Rethinking Punishment: 3 Steps that Help Children Change Unacceptable Behaviors

Rethinking Punishment: 3 Steps that Help Children Change Unacceptable Behaviors

Taking away screen time or sitting a child alone in time out when children are behaving in a way that is unacceptable can be tempting. Such a  quick consequence or punishment can really seem to make the bad behaviors stop.

The problem? These negative consequences and punishments don’t  help children learn how to change their behaviors.  

Rethinking how we approach misbehavior is important, especially if going beyond just stopping that behavior and helping children learn to make better choices is our goal.  

Why are punishments and consequences like time-out not helpful?

Have you ever tried to put a child into time out only to have them scream, yell or run away? Time outs and punishments, aside from not offering an opportunity to learn,  are  emotionally draining and frightening to children. When children misbehave, they are typically one or more of the following:

  • missing important information
  •  feeling disconnected from their parent
  • frustrated
  • fearful
  • overwhelmed

Because of how the child is feeling  punishments or consequences tends to make things worse and not better for the child.   

What does help children behave better?

Children behave well when they feel encouraged, capable and emotionally well. (Psychologist Alfred Adler explains this in much of his work). So whatever we choose to do to influence our child’s behavior needs to address those needs. That Swedish saying that we should love children when they seem to deserve it least is really true.  Children need guidance and acceptance, especially if we want to be able to influence their behavior and shape it into a positive one.

Children don’t come pre-wired to know what is right and wrong. They do come wired with a desire to experiment and learn. So, a big part of helping children feel capable of learning and changing their behavior is to make sure we provide a safe space in which they can feel confident to take risks, make mistakes but also know that they will have a chance to try again. 

Here are 3 steps you can take to help children make better decisions in the future about unacceptable behaviors:

1. Stop & Explain: Stop the behavior by approaching the child.  As much as possible, avoid correcting behavior from far away. Instead, use gentle physical touch such as a hand on the shoulders and a neutral, non threatening voice.

 Harsh words, isolation, yelling, physical aggression all shuts down the child’s ability to learn. 

Explain your reasons for not allowing something but keep it simple and clear.  This will enhance the child’s decision-making capacities in the future. “I’m concerned you could get hurt.”  “Yelling inside is too loud.” “The book shelf is for books, it is not for climbing.”

2.  Avoid insisting your child tell you “WHY” they did something you find unacceptable. Instead, try to understand her motivation from her point of view. For example, if a child breaks something, instead of saying “Why did you break that?” or “Why would you do such a thing?”  ask instead “Can you tell me what you were trying to do?”

Young children are not typically going to explain their choices in a way we expect them to.  Sometimes we will never understand “why” anyways because to us spilling glue for instances is clearly unnecessary and yet to a child it is a perfect opportunity to see what will happen, how it will spill…remember children are hard wired to experiment – this is how they learn about their world. Inquiry, experimentation, or what we typically call pushing and testing boundaries is totally normal and appropriate.

3.  Present an Alternative: If we listen for the underlying motivation in step 2 and take into to consideration the child’s need to experiment and learn,  we can most often find a reasonable alternative so our child will know what they can do instead.  In the example above it could be offering the child some tinkering toys or building blocks as something to play and investigate.

Whatever it may be, it is presenting the alternative or inviting the child to find one themselves that will help them really learn what behaviors they CAN do instead of sitting in a corner pouting about what they did badly.

Does skipping punishment actually work?

Using steps like these and other positive parenting tools really do work to change behavior. They work because they help children  learn about our expectations while still feeling capable, encouraged and accepted instead of isolated, frustrated and disconnected.

Consequences don’t have to be entirely out either – you can read more about using connected, positive consequences and how to use a calm down corner when things are just to much.

Related Reading

Twelve Alternatives to Time Out: Connected Discipline Tools for Raising Cooperative Children

Learn more about the trouble with time outs from Todd Sarner, MA, MFT, Director of Transformative Parenting

Read about children’s behavior problems being rooted in their scientific brain from Rick Ackerly.

Peace & Be Well,


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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 B.S. in Communication, is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator, and has completed several graduate courses in child development, psychology and family counseling. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, one cuddly dog and "bluey" the fish.

14 Responses to Rethinking Punishment: 3 Steps that Help Children Change Unacceptable Behaviors

  1. What would be an appropriate response from the parent if a child is annoying his sibling on purpose, or being mean?

    • Yaffa,
      that is a great question. Children often annoy a sibling or get mean on purpose as a means to get attention or because they have a need that is not being met (like the ones listed above in the post) in such cases, it is a good opportunity to invite the child to take some time to cool off. If a calm down bag or chill out corner is already part of the family routine this is a time to use it and children get used to recognizing when they need some positive time out to calm down. Another option is to follow the 3 steps above. Stop it, explain it, offer an alternative. “Teasing is hurtful. Do you want to keep playing together or would you rather find a book to read for some time on your own?” or whatever activity the child can do alone… taking a moment to sit together, what is often called a time in, just to listen and be together is also very helpful. It is a common misconception that parents should withhold love and attention from their children when they are being mean or upset. children actually need acceptance, love and kindness the most in those very moments.

    • Hi Melissa,

      A chillout spot or corner is a place set up in the home as a safe space for a child to go to when they feel like they need a break or a place to calm down. In this area they can listen to music, squish stress toys, look at books, make a picture. They can go with a parent or on their own, the idea is to help children realize the benefits of stepping away from conflict and taking a moment to calm themselves down. You can read more about setting a chill out spot here.

  2. Hey Ariadne,

    This was a perfectly timed article. I’m still in the process of getting my wife on board with the philosophy behind peaceful/positive parenting and she has asked me, “If I can’t use x punishment or x consequence, what CAN I do?”

    Have already printed off a copy of this for her to read (It also provided some great information for me as well). Never heard of a chill-out corner before. I was going to ask what that was, but you have already answered that for Melissa.

    Thanks a bunch!

  3. Love this. Some other important things to note are that studies show that Time Out before 4 years has been found to be completely ineffective in studies and that in older children it is only effective at curbing a behavior for a short term, shorter than a week, rather than addressing why the behavior is happening or how the child can do something different. Being with and talking to our child as well as modeling always yield the very best long term results. I love your blog, Ariadne!

    • Thank you Moorea! I just finished reading and researching 77 studies on discipline and parenting skills, time out is really being used in a disconnected way and there are so many different ways to guide children that work better! Thank you for your lovely comment.

  4. So how would you work this way of changing unacceptable behaviour when you have a 2 year old girl that hits… her 5 year old sibling, other 2 year old playmates, our dog and pretty much everybody else?

    • Hi Jodie

      To stop hitting, it’s important to teach the child other ways of expressing her frustration or fear (fear is often a driver for hitting even if they can’t quite voice that yet). So the steps here would be 1. stop the hitting or even better catch her hand before (not with force, just holding the hand or arm to prevent the hitting) and state clearly “I will not let you hit” 2. Try to figure out what is going on (does she want a toy? does she want to participate…) 3. Offer an alternative – it might sound like ” I think you are frustrated that annie isn’t sharing with you. Annie isn’t ready to share, I will sit with you while you wait.” Part of stopping hitting behaviors is ALSO teaching about emotions at other times – and proper ways to manage that anger, so not in the heat of the moment, but through play or books talk about alternatives for hitting “when you feel angry, you can clap your hands, you can’t hit your friends” What do you think? Can you see yourself trying something like that? It does take work – especially 2 year olds are just so impulsive – it takes practice and practice and patience! but it’s worthwhile!

  5. Hi Ariadne,

    I’m really happy I came across your article.

    We are helping out our child cope with a phobia that we never knew she has until recently. She is a 3 yr old girl just started schooling and we notice that when we call her to sit on her mommy’s lap she was sad and tearful. It’s like she feels that she will be disciplined.

    It started at school when she was sent to the timeout area by her teacher. And every time she misbehaves (that is what the teacher said) they would talk to her (maybe call her and place her in the teacher’s lap) then send her to the time out area. And the teacher said we should let her know the concept of timeout area, being first time parents and believing the teacher we implemented it in our home. We sent her to the timeout area maybe 3 times since June. We never thought the extent of effect to her is this much. We feel guilty and sad.

    Now we are trying our best to help her and your article helps. Thank you

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