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Behavioral and Emotional Wellness

Am I 'Too Tough' When I Discipline My Kids?

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I've noticed that the more sternly I speak to my kids — for example, after they've run into the street without looking the more distraught they get. How can I make sure they understand the seriousness of certain situations without making them feel worse?
- Zoe

As the saying goes, "Desperate times call for desperate measures." When your child's safety is at risk — whether he's run into the street, reached for an open flame, or gotten dangerously close to a pool — yelling, screaming, or crying out is a perfectly normal (and necessary!) response. After all, at that moment, you would do anything possible to get your child's attention and get him out of harm's way.

After an episode like this, it's natural for kids to cry — and for you to want to apologize. But the truth is, your kids are likely crying in response to the fear and urgency in your voice, not because you've been "too stern." At times like these, it's OK to comfort them without apologizing. Give your child a hug and say something like, "I know you're upset. But what you did was dangerous and I was scared that you were going to get hurt. You must never do that again." Punishing kids after an event like this is usually not necessary, since they've probably learned their lesson.

On the other hand, there are times when being too stern — like yelling regularly for minor offenses — can backfire. Kids can become immune to parents' overblown reactions and fail to take them seriously. If you feel yourself getting into this habit, take a deep breath before responding to your child's behavior and ask yourself, "Am I about to overreact?" If so, walk away for a few minutes and come back when you've calmed down.

In general, when it comes to disciplining kids, it's best to speak with a low, firm voice and to keep your focus on the behavior, not the child. It's also helpful to use natural consequences whenever possible. That means if your child has thrown a toy, ask her to pick it up. If she's taken something from her sibling, ask her to return it. If she chooses not to comply, an age-appropriate timeout or other consequence should follow, despite tearful pleas. Consistency is the key to effective discipline, and giving in to a child's tears may inadvertently reinforce negative behavior.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: July 2010

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses and treatment, consult your doctor.

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