7 Signs Your Kid Needs More Discipline — And How To Start

Is your child running the show?

by Lauren Steele
Originally Published: 
A crying toddler reaching towards the camera.

No parent sets out to raise an undisciplined kid. But sometimes you make compromises (“You can have that cereal if you don’t ask for anything else,”) and give unnecessary rewards (“Here’s a cookie for finishing your vegetables,”) in order to make things easier. All of a sudden, thanks to the effects of not disciplining your child, you have a kid who is out of control.

“All parents want the best for their children and are concerned with fostering their self-esteem, but when children tune us out, refuse to do what we want, defy or ignore us, it is normal to become annoyed and frustrated,” says Nancy Samalin, parent educator and author of Loving Without Spoiling And 100 Other Timeless Tips for Raising Terrific Kids. “Without meaning to, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of overindulging and not setting limits.”

Here, Samalin offers seven signs of an undisciplined child and her go-to positive discipline techniques for encouraging kids to listen and cooperate. They’re concrete (and effective) alternatives to threatening, bribing, yelling, punishing, commanding, attacking, name-calling, pleading, arguing, or criticizing — so everybody wins.

Problem #1: Your child has a sense of entitlement.

Solution: Use verbal cues to show your child that this isn’t about them, or you, or anyone for that matter. By using impersonal statements, you make discipline practical and your own demands as a parent factual and rational. “For example, say, ‘books belong on the shelves’; ‘the coat needs to be hung in the closet, not on the floor’; ‘the dishes have to be put in the dishwasher’; and, ‘it’s bath time now.’”

Problem #2: Your child can’t stand to hear the word “no.”

Solution: Take the abrasiveness out of that single word by using other one-word responses. Instead of saying what you don’t want in one word, “say what you do want in one word,” Samalin says. “Use sentences like, ‘Rob, jacket!’ or ‘Jill, teeth!’ This works a lot better than ‘How many times do I have to tell you…’ or ‘Why don’t you listen when I talk to you?’”

Problem #3: Your child lacks kindness, empathy, or compassion.

Solution: “Whenever a child does something helpful, caring, cooperative, or shows improvement, let them know you’ve noticed and give words of appreciation,” Samalin says. For example: “Thanks, Joey, I like the way you helped Amy put away her toys,” or, “Jesse, I was impressed with the way you solved your homework problem.” A little positive acknowledgement goes a long way.

Problem #4: Your child has no conscience and does hurtful things without feeling guilty.

Solution: Whenever your child has a hard time empathizing, make the impacts that their actions have on others’ emotions evident. Talk to them about how others feel, and give them the opportunity to see things from others’ point of view by not making their bad behavior about them. “Talk about your feelings,” Samalin says. “But do not attack your child or tell them all the things that are wrong with them.”

Problem #5: Your child doesn’t really care how you feel.

Solution: Once again, this is all about helping your child to see that it’s not all about them. “When you are furious at your child, use ‘I,’ not ‘you,’ phrases,” Samalin says. “It’s much better to say ‘I’m mad’ than, ‘You’re bad.’” Try these examples next time your temper flares: “I get mad when you are late and haven’t called.” “I won’t be spoken to like that.” “I am irate at the sight of this room.” “I’m leaving this room, so I can calm down.”

Problem #6: Your child blames others for their misdeeds.

Solution: Most parents are familiar with the following words: “It’s not my fault.” It’s impossible to discipline a child based on actions that they don’t take responsibility for — so instead of you blaming them, teach your child to take accountability for their choices, good and bad. The easiest way to do that? Make responsibility tangible. “Write a note or make a sign for your child,” Samalin says. “Children always read your notes and may even write you back!” A good example: “Dear Jo, just a reminder. Here is what has to be done before TV today. Clean clothes hung in closet. Dishes washed and dried. Dog fed and walked. Thank for your help. Love, Mom.”

Problem #7: Your child suffers from an advanced case of the “gimmes.”

Solution: “For kids who struggle with who’s in control, giving them the opportunity to make a choice helps them to feel some control — although not too much,” Samalin says. Ask them if they prefer toast or a bagel. Let them choose between reading a story or playing a game during free time. If bath time is a struggle, let them choose between a shower or a bath. You’re still in control of the schedule and things that need to get done are done, but everyone has a say.

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