How To Discipline A Child That Breaks The Rules And Doesn’t Listen

How To Discipline A Child That Breaks The Rules And Doesn’t Listen

You broke your own rule mama! You used the car as a closet!  Said my daughter beyond excited to have noticed my forgotten coat, wrinkled and abandoned in the freezing cold car.You are right. And I am so glad you noticed and told me. I offered with a smile. I will be sure to take it inside next time. I said to her.

Mom! It’s a no biggie!  Can I have a piggyback ride when we arrive? Oh and I bet you will do better next time.  She added with a silly, silly smile.

As my daughter had playfully explained that my forgotten coat was not a big deal,  I could hear my words coming through.The very words I strive to use when small mistakes happen and just a hint of guidance will do the trick.

But what about when Children break the rules and don’t listen? Positive Discipline can help.

Children sometimes break rules or don’t listen. Sometimes we realize it’s just a mistake, like my daughter’s playful imitation of a “no biggie”.  Other times, we are certain the rule breaking or not listening is misbehavior, or even defiance in need of discipline.

A common response in these cases is to search for the best discipline – but what is best isn’t always clear. Just that something should be done… because children “should not get away with breaking the rules!” and “Children need to learn the consequences of their actions.”  as parents recently shared with me in a workshop.

Whatever the response, helping children learn, to accept responsiblity or the value of listening to our guidance is usually the goal. And for that reason, not choosing a punitive approach is important. So that the child will NOT end up feeling worried, confused and misunderstood. Disconnected from the very person that is supposed to offer safety and guidance.

Guidance Instead Of Punishment 

Punishments for breaking rules can lead to a child retaliating or withdrawing (Jane Nelsen, Positive Discipline Series). What does that look like?  It might be a child refusing to eat, delaying bedtime, talking back or otherwise behaving in ways that invite negative attention. Mistakenly we sometimes perpetuate the “not listening/ not cooperating” behaviors precisely because of how we are trying to stop them in the first place. But two negatives when it comes to children and listening is not likely to equal a positive outcome.

There is magic, and sound reasoning, in taking a calm, kind, inquisitive and understanding approach to helping children when they break rules or don’t listen.

Because a guidance approach opens the door for working together. It creates trust and invites cooperation. It offers children a chance to understand themselves and others.  To reflect on their choices and decisions. It gives you an opportunity to be seen as a safe and trusted source of meaningful information.

My daughter’s playful copycat moment was a powerful reminder of just how much words really imprint and impact our children. If we choose to encourage and help when the stakes are low, we have a better chance of getting through when the stakes are high.

These Rules Were Made For Breaking (not quite…)

Having rules is important. Particularly rules that keep children safe.  Adjusting rules to reflect your family values and needs is wise. Knowing your child will test, push and probably break some of these rules is also wise.

Testing limits is a way of testing independence, and that’s a good thing, even if it makes us want to stick a fork in our heads. It’s exhausting, yes, but it’s a necessary part of creating independent kids. – Jessica Lahey, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed

Striving to help and guide your child (instead of punishing) when the rules are broken is even wiser. Because it gives children a blue print for solving problems, learning responsibility and it flexes their failure and resiliency muscles.

Focusing on understanding mistakes and misbehavior,  instead controlling or punishing preserves trust and encourages capability. It also cultivates a cooperative “working with” dynamic that you can use from the toddler years and beyond.

Discipline really is more effective when it focuses on teaching, understanding and guiding the child, instead of trying to make the child feel bad.

What To Do When Your Child Breaks the Rules & Doesn’t Listen To You

  1. No Biggies:  If your child breaks a rule that is small, and it’s really just a mistake or oversight, calmly let them know it’s a “no biggie” moment.  Follow up with any missing information they may need to not do it again.
  2. Involve and Listen : Ask if your child has ideas how to fix her own mistake. With time, your child may start doing this on her own. (Read an example of a child learning to take responsibility for a big mistake here.)
  3.  Do Over:  Notice an unhelpful behavior? Let your child start over or have a second chance.  It might sound like “Can you show me a way to pet the dog that is gentle and kind?”
  4. Stop The Behavior & Listen To the Feelings:  When you notice your child is behaving in a way that is unhelpful and unnecessary calmly step in to stop the behavior. Then follow up with an opportunity for the child to connect with you and express himself. It might sound like   “I will not let you hit your brother!”  Step between the two children. “I’m here for you. Can you tell me what is going on?”   When we listen to the feelings, we help children learn to self-regulate and make better choices as they grow.
  5. Help WITH vs. doing for: You can offer your child help fixing, cleaning up or mending when needed.  A doing “with” instead of “fixing for”  attitude helps transform misbehavior into a teachable moment. Your child can walk away with a sense that not only is she expected to fix her mistakes, that she is capable of doing so as well.
  6. Say NO & Yes when you mean it:  Set and keep limits that are clear so your child understands what you really expect.
  7. Respect & Encourage: Speak to your child with the same respect and consideration that you hope to hear when she speaks to you, her family, friends and teachers.
  8. Teach then Trust:  Strive not to lecture or dwell on the broken rules ( You may need to vent to a friend or write it down to let it go). Aim to teach and then move forward, trusting that your child is learning to follow your guidance.

Bonus Download: Turn rule breaking into cooperation with this handy checklist.

Click here to get it

What if a child keeps breaking the same rules over and over again? 

  • Jane Nelsen, author of the Positive Discipline Series suggests “Take time for training” meaning, be sure your child has had enough time with you to practice and learn what is expected.
  • Reflect and reduce the number of rules. Too many rules becomes controlling and constricting. And most children will become quite creative (i.e. lying, breaking more rules) just to not get caught.
  • Reflect if there is a need to adjust expectations and surroundings (house proof, supervise, explain differently) to match your child’s age and development.

Focus on connection:  Is your child getting plenty of unconditional and positive attention from you? 

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Do you make time to be with your child, to play games, listen to dreams, thoughts and wishes? Do you create special moments together?  Do you look at your child with love, kindness and care? Do you forgive and even expect imperfections?

Because loving a person means seeing him, really seeing him, above the distractions, the chaos, the mess, and the imperfections. -Rachel Macy Stafford, Hands Free Mama

The more your child feels welcomed, understood and encouraged the more she is likely to follow your guidance.  You don’t have to be perfect, and you don’t have to come up with complicated behavior charts or schemes either. Simply having a willingness to invest in your relationship, in these early years really makes a huge difference.

positive discipline for how to discipline a child

You haven’t failed if your child has been testing limits and pushing boundaries. As you help your child grow, you will have many opportunities to say no, explain rules again (and again), listen to tears, frustrations and fears. Offer hugs, look for the “doing with moments” allow second chances. Pause, involve, remember your child is capable and willing to learn from you.

Peace & Be Well,

Ariadne

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Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a Masters in Psychology and is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, one cuddly dog and "bluey" the fish.

25 Responses to How To Discipline A Child That Breaks The Rules And Doesn’t Listen

  1. My 33 month old son knows I love him all the time, even if he’s behaving badly.
    He continues to climb on a certain chair. I’ve explained how and why I don’t want him to do so. I have (100 times) taken him down. I’ve told him how his sister (1 year behind him) follows what he does, and tries to climb as well. (He reprimands her and says she can get, “Bad boo-boos.”)
    None of this, in including my upset, gets him to stop.
    I am a stay at home Mom who is never on a device while her kids are up. He is showered with positive one on one attention all day long. Our ” connection” is strong.
    So, what do I do about this behavior. He ignores my pleas, assertions, to get down.

    • Hi Kerri, toddlers are experts at repeating things over and over again while they learn about social interactions, limits and what parents expect. Sometimes we get stuck in stop mode “you can’t climb on this” and forget to move towards a CAN DO substitute in a very calm way. It might be helpful to just sit on that chair so that it is off limits. THis is a clear limit and it may bring up some tears, in which case listening to the tears and validating feelings would be the next step. it might sound something like “I see you are upset, because I will not let you climb.” After that, finding alternative outlets like climbing at the playground or even set up a very fun area in the house for physical work, like a mattress and some big cushions for jumping on safely can help too. This climbing exchange is fulfilling some sort of need, physical or emotional, From what you describe, it seems to have become a routine of sorts, an interaction that is just part of your day and calmly choosing to not engage in that is probably a better way to stop it than to keep with “pleas” which is exhausting. It is probably more helpful to decide what you are going to do about this and stick with the plan, in a way that is not emotionally charged but rather calm and confident. Explaining too much, pleading etc…sends the message that you aren’t sure about your limit. I hope that is helpful.

  2. Hi! I’d suggest using positive reinforcement. On days that you’re sure he doesn’t climb the chair, or when you see him using it properly (e.g. sitting in it not climbing it) give him something he likes! He could have a sticker. Then offer better incentives after a week of continuous non-chair climbing. Maybe a trip to an ice cream place!

  3. There are some really great discipline strategies here, thank you. I also find that gently assisting my children when they are struggling to follow instructions is helpful. Eg: After not stopping jumping on the couch when they have been told I might say. “You really like jumping on the couch. I don’t want the couch ruined so I am going to help you to stop. If you would like to jump you can bounce on the trampoline.” I find that with my children it is much easier to set limits before they have pushed them too far or before I am finding myself getting cranky. They appreciate the support to prevent them testing too far as it makes them feel safe and secure. What do you think?

  4. Kerri, as Kate said, how about give him an opportunity to climb on smth that is ok. Seems his body simply needs climbing experience to regulate 🙂

  5. Hello. Would it.be.possible for you to help me to know ..how can I help my 6 year old son..because when he get upset he endures so much time angry and dont want to talk or to try to solve the problem even for hours..?
    Thank you

  6. Ariadne, my name is Isabeau, and I am the proud mother to two beautiful girls, one 2 mo old and the other, a spunky, SUPER SMART 3 1/2 yo. I am married and have the youngest daughter from my marriage, and my oldest daughter is from a past relationship out of wedlock. My toddler Roarie spends 3 days with her father, and 4 days home with my husband and her sister and I the rest of the week. I know that she runs the house when she is with her father, and he allows her to get away with a lot. When she comes home, my husband and I have to be the disciplinairies and it can be rather exhausting. Unfortunately, her paternal father is a narcissistic co parent… He is very manipulative and, most times, very unreasonable. We have had to resort to legalities and things in the past to be able to make decisions for her because he is power hungry and constantly uses her as a weapon to keep hold of some control over me. That being said, the consequences for bad behavior are not equal from one house to another, and when she comes home every week, my husband and I end up spending a day and a half getting her back to normal again. She comes back very sassy, wanting to test boundaries constantly, deliberately Doing things she is asked not to, and not taking me seriously the first time I ask her not to do something. She is very good with the new baby, and loves her SO much! I try to keep her involved as much as possible, but we’re home-locked a lot of the time because the baby is so small yet. She gets bored and acts out and occasionally I lose my temper and yell. She gets upset and it’s heartbreaking. I need some guidance as to how to be PATIENT and teach differently then my parents taught me. Let’s just say they didn’t have the recourses that I have now to parent gently. Any advice is welcomed 🙂 thank you!

  7. I have a 6 & 2 year old boys my oldest son has a hard time listening to rules and to myself or my husband i dont want my yougest to pick the bad behavior up… when my husband and i say “No” he goes full out explode and whines for awhile… what do i do

  8. Okay I babysit a few foster kids and I’m having a lot of Trouble with the five year old he blantently ignores me when I’m talking to him and then of he is upset he acts like an angry toddler and kicks screams and cries to get his way, I have explained my reasons for every rule which is like 4 of them because I usually just take him to the bus stop and get him from the bus and all have to do with being safe and respectful of others. how do I get him to see I’m not being mean I’m doing what’s best for him

  9. My seven year old must have gotten up early this morning, because when I got up there was coffee water all over the counter top. Ok .. fine *hands him paper towels* Clean it up right? Don’t play with adult stuff. Then I pick the coffee pot up and the bottom is broken off. >__< WTH? So now he's up in his room writing out why it's dangerous to touch adult things. (He can get cut by the glass, or burned by the hot water.)

    Any ideas on what else I can have him do so that he gets that these everyday things have a hidden danger to them? (To kids its not obvious that they are dangerous!)

    Boy … our parents had the lazy way yell and give a spanking. 😛 But that's a suck way to do things I want him to learn why it's wrong and dangerous, so he doesn't do that again. So how to teach him it's not good to touch outer peoples stuff?

    Also he's severe ADHD real super impulsive so it's going to be harder and take longer. It doesn't help matters when his father tells him: He can't help it. [email protected]# oh yes he can, I had ADHD and he can so help it. [email protected]#$ Anyways any advice would be great as I grew up with paddling, yelling and yelling day long lectures and that doesn't teach anything but how to be sneaky and have fear for your dad/mom :/

    Thanks for any advice.

    • Hi Jessica

      Does your son have someone following him for the ADHD? Positive discipline can work very well with children with ADHD, I have used many of the tools with a foster child with adhd – it’s really helpful to implement routines, agreements, and to have plenty of special time each week too. Kids with adhd get told often that they are doing something wrong, but often receive very little encouragement. Try to notice three to four things that are positive each time you are together, maybe compliment your son on one of these things you notice. As for safety issues, at age seven repetition and repetition and asking your child to repeat back what they have understood are your best friends. Yes it may seem like a lot of work, but this is what your son needs, positive, respectful guidance he can count on to keep him feeling safe and loved. I would encourage you to find ways your son can make meaningful contributions to the household. “adult stuff” is interesting because children notice how much can be done with all those things – maybe teach him HOW to make you coffee? Maybe he wants to help cook, wash veggies? rake leaves? If these moments are shared, meaning you work together (not as a mandatory chore or consequence) children learn skills and learn to be responsible!!! Hope that helps you.

  10. How do you maintain positive discipline ie no threats of punishment to get a kid motivated to cooperate within a largish family? I will soon have 4 kids and one of my kids consistently is defiant and oppositional. He does have some gut health problems that we are currently addressibg, but in the meantime me and the other members of the family are missing out on outings and sports practices when he gets into one of his oppositional moods. I dont bother taking him out in public when he acts like this anymore. I am afraid his older sibling will eventually come to resent him.

    • Hi Amanda,
      Not sure how old your child is but if you are noticing that this opposition is interfering with every day activities it would be very important to get this sorted out for all of you as quickly as possible. I understand that the gut issues can bring up irritability and crankiness for sure but It’s tiring for you and also for the child that is struggling to go through this opposition all the time. Have you worked with positive discipline tools already or is this something you are looking into starting? For sure one thing you can do, even if it’s an extra step is always preparing ahead, talking things through with your child what the day / outing will be like and what the child needs to succeed. Making agreements or a CAN DO PLAN can be a great help too so that what you decide together what happens if your child starts to have a hard time. Because you call it a mood I am going to guess that it doesn’t happen all the time but often enough to be very difficult for you – so understanding what prompts these can be some help too. These situations are best worked out individually either with coaching or in person because it’s important to get a sense for the dynamic of the whole family AND to understand the needs of the child. For sure, no child wants to be stuck in this opposition and you obvious care a great deal about your kids so it’s very likely that you can overcome this challenge.

  11. I have a 24 month old who happily gets in the car as long as she’s allowed to do it herself but then screams like I’m murdering her when I try and put her seatbelt on. I’ve tried asking her what she’s feeling, naming her emotions etc but it makes no difference. I explain to her why she needs to wear a seatbelt every time, show her mine and other passengers belts. If I have time I take her out of the car, give her a cuddle etc. I tell her we can’t go anywhere until the seatbelt is on and I stay calm and relaxed the entire time (outwardly!!) In the end I have to force the seatbelt on while I gently explain why and tell her I love her and kiss her as she screams blue murder. She calms down after about a minute. This has been going on in almost every car trip for about a month. What do I do???

    • Do you still have her in a car seat? (She should be in one still). She may just be feeling independent. Can she buckle herself and then be checked by you to make sure all is correct? My oldest could buckle her car seat alone at 2 (I always checked it), my second couldn’t until much older. Perhaps let her pick a new toy that she may only play with while buckled. As soon as the buckle is off the toy goes away.

  12. Hi there! I have a 5 year old he is 6 in March, who consistently doesn’t listen. For example, he will wake up in the middle of the night go out to our living room and watch television. I have a rule, a new one albeit I started it maybe 3 weeks ago, that if a parent isn’t awake we play quietly with our library voices in our bedrooms until a parent wakes up (that is usually 6am) he will wake up his little brother, make him scream and cry, he will bang his feet on the walls, and just all around be extremely loud. He gets pretty aggressive with his little brothers, to the point that they scream and cry and when they do he has no idea why they are crying. I’ve explained to him time and time again that they are smaller then him and he needs to play gently with them. He continues to play rough with them. I’m just not sure what to do with him. I also have an almost 2 year old boy, who constantly takes things from his brothers, for example they got a lot of legos for Christmas, his brothers would be building things in their room, he will go in there and kick the legos destroying what they spent time building. I will ask him to put something simple away, like his favorite stuffed dog and he will just throw it on the floor. Is there a way to curv that? Thanks for any advice!

  13. I have a 13 year old that refuses to follow a single rule. I try to positively reinforce but it’s hard when he doesn’t do anything to be positive about. He has been kind this since he was young and we have tried everything to curve the behavior. Any advice?

  14. Hello I just came across this post. My step daughter is 11, she’ll be 12 in a couple months. Since she was 10 she’s been told to clean her room 3 days a week, brush her teeth when she wakes up and goes to bed and most importantly shower EVERYDAY. On those days she supposed to clean her room she plays with her toys and watches tv when she was told chores first and had the habit of saying “I forgot”. Her, her father and I ALWAYS have long talks when she doesn’t listen and tell her she will be punished because she doesn’t listen. We usually make her write a page describing why she didn’t listen and clean her room, brush her teeth and what she was doing that was more important. It’s the SAME EXACT story EVERY TIME she doesn’t follow rules. I tried cutting days off but she still doesn’t listen. We always tell her NO TV OR TOYS BEFORE CHORES we even taped her chore days and list on her wall where she can see it and we also explain the consequences. She still doesn’t listen and proceeds to do what she wants then cries when we tell her write a page explaining why she didn’t listen. I tried doing the opposite but still no luck. As far as showering she will shower everyday at home but when we allow her to go to her grandparents for a week or two every other week during summer break she won’t shower for days nor change her clothes. I explain to her she’s a girl and she needs to be clean especially since she has her period already. She always says she “forgets” in the hygiene section also. Do you have any tips or advice about going about this? My next step was to take everything away, no tv and no other privileges as in going out and having fun. I’ve only been making her write a paper for the past year every time she doesn’t listen but still no difference she continues to do what she wants.

    • Hello Kristiana,

      As you have noticed, punishments and external threats do not usually motivate children to do what you want them to do. Self care and care for belongings is a very important skill and children are more likely to do these things if they feel ownership and an internal reason to do them. When you take away TV and make your daughter write letters or lines is she learning any valuable self-organization or care skills? What is the likelihood she is feeling resentful and determined to watch some TV to feel better and escape the feeling of having yet again done something wrong? Do you think there is a chance the child is using lack of hygiene as a way to control something in her own life? The answers to helping children care is to help them see themselves as capable – of doing things without fear of punishment. There are times when SAFE and NATURAL consequences might help – for example what happens if her room is not cleaned up? Do belongings get lost or broken? Does the child have TOO much and needs help learning to organize? Has the child been asked to solve her own problem or be part of the solution? What are the positives in the child’s life? I hope this helps you reflect and possible find a positive way to encourage your daughter.

      • When she does do her chores she gets money or we buy her things she wants. She came from a background of showering once a week and every time she did something she wasn’t supposed to she would cry and she would never get punished for it. All is has to do in her room is sweep and make sure it’s organized. She confessed she doesn’t like taking showers and I told her she’s going to start to smell down there especially when she already has her period. She never played with toys until she had chores and uses that as a escape to not do them. I noticed it’s a pattern. One week she’ll decide to do her chores on those 3 days the next week all she does is watch tv all day and on those exact days she will decide to play with toys. I’m just a step mom who has been raising her for the past 6 years. She barely sees her mother but when her mother will tell her she needs to shower everyday and do her chores she will listen to her instead. We had a long talk and she said she doesn’t think she should get punished and she should be able to do what she wants and not listen to me or her father. I’m just trying to teach the basics. I told her if she is old enough to have crushes, write adult stories and play on her phone then she can clean her room. I taught her plenty of times how to clean, organize and sweep but she decides to do what she wants.

  15. My daughter is 6 1/2 and does not listen. It is causing a strain and resentment in our relationship as it feels like a constant battle, with both of us getting angry and frustrated. She constantly picks her baby sister up (1) under the arms and carries her around the lounge. I have explained 100+ times why I do not want her to do it (calmly at first, but more recently not so). Yesterday she did it whilst I was out of the room and dropped her as she lost balance and her sister crashed into the corner of the marble fireplace, resulting in a trip to A&E. It’s small things, it’s big things – she does not seem to learn from it at all, and will do the same the next day and the next. I am a work from home mum and my husband works 6 days a week. She does crave attention. But as this persists, as she continues to rule break and not listen I can feel a rift forming between us – mutual resentment that she cannot do as she wishes and I’m not listened to. I don’t want to be the yelling angry mum, but each time it angers me more than the last, where I can’t talk calmly to her about the same thing again. I don’t know what to do.

    • Hi Michelle,
      It sounds like you have noticed your child is craving attention and breaking rules to get it. This attention seeking behavior can lead to a lot of struggles when not addressed. With a small baby sister, I am guessing that your 6 year old is seeing the one year old get a lot of care (babies just require a lot of hands on care) but kids do not see it that way. How can you in your work from home schedule also create time for your 6 year old? Daily quality time will lead to much better behavior if you invest the time. As far as picking up the baby – supervision is a must. Your six year old has proven she isn’t ready for the responsibility of being trusted with that request. so keep baby close to you and always know where the other child is. Ultimately as parents it’s up to us to keep each child safe and protected. Working on quality time and fueling your daughter need for love and connection is sure to make a big difference here if you can invest in that. I know it can take some creative scheduling but I would highly recommend giving it a good try.

  16. Hi Ariadne,

    Thank you for all the tips. I have a 28 month old and he has begun to throw everything, mostly when he is mad. A few days ago, he broke daddy’s phone. I felt that we both could have reacted better. What would you have done?? Any book recommendations?

    Thank You!

    • Hi Ally,

      This is such a wonderful and yet challenging phase of parenting. Around age 2 children can go from curious to “furious” in what seems like the blink of an eye. Much of discipline at this age is about prevention and coaching kids to do better. As you might have noticed even if we ask kids not to do something like “don’t throw” or “Give that back” often the feelings behind the throwing action is already in motion. I find what works best at this age is loads of positive, connected discipline. Making sure to create a really strong bond with the child and making discipline not something children fear but instead being that voice – that guide that your child will WANT to listen to because they feel like you are safe, kind yet firm (not mean) when necessary. In the case of the phone, I’m not sure how far you were, but 1. keep things that are fragile out of reach 2. Don’t be afraid to step in close and hug your child or use gentle physical touch to get their attention first. Only then ask them to hand you the phone or offer a “switch” item. 3. Try time-ins for helping your child learn to calm down. Just simply take a short break together, don’t expect much, your child may not want to talk about what he is feeling at this age. Just your calm presence is enough. Since you asked for a recommendation, I think you might enjoy the terrific toddlers course very much – we look at what is going on with your child at this age and stage and what kind of guidance they need from you to listen well. You get practical parenting tools you can put to use right away to get more cooperation and reduce rule breaking! You can see more information about it here: http://classroom.positiveparentingconnection.net/p/toddlers If you prefer a book, you can check out Positive Discipline First Three Years http://amzn.to/2wKKPR6 Hope that helps you!

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