If I don’t discipline my child, will they turn into a brat?

Every family is different and will have different ideas around what discipline actually is. We have been brought up to believe that discipline is a large part of parenting and that children need to be taught how to behave. This is not untrue but our ideas around our role in discipline and how we enforce this may need a fresh perspective given what we now know about childhood development.

Children need guidance and to learn how to be in the world and co-exist with others. They need to learn right from wrong and the concept of consequences. Children are learning and the world is brand new to them. This is the time they are meant to make mistakes and making mistakes is a vital part of healthy development. If we get into the habit of punishing mistakes, children will start to fear making them and will struggle to cope when they do as they will feel ashamed of themselves and a lot of pressure to do the right thing (ever wonder why so many of us are really hard on ourselves?).

That is why discipline is a tricky one for me as a parenting therapist. I prefer to use the term ‘consequences’ and to avoid the act of punishment altogether. I believe that children do better with guidance and education. This is around learning the rules and experiencing the consequences. In order for this to be effective though, children need to know what the rules are and this requires consistency and repetition.

It is confusing to be told one thing by one parent and another thing by the other. It is also confusing for them if your reactions are different depending on your mood (for instance, one day you find it amusing and the next day you are yelling at them). In order to give appropriate consequences, it is important to clearly define the rules and be willing to explain to your child what has happened when they have broken them and how to do things differently next time. Children feel secure and safe with clear boundaries, structure and rules. When children are getting mixed messages and feel unguided and ashamed of their ‘naughty’ behaviour regularly, they will start acting out and trying to manage these feelings themselves. This is when we often mistakenly think that they are being brats or misbehaved. We tend to punish this acting out which creates even more shame. We may see results in regard to the immediate behaviours minimising or stopping but we will also likely see other problems cropping up such as increased fear at night time, problems being away from you or trying new things, aggressive behaviour towards others, withdrawal, low confidence etc.

Educate rather than punish. Discipline should always be about rules and consequences. Decide what these are beforehand so that you are not reactive or frustrated but fully equipped to manage the situation calmly. Always explain the rules beforehand and remind them of the rules before giving any consequences. Follow through with consequences – it is very important to be consistent. Always explain the reasons for the rules and answer their questions so that they fully understand.

Some examples:

  • No dessert if you don’t eat your vegetables
  • If you hit your friend (explain why hitting is wrong and how it hurts the friend), you will have to say sorry to them and stop playing the game you were playing. NB: if it is the first time, leave out consequences and explain why it is wrong to do this and teach empathy. Get them to say sorry afterwards.
  • If you draw on the walls, I will have to take your crayons away and you will have to help me clean it (give alternatives to the wall such as paper or a colouring in book).

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