parents make mistakes.  As long as parents are usually sensitive to their “child”, it is acceptable if there are misunderstandings, anger or frustration every now and then. This should just not become the norm.  Parents should recognize that when they sometimes “lose it” and react in anger; they need to step back, cool down, and discuss it with their spouse or a friend / confidant, so that they need to gain some perspective and thereafter should ask forgiveness from their child and move on with their lives.

  1. Is Children’s Misbehavior Warranted?

Children misbehave when their needs aren’t being met. The four basic needs that children have are: to feel loved; to feel self-confident; to feel important and valued; and to be involved in interesting and stimulating activities. If any of these needs are not being met, children will find alternatives for them.

  • When Children Don’t Feel Loved

When children don’t feel loved, they feel sad and alone. They will then misbehave for attention. Negative attention is better than no attention! When they are punished, they perceive it as a sign that they are at least important enough to receive this kind of (albeit negative) attention. It is therefore important to know that teenagers need time alone with mom and dad every day (they shouldn’t be left alone for long periods of time) and that they should be played with or spoken to regularly and that one should work with them. It is further important that they should be listened to and that parents are interested in their children’s world, for example in their friends and activities.

  • When Children don’t Feel Self-assured or Feel that They Don’t Have Self-confidence

Under these circumstance children feel down, anxious and less worthy. They misbehave to try and acquire power and control. They therefore become stubborn and controlling and can start to bully or act like a tyrant. This naturally leads to a very destructive spiral as nobody can feel good with themselves if they bully, and if they then feel even less worthy, they bully more.  Some children then come to a point where they give up completely and become shy and completely withdrawn. Sometimes this is a direct result of not feeling self-assured, other times it only happens after the stubborn-bully-phase has kicked in.  Parents therefore need to remember that every achievement of their child, whether this is when they learn to tie their shoelaces or when they pick up wet towels, must be strengthened. It is therefore important to encourage them, to give them tasks they can accomplish (for example to learn a sport) and it is particularly important that children are not compared to others and are not criticized, but rather encouraged.

  • When Children Don’t Feel Important Or Valued

These children become depressed, feel worthless and feel guilty. They will then “misbehave” through trying to be perfect, they therefore become “pleasers” who want to make everybody happy and naturally it does not matter how well they do, they will never feel good enough. Alternatively they will act how they believe their parents “expect” them to. So they start to fail, to rebel or to become disobedient. This can occur when their pleasing hasn’t amounted to anything or directly when they feel unimportant and worthless. These children need to learn how to enjoy life and their parents need to set an example of this. Parents need to listen attentively to them and their feelings and opinions need to be taken seriously. It is important to speak to these children respectfully, and when they are disciplined it needs to be firm but still loving.

  • When Children Lack Interesting/ Stimulating Activities To Participate In

Under these circumstance children become bored. They then start to misbehave through taking up destructive activities, which bring interest and excitement. Here parents need to remember that prevention is better than cure! Cure in this instance would be discipline and prevention would be that children’s needs are met.

When children’s misbehavior isn’t working, they seek revenge – to get the parent back for his / her behavior. So the child will say, “If the parent thinks I am bad, then I will show him how bad I am”. They therefore jeopardize themselves to get their parents back and if this doesn’t work, they block everything out. Because protection always comes first for children, they stop feeling, stop being in relationships and just give up. It is at this point that children urgently need to see psychologists.


Parents must remember that children differ. Everyone has his / her own temperament and you can’t treat two children the same. Parents also need to remember that it is normal for children to misbehave and that they have a selfish tendency.

With punishment, the goal is to force lawful behavior and to take revenge. The motivation is usually rage and this unlocks fear, guilt and rage in the child. All three of these are poor long-term motivators. The attitude is usually that of the parent that stands over the child.

The goal of discipline is to practice maturity and this is in the child’s long-term best interests. The motivation is always love and this unlocks respect, opportunity for empathy and the learning of the consequences of choices. Discipline is often associated with the seated parent while it is being executed. Discipline is therefore to make life predictable with regards to consequence.

Discipline Techniques

1. Don’t Reward Negative Behaviour

What is meant by this is that when children behave in the wrong way, it should not be strengthened any further. When a parent constantly reminds a child to do a specific task, then they aren’t teaching the child to do the task, but rather teaching them to procrastinate. A few examples: If a child leaves the milk out, the parent shouldn’t put it into the fridge. Rather they should let the milk become sour and explain the following morning that unfortunately there is no more milk because “so and so” left it out and it is now sour. Or they should buy new milk if it has become sour, but deduct the amount form the child’s pocket money. This also works wonders in stopping a tantrum. Don’t give in because giving in just rewards the tantrum.

2. Reward Good Behaviour

Rewards can be given in two ways and both are important. These are social and non-social rewards. A social reward is, for example, a hug to say thank you, words of encouragement or congratulating the child. A non-social reward is to prepare the child’s favorite food, to buy him the shoes he has always wanted, to allow him to watch TV for an extra half hour or to invite friends over. Rewards must be given immediately and if there are big tasks expected, they should be broken down into smaller tasks that can each be rewarded. A good idea to remember is to try and “catch them out” when they do good, rather than only catching them out when they misbehave. It is important to remember that the children shouldn’t teach you! If you notice yourself shouting louder or asking again and again or start nagging more; then they are busy teaching you to shout, plead and nag.

3. Be the Right Example

Children will usually do what you do, not what you tell them to do. You can’t expect a child to make his / her bed in the morning if the parents don’t make theirs. You can’t expect them to take the dishes to the sink if the parents don’t.

4. Natural Consequences

A good example of natural consequences is the prodigal son in the Bible and this is usually easier for fathers to apply than for mothers. Natural consequences are when there are already existing, built-in consequences for misbehavior.  It is important to remember that as long as there is no serious or long-term damage to the child, it is good to use nature’s way to teach him or her. This technique eliminates power struggles and allows children to bear the consequences of their own choices. It is not applicable to, for example, messy rooms or a fight between siblings. It does however work well in terms of what they spend their pocket money on, when they are too rough with their possessions and when they don’t take care of their bodies well enough. Examples include: forgetfulness – when they forget something they’ll need to make do without it;  tardiness – if he is late for dinner then he should go without until the next meal time; self-care – if it is cold then he should wear something warm, if he doesn’t he will get very cold. So instead of arguing and fighting and power struggles, nature can teach them. They will feel how cold it is and may shiver and may even get sick (in which case he may contribute to the doctor’s account if he must). This technique teaches the child about himself, responsibility and to respect you, as you mentioned beforehand what the consequences would be. It is important to stay strong and not give in. The technique works as follows: (1) Explain to the child exactly how it will work; (2) tell them you trust them and are sure they can get it right; (3) explain the consequence of his or her actions; (4) step aside and wait for the consequences; (5) be sympathetic and express that you’re sorry for the result, rather than to say ‘I told you so!’, (6) stay firm and let nature teach, but be loving about it.

5. Logical Consequences

In this case there are no natural consequences and these must be built in by the child, the parent, or both. It is based on the ‘if-then’ strategy. The parent should calmly speak to the child and explain what is expected of him, make sure he understands, and explain what the consequence will be if he doesn’t display appropriate behaviour, and thereafter firmly, but calmly, implement them. The child learns to listen the first time through this, there is thus no screaming, threats or reminders. Power struggles are inhibited and it allows children to take responsibility for their behaviour. Remember that to remind a child continuously merely teaches them to forget, and that someone else will remember.

A good example is when children fight while you’re travelling. Tell them beforehand that should they fight, you will pull over and wait until they have finished fighting. Then wait patiently and arrive late if need be. There is nothing as embarrassing for a child than when they arrive late with their parents for a church service (as an example).

Another good example is if the child is regularly late for dinner. Calmly discuss with the child that you will call them once for dinner five minutes prior to it being served.  Explain that dinner will soon be ready and that anyone who is late for grace will not be given food until breakfast the next morning. If children then, as expected, try to make you feel guilty, just calmly repeat what you said the first time – so that it is not you that is withholding dinner from him, but rather their choice not to be there on time for dinner.

His school assignment he is putting off is another example. Tell him that you will only help him with it if he starts the task early. If he procrastinates and only starts it late, then you don’t help.

If your child is not ready when it is time to go to school, he must walk. If it is raining, he will need to wear a raincoat. If he arrives late then he needs to bear the consequences.

Another example is a messy room. Start a “Saturday box”. Explain to them that each day when they go to school, anything left lying around (whether it be sports gear, school clothes or whatever) will be put into a big black bag or box and locked away. It is then not your fault that you locked it away, but rather their choice to throw it (and leave it) on the floor. The box can then be taken out on Saturday, when each person’s items are returned to them.  Each Saturday!

A time-out is another good example. The area for time-out must be a boring place where you can keep an eye on him / her. Start with five minutes and then extend the period of time by five minutes per additional incident.

Therefore the steps to take are: (1) hold a meeting where you say you are tired of moaning about whichever behaviour and that you are sure they are also tired of your nagging; (2) Explain that you are looking for a way that these chores are done without you needing to moan. There needs to be something that kicks in automatically if the chore is not completed and you can ask if they have any ideas; (3) Use their ideas if there are good ones, alternatively you will need to give a good idea; (4) Ideas will then need to be calmly and firmly applied. Don’t remind children about it again or become angry or threaten them. All that you need to say is that you are sorry, but you made the decision that such-and-such will happen and when you didn’t do that, you chose for this to happen. It is therefore not a punishment, but rather discipline that teaches them to take responsibility. We call this love.

6. Physical Punishment

Physical punishment is not recommended and it is also a legal risk in South Africa. I am, however, of the opinion that children between the ages of one and four years occasionally need a light flick on the finger when they touch things they shouldn’t or when they don’t yet understand what they may and may not do. However it remains better to stay away from hidings.


The best way is to use all of these techniques in conjunction. Step (1) would be to identify the problem behaviour. It must be very specific. Step (2) Punishment prevention. First show them how to complete the task, help to plan morning routines, enquire as to why the child is acting in a certain way. Therefore do everything thereafter to address the four possible reasons for misbehavior. Step (3) if all of those four reasons have been addressed and the behaviour still hasn’t improved, remove rewards for bad behaviour. Step (4) Reward positive behaviour. Step (5) Allow nature to take its course – a little bit of pain now may spare you fifteen years of nagging and shouting. Step (6) Implement logical consequences. It is also effective to implement all six steps simultaneously.

Important Points to Remember

  1. Do everything to control your rage – count to 10 or 100 or 1000! Walk out of the venue or the house. Talk to someone. Go to the bathroom. Drink 3 glasses of water! But DON’T get mad. Discuss the situation with someone with wisdom and who is trained to work with this sort of thing. Tell the child you’ll speak to them later to sort it out because you are currently too angry and you are afraid you might say something you don’t mean. Look for a pattern in your anger and then try to change it, work on it, or find out what you can do about it.
  2. Don’t rip the small things out of proportion
  3. Look at what you can learn from your behaviour
  4. Use “I”- messages – stay away from “you”-messages when you are having a discussion with your kids.
  5. Mom and Dad must be on the same page – come across as a combined force

Source: Most of the article is based on information from the book, “Help! I’m a Parent”, by Dr. Bruce Narramore (1995).

About thatpsychologist

Clinical Psychologist in private practice in George and Mossel-Bay Kliniese Sielkundige in privaat praktyk op George en Mosselbaai.

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