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How to Discipline Kids Who Don’t Respond to Punishment

If the kid doesn’t care about a punishment, it’s the wrong punishment. But more severe does not necessarily mean more effective.

Some children don’t respond to punishment for kids. Some parents might be tempted to call such a kid a stubborn child, or just plain bad. They react to timeouts with indifference or shrug off consequences. They practically yawn at a raised voice. When that kind of stubbornness occurs, parents get frustrated and retaliate with more a severe punishment out of anger or spite, which isn’t very fair or, frankly, effective. And according to Christi Campbell, a board-certified behavior analyst, getting a kid to react remorsefully due to a harsh punishment isn’t what’s needed at all.

“When a child doesn’t seem to care about discipline, it means there is a mismatch between the reason the child is being punished and the punishment that was given,” says Campbell. “Often, parents think that isolating the child by sending them to their room will be effective but there are times that sending a child to his or her room only serves as a retreat from the chaos of the household, which is not always a punishment.”

Parents would do better to realize why the unwanted, punishable behavior occurred in the first place if they want to find an appropriate form of discipline. It also turns out that finding out why a kid misbehaves in a situation helps avoid that behavior in the future.

“Proactively, laying out expectations in a concrete way can be effective to avoid the need for punishment on occasion,” suggest Campbell. “This also eliminates the parent as the ‘bad guy’ since the expectations are in black-and-white and the child is now in charge of choosing to do the correct thing, not just because the parent is ‘policing’ them.”

Disciplining Kids Who Don’t Respond to Punishment

  • Try something different: If punishment doesn’t work at discouraging bad behavior, there’s no reason to keep doing it.
  • Be clear about expectations: Give kids a chance to succeed by reminding them what is expected of them.
  • Natural consequences: When the punishment is specific to the offense and logical, kids have a better chance of modifying their behavior.
  • Praise the right actions: Don’t just punish the wrong behaviors. Make a habit of praising good decisions.

Trying to minimize parent-child conflicts and taking a child’s concerns seriously isn’t babying them. It’s the foundation of many ‘zero discipline’ strategies, and what is parenthood but trying to teach children to make good decisions? But sometimes patterns of unacceptable behavior persist, and kids need to be disciplined. The key to finding an effective course of action is to ground it in consequences that naturally derive from their actions.

“The punishment should be related to what the child did and why they did it and needs to be immediate so they connect it with the ‘crime,’ especially so, the younger they are,” advises Campbell. “Did the child not clean up their room? Maybe they can clean their room and the living room for the next week. Did they come home late without calling? They need to call once an hour the next time they go out.”

If the child’s behavior hasn’t improved, the new punishment isn’t really getting to the core of the issue either, and parents should try another tack. If the behavior does improve, good. The punishment is effective, and parents should remember to praise kids for their improved behavior.

Importantly, there’s no shame in trying new things or trying to meet a kid on their level to avoid butting heads. It’s probably less of a threat to parental authority than irrational punishments are.

“Avoid the power struggle. You know you’re in charge,” says Campbell. “Beating them over the head with it will not help your cause. It will only undermine the team mentality of your family.”