When Discipline Doesn’t Work

When a child or teen isn’t responding to punishment, parents often incorrectly assume that the discipline isn’t working. What’s usually happening is that the child hasn’t come to a place where the consequences can work. Remember, there are two reasons for consequences: to strengthen a child’s conscience and to provide an impetus to do better next time. When a punishment isn’t “working”—in other words, the child’s behavior hasn’t changed for the better or made any steps in that direction—the temptation for the parent is to take the punishment to the next level.

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Occasionally, that’s the right response—sometimes we fool around with penny ante consequences when we needed to lower the boom—but more times, the consequences aren’t garnering the response we’re looking for because the connection between us and that child has been lost or that we’ve lost sight of the long-term goal of the consequence in question.

I’m often asked a question along these lines: My 8-year-old son has been restricted to his room for days in an effort to curb his hitting/pushing, but his behavior seems to be ramping up rather than getting better. In fact, he’s becoming more difficult and has “tried” to runaway a few times and bit another child (something he hasn’t done since he was a toddler). Why isn’t the punishment working when clearly he doesn’t like it?

When I hear about situations like this, I immediately think that the child has lost hope because he doesn’t know how to control his impulses. His “running away” is probably out of his frustration with himself for not making progress. If the child has been confined to his room for certain behaviors for several weeks and hasn’t made progress to resolve or stop the misbehavior, then the parent needs to re-evaluate the situation.

How? Here are some simple ways to combat these types of situations.

Stop the consequences. Just let the boy out of his room! Simply tell him that you’ve seen how frustrated he is and that you are giving him a break for a few days. Then you will meet with him to devise a plan together to stop his hitting and pushing. That’s it—you don’t have to say anything else. In fact, I highly recommend you NOT talk about it more than that. Keep it short and sweet—and you’ll keep him guessing. It’s not a bad thing for our kids to not be totally sure what mom or dad is doing.

Reestablish your connection with the child. If a child isn’t feeling a closeness with his parents, then he’s not going to respond well to discipline. That’s not a magic bullet, however. Kids who are close to their parents still rebel and need punishment. But often, a child will not even try because he doesn’t care due to having a weak connection with his parents.

Focus on your goal. Yes, I know you said it’s to have him stop hitting or pushing. But that’s the short-term goal. The long-term goal is for your son to develop self-control and to think more of others than himself, right? Keeping the big picture in mind will help a lot!

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