Disciplining children is hard, especially when harsh words are exchanged and temper runs high. Here are mistakes to avoid when disciplining your child and what you should do instead.

Ah, age 4. I have been looking forward to you for, well… 4 years now. Ever since my son was born a colicky baby who cried for reasons I could not figure out, I have heard from other moms that when he turns 4 – in fact, some moms swear that some sort of magic happens on the 4th birthday – he will become the most obedient and easy child. So I waited and waited… through the terrible two’s and the rolling-on-the-ground-and-screaming-as-if-he-was-on-fire tantrums … through the horrible three’s and the “I hate you mommy” daggers to my heart. Then it was finally here … the fantastic four’s!

Only … so far it has not been so fantastic. Actually, it has been more challenging than any other ages I have experienced. My son has turned into this “mean boy” who torments his sister to no end and laughs in my face when I try to discipline him. Time-outs and sticker charts no longer work, so I am exploring different options when it comes to disciplining my son. However, with emotions running high, I find myself losing my temper and making errors that I have worked hard to avoid in the past.

When we think we have everything figured out, our precious kids love to make our lives interesting by doing a 180 with their personalities and behaviors. Especially when we are disciplining our children in uncharted territories, we need to keep in mind the common discipline mistakes to ensure that our words and actions are effective so that we can nip the bad behaviors in the bud.

1. Modeling Poor Behavior.

Do you curse like a sailor but get mad when your kid calls another kid “poop”? Do you eat donuts and ice cream for lunch but lecture your kid about eating too much sugar? Your kid’s behavior reflects yours since he/she looks up to you and wants to be just like mommy or daddy.

Guess what? I HATE laundry with a passion and I cannot stand folding clothes. In college, I threw all my clean clothes on my bed, and on my bed, they stayed all year long. I never bothered folding them or putting them in my closet, and at night, I pretty much dug a little hole in the huge pile of clothes and slept in it. Hey, don’t judge me, it was college and I had a lot of classes!

Anyhow, as tempting as it is to just dump all the clothes in the guest room instead of sorting them and folding them – especially now as a mom of 2 I have triple the laundry to do – I cannot rightfully tell my kids to clean up their toys and pick up their clothes when I don’t do the same myself. I need to be on my best behavior if I expect my kids to follow suit. That’s why, as difficult as it may be, having kids make me a better person … and that’s also why I hide and eat cookies in the pantry. Again, don’t judge, you know you do it too.

2. Being too vague.

“No! Don’t do that! That’s bad!” How many times do you say this phrase per day? There are two things wrong with this phrase: 1) It doesn’t specify what exactly is the bad behavior, and 2) it does not guide the child toward what he/she should do instead.

For example, your child just got home from school, and he busted in the door and saw all his toys. Bursting with excitement to be home, he ran into the house with his muddy sneakers on and started playing with his toys. Panicked by the dirtied carpet, you scream “No! Stop! You are a bad boy!” Now your child is all confused – Is mommy mad because I entered the house? Or maybe she is mad that I am playing with my toys? What did I do to make mommy mad at me?

Without knowing what he did or what he should be doing, your child most likely responded with tears or a tantrum. What we should have said, in a calm and controlled voice, was, “we take our shoes off before entering the house because they are dirty.” Moreover, the next time you see him take off his shoes before coming into the house, reinforce the good behavior and praise him for remembering to remove his shoes and keeping the carpet clean.

3. Not following through.

Be honest, how many times have you threatened, “if you don’t do xyz, we are going home!” How many times did you actually take your child home after he/she failed to do xyz? Not following through is equivalent to lying to your children, and the result is the same – you lose your credibility.

This goes for rewards as well – if you say you will give your child a sticker for cleaning up his/her toys, make sure you get that sticker to your kid right after he/she completes the task. Otherwise, next time you offer a sticker to your kid as an incentive, he/she will be less motivated as he/she does not trust that he/she will be receiving a sticker for a job well done.

4. Yelling and shaming your kid.

This one is so, so hard to avoid, especially when you have a strong-willed child who challenges you on every little thing. However, after researching the effect of harsh verbal discipline on children, I am making avoiding yelling a priority when it comes to improving myself as a parent.

Now, yelling does not only mean you are talking loudly but also includes using words like “worthless” or “inferior,” or any criticisms aimed to make your children feel bad about themselves. Remember, we discipline to teach our children a lesson, not to insult them and make them feel rejected.

Yelling at your children causes them to defend themselves emotionally, as the parents who are supposed to surround them with warmth and guidance are not attacking them verbally and mentally. They may shut down and block you out, or they may do the complete opposite and respond with aggressive or belligerent behavior (source). Yelling has long-term effects on your children by causing them to have low self-esteem and a negative view on life, and all for what? A glass of spilled water?

5. Having unrealistic expectations from our kids.

Some behaviors to us are second nature because we have repeated them so much in our lives. Therefore, it’s easy for us to forget that some things we do without even thinking could be completely new to our kids.

The easiest way to really put ourselves in our kids’ shoes is to imagine yourself in a foreign country. For example, in China, did you know that you are supposed to exchange business cards or gifts with BOTH hands? Using just one hand is considered rude and disrespectful. How are you supposed to know that? Well, most likely you learned it the hard way, by making the mistake and receiving feedback from a coworker or friend.

Similarly, most experiences are new to our kids, and they have no clue how to behave themselves. How is a 4-year-old supposed to know that you are not supposed to play with poop as part of the process of wiping his butt? After all, did you tell him specifically that he is not supposed to stick his hand in poop? Try and remain calm and remind him that poop has a lot of germs and bacteria and therefore we do not touch poop and chalk it up to a … unique sensory experience.

6. Piling on … and on … and on.

Sure, trying to poke someone with a fork isn’t exactly safe, but it doesn’t mean that you need to lecture your kid for hours on end about it. You stop the behavior, explain calmly why it is bad and dangerous, and then move on. Sure, the incident may repeat itself and you will have to continue to correct the bad behavior, but I guarantee you that a long lecture will not make a difference.

The keyword here is attention span. You need to jump on the opportunity to teach your child right away because chances are, 30 seconds later his or her attention is focused on something else and the incident has already been forgotten. If you keep bringing it up and reprimanding your child, you are just causing them to feel confused and anxious because they have already moved on.

7. Comparing your kids.

If you are a mother of two, you would understand how tempting it is to use one kid against the other to get things done. You may find yourself saying, “your sister already got on her socks and shoes, why didn’t you?” or “your brother sits nicely while he eats, why can’t you do the same?”

Remember, we should be disciplining our kids based on their individual personalities and actions, not how they compare to other kids. Making the kids compete against each other will only cause sibling rivalry and resentment between them. Plus, this might come back to bite you in the bum when they compete on who can behave the worst. Oh boy.

8. Disciplining while angry.

Oh my gosh, more than ever, I am finding myself on the verge of freaking out. My son’s new thing is that when he sees me angry, he laughs in my face when I am trying to talk to him about his bad behavior. I know he probably learned that behavior at school from his friends, or that he is using laughter as a defensive mechanism, but boy that laugh really pushes my buttons. It’s so tempting to freak out and scream at him and wipe that smile off his face and trust me, I have done it way too many times.

Disciplining while angry is like adding fuel to the fire. Instead, walk away and take some time to calm yourself. Go to your happy place, count to 10, whatever it takes to pull yourself back down to earth and think reasonably. Then return to your child and discuss the bad behavior with him or her. Removing yourself from the immediate situation not only gives you a chance to calm down, but your child to also reflect on what he or she just did.

9. Being inconsistent.

You don’t want your kids to hit you when they are mad, but you let them hit you for fun while playing. You tell your kids that jumping on the couch is not safe, but your partner tells them that it’s okay to jump to their hearts’ content. Oops.

Make sure that you are always sending a consistent message to your kids so that they are not confused about what’s right and wrong. Talk with your partner if there are any discrepancies in what you have been telling your kids and clarify them after you and your partner have come to an agreement.

10. Not picking your battles.

What percentage of time would you say you spend disciplining your kid per day? 50%? 70%? 90%??? Do you spend more time pointing out poor behavior than playing and cuddling with him or her? Think about who you would listen to – someone who nags you all day about everything you did wrong, or someone who let the little things go and only draw your attention to important issues?

Next time you see your kid doing something wrong, weigh the pros and cons before deciding whether to start the fight. You want to create a positive environment for your kids, and continuously criticizing your kids will lead them to hide things and lie to you in fear of disappointing you. Some battles are not worth fighting for and choosing not to engage in certain battles will lead you to win the war.

11. Not Listening.

Ironic, isn’t it? You are disciplining your child because he or she didn’t listen to your directions, but sometimes, you are the one who fails to listen. You are probably too full of rage and busy lecturing to lend an ear.

I remember once, I heard glass shattering and I turned around just in time to see my son stare at me with huge, guilty eyes. Alarmed by the sharp glass shards all over the floor and scared that he would get hurt, I immediately reprimanded him for not being careful and how he should have known better to use a glass cup. He tried interrupting me several times but I kept talking over him, occupied with cleaning up the mess. Finally, I calmed down enough to hear my son explain, “but I didn’t knock over the glass, I was holding it and Zoe (his little sister) ran into my elbow and made me drop it.” I was so ashamed of myself for being so upset that I completely disregarded my child’s voice.

12. Bribing.

Oh gosh, here goes your child again, screaming bloody murder on the floor of aisle 9 at the grocery store because you won’t buy him or her chocolate milk. Or perhaps it’s happening in the middle of a wedding ceremony and you just know the bride will behead you for ruining her big day.

No matter the location or occasion, we are often put in situations where we need our kids to behave like little angels, pronto. The easiest and quickest way to achieve this angel status is to bribe them, and temporarily, you may achieve heaven. However, bribery leads to more and worse tantrums because now your kid just learned that you are willing to give him or her anything to stop the bad behavior. Therefore, try to talk to your children and anticipate their needs to avoid bad behavior from occurring in the first place. Moreover, shower them with praises when they are behaving well to incentivize them to continue being angels.

Disciplining Your Child is No Joke

Whew. Parenting is HARD. And some days, parenting plain sucks. However, parenting is part of what we signed up for when we decided to give birth to our kids (what? You didn’t see that in the contract?) and we need to do our best to discipline our children and guide them to do the right things. Be honest with yourself and your kids when you do make a disciplining mistake and apologize for it. Your kid will respect you more for admitting your mistakes. Show them how much you love and value them after both parties have calmed down. Lastly, do go easy on yourself when you do make a disciplining mistake – the important thing is that you learn from it.

What discipline mistakes have you made and how have you fixed them?