What is it with kids not putting on their shoes? You ask nicely. You remind them kindly. But there they are playing on their devices in their socks, and you turn into Momzilla. All parents try their best, but no one gets it right all of the time. We asked two licensed therapists and a Montessori educator to weigh in on common discipline mistakes parents make and techniques to break out of them.

1. Inconsistency

According to Nilou Esmaeilpour, MSc, RCC at lotustherapy.ca, “One of the most common mistakes is not being consistent with discipline. This can confuse children and make them unsure about what to expect.” Children–whether toddlers or tweens–thrive on consistency. You wouldn’t think so by how often they argue with you. But nothing is more aggravating than getting away with something one day and getting punished for it the next.

Psychologists call this sort of inconsistent discipline intermittent reinforcement, and yes, every parent in the history of the world has accidentally reinforced the wrong thing. The great news is that you can walk back this habit. Esmaeilpour advises parents to set clear boundaries and rules. “Make sure all caregivers are on the same page regarding what behaviors are acceptable and the consequences of misbehavior.”

This can be hard if you can’t reach an agreement with your relatives or spouse on the behaviors that deserve consequences. If this is your situation, focus on being consistent in your zone. Once your littles know you’re serious, they won’t test those boundaries as much as they do now.

2. Relying Solely on Punishments

“Many parents react to bad behavior instead of proactively teaching good behavior,” says Esmaeilpour. This is an easy discipline mistake because no one wants to raise children who expect an award every time they do what they’re supposed to. But think back to when you had a boss or teacher who only criticized your mistakes. Did that motivate you to do your best work? Or did you feel like giving up because there was no way to please them?

While you do need to correct your crew, spend more time teaching the values and actions you want to see.  Your tween is a student in the school of life, so coach them accordingly. And then “focus on positive reinforcement and rewards for good behavior, rather than only punishments for undesirable actions,” adds Esmaeilpour.

Multiple studies have shown that positive reinforcement works better and faster than punishment. Teachers call this ‘catching someone doing good;’ it’s a powerful way to motivate kids to do the right thing. Make a goal to praise your little ones for six good things they do each day, and reward yourself every time you hit it. When that gets easy, raise the quota.

3. Being Overly Authoritative

No parent in their right mind negotiates with a toddler running toward the street. Or debates the merits of pureed vegetables with a six-month-old. So there are moments when we need kids to do what they’re told, but as Esmaeilpour points out, “demanding blind obedience can stifle a child’s sense of autonomy and independence.” Ultimately, we want our minis to grow into independent, resourceful people who will do the right thing even when it’s hard. Those aren’t skills you learn in a household run like a boot camp.

Esmaeilpour advocates that parents “Explain the reasons behind rules and involve older children in rule-setting.” You may want to start with a house rule your tween has trouble with. Tell them that while you are the parent and will set the rules, you want to hear their side of the story. Then, ask follow-up questions. Could you modify the house rule based on their feedback? Sometimes the answer isn’t “no,” it’s “not yet.” If that is the case for the house rule you’re discussing, you’ll need to map out when it might change.

Discussion takes longer than issuing demands, but stick with it. Children who know why they’re avoiding certain behaviors are more obedient when you aren’t watching. Tweens who help shape the rules of the house move from “My parents don’t let me do that” to “I don’t do that.” At that point, they will make better choices as they move through the world.

4. Not Following Through with Consequences

Montessori educator and PATH International certified therapeutic riding instructor Samantha Facciolo says, “One common mistake I see parents making about discipline is not following through with appropriate consequences. Take an unruly child in a community pool: The parent might warn the child, ‘If you don’t stop screaming/splashing people, we’re going home.’ Too often, the parent might reissue the demand several times without following through. In this case, the child is being taught that it’s okay to not respect the limits set and, consequently, is not learning self-regulation. Empty threats send the message that the parent doesn’t need to be trusted and doesn’t need to be listened to.”

Facciolo outlines three ways to stop making this discipline mistake. First, outline clear expectations for how the child should behave and offer age-appropriate explanations for your expectations. “Explain these before the child is distracted by the excitement and stimuli of the outing. Parents can also outline what consequence–not punishment–will result if the appropriate behaviors are not exhibited.”

If your child does misbehave, Facciolo suggests that you “find a quiet, calm moment to remind the child of the expected behavior. The child can correct the undesired behavior and continue enjoying the outing, or the parent will enact a logical and related consequence.”

And lastly, follow through on the outlined consequence if needed.

Set yourself up for success, and pick a set of consequences in advance and make sure you are willing to follow through on them. That way, you won’t paint yourself into a corner.

5. Not Allowing Natural Consequences

To be clear, we’re not talking about letting a child get burned by the stove or fall from a second-story window. “If it’s safe to do so, let your child experience the results of their choices (like forgetting a jacket on a chilly day). They’ll likely remember the feeling and choose differently next time,” says Esmaeilpour.

Letting kids experience natural consequences can be hard to do. The key is to start small; if your minis forget to pack a towel before going to the pool, let them put on their clothes while soaking wet. Then work your way up. If they don’t complete their homework, then they fail the assignment. The key is to choose natural consequences that your child finds uncomfortable. Some kids don’t care if they’re wet or receive a bad grade on an assignment. You know them best, so pick your battles.

6. Setting Unrealistic Expectations

You could set a piece of cake on the coffee table, tell your two-year-old not to eat it, and walk away, but if you’ve been parenting for more than five minutes, you wouldn’t expect it to be there when you return. Toddlers lack the impulse control to follow through with that type of expectation. Tweens, on the other hand, are mature enough to leave the cake alone. Every age has its breaking point. If we expect too much of our adults-in-training, it will harm our relationship with our kids and teach them that they can’t do anything right.

According to Esmaeilpour, the best way to set realistic expectations is to know what children are capable of at every age and stage. Many science-backed articles, videos, and webinars cover everything from age-appropriate chores to when you can expect better impulse control. Pick your preferred medium and set aside time to learn.

7. Using Negative Labels

mom making a common parenting mistake with a preschool aged girl

We need to correct kids when they do something wrong. But as Esmaeilpour points out, “calling a child ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’ can negatively impact their self-esteem and self-worth.” It can also backfire. You might be trying to shame your kid into doing the right thing, but they may embrace the label instead. Raise your hand if you’ve seen a preschooler shout, with great gusto, “I’m naughty!”

Distinguish between the action and the child. “That was a bad choice” focuses on the problem. “You’re bad” is calling the child a lost cause. Pick a phrase now–before you’re irritated–so you know what you will say when your kid does something wrong.

8. Invalidating Emotions

We’ve all been there. All you want to do is run into the grocery store for that one thing, and your mini starts screaming because you won’t buy the giant squishmallow. You know you should react patiently, but instead, you snap, “You’re not hurt, knock it off!” But as Cheryl Groskopf, an LMFT and LPCC at evolutiontohealing.com says, “Invalidating a child’s emotions as a way of discipline makes them perceive that their reality does not match the world around them. It makes the child think that their emotions are ‘wrong.’”

But knowing better and doing better are two different things when you’re out in public. As Groskopf points out, the first step to breaking the cycle is to “acknowledge your emotions. Perhaps you’re not mad at your child for throwing a tantrum, but you’re feeling embarrassment or shame.” Then, treat yourself and your child with understanding. “Remember that your emotions are valid and real, and so are the child’s.”

It’s much easier to react with empathy when you understand someone’s point of view. You wouldn’t tell a friend who lost a loved one to snap out of it. Losing out on that Squishmallow isn’t nearly as bad, but it may be the worst thing to ever happen to your two-year-old.

9. Yelling or Losing Your Temper

Yelling can be scary for children and doesn’t teach them how to deal with conflicts constructively. They’re also less likely to tell you things that might upset you if you’re quick to lose your temper.

The first step in combatting a yelling habit is to notice when you’re getting upset. Then, pick a technique to short-circuit your usual response. Esmaeilpour advises, “If you feel yourself getting angry, take a deep breath, count to ten, or step away for a moment to regroup.”

Managing anger is hard. This goes double for folks who grew up in a house with parents who yelled. If you need support parenting around your temper, don’t go it alone. Join a parent support group or speak to a therapist.

10. Not Modeling the Behavior You Expect

There’s nothing quite as humbling as hearing your words come out of your toddler’s mouth. “Children often mimic adult behavior. If parents don’t model the behavior they expect from their children, it can send mixed messages,” says Esmaeilpour. We joke about toddlers picking up our less glorious phrases, but tweens also mimic. They’re just more subtle about it. If you’re sarcastic when you get frustrated, they probably are, too.

Sometimes, it’s hard to notice when we miss this particular mark. Start by observing your child, and make a note of behaviors that you don’t like. Ask a trusted friend or relative if you do the same thing (you may learn some uncomfortable things about yourself), and make a plan to model the behavior you want to see.

Related: 7 Things Not to Say (Or Do) to a Pissed-Off Tween

More Ways to Stop Repeating Discipline Mistakes

Esmaeilpour suggests a series of techniques that can help, no matter the issue you’re trying to solve.

Educate Yourself

Read books, attend workshops, or join parenting groups where you can gain knowledge and receive support.

Reflect and Apologize

When you make a discipline mistake, apologize to your child. Sometimes, parents think apologizing undermines their authority. The fact is, your kid knows when you’re wrong. Admitting your mistake builds credibility and models the behavior you want to see.

Seek Feedback

The best athletes in the world hire coaches to watch what they’re doing and advise them on getting better. Ask your partner, close friends, or even your children for feedback. They can provide valuable insights.

Consider Counseling or Therapy

A professional can offer personalized strategies and insights to address specific challenges.

Our kids don’t need us to be perfect. They need parents who try their best and look for ways to improve. Through your hard work and determination, you will be the parent you want to be and raise great kids to boot.

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