Disciplining kids of all ages can be tricky. We’ve all been in the heat of the moment when frustrations are high, and the default impulse to yell at or shame a misbehaving child is difficult to resist. According to experts, these tactics are minimally effective in the short term and entirely ineffective in the long term. “Children aren’t misbehaving because they are bad,” says Carole Kramer Arsenault, CEO of Boston Baby Nurse & Nanny. “They are trying to learn, and how we respond will have a huge impact on their development.”

Instead of losing your cool, engaging in positive discipline practices can help to more effectively manage unwanted or inappropriate behavior and allow little ones to genuinely learn and understand lessons about the consequences of their behavior. We consulted parenting experts for practical advice to help kids and parents weather the storms of tantrums, misbehaving, and acting out—scroll down to see 10 simple and effective disciplinary phrases to try the next time you need to put your foot down.

1. “Let’s talk about it calmly.” Defusing and de-escalating a tense situation is often the first order of business when disciplining a child. “Parents and kids are stressed like never before,” says Kramer Arsenault. “When you think back to how parents have traditionally responded to [their kids’] big emotions, it was often to react with similarly big emotions. Instead, our mindset about disciplining children needs to shift.” As an author, registered nurse, certified parenting coach, and mother of three, Kramer Arsenault said that rather than disciplining as punishment, parents should use these as teachable moments, starting from a calm place.

2. “Stop. Keep your hands to yourself.” In a circumstance where a child’s behavior may be hurting others, such as biting or hitting, Kramer Arsenault said it’s essential for parents to provide clarity in their directions to ensure parent and child are on the same page. “Instead of saying ‘You know you should keep your hands to yourself, right?’ it’s better to say it as a statement rather than ask a question.” Be firm and direct.

3. “No means no.” Being kind but firm is important to establish boundaries for a child. According to Dr. Stephen Bavolek, author of Nurturing Parenting Programs, setting boundaries and expectations for children helps build important life skills, including patience, problem solving, responsibility, and self-discipline. “The purpose of family rules is for parents and children to establish consistent guidelines that will help everyone know what is and isn’t expected of them,” said Bavolek.

dad using positive discipline on his daughter

4. “Try to do better.” Acknowledging that there is an opportunity to do better is important for a child’s growth. Maureen Healey, child development expert and author of “The Emotionally Healthy Child,” says, “When we’re upset, we may scream or slam doors, but moving from reactivity to responsiveness is the path to positive emotional health.” Encouraging children to catch themselves and make different, better choices is an important life lesson.

5. “Consider the consequences.” Trying to reason with an upset child can seem like a Sisyphean task, but guiding a child to understand the consequences of her actions can have a lasting impact. “Having clear expectations is very important,” says Kramer Arsenault. “But sharing the consequences of actions is just as important, too.”

6. “Let’s take some deep breaths together.” Tense situations between parent and child sometimes warrant time outs for both parties to allow the heated moment to pass. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, effective discipline to raise healthy children does not include any form of corporal punishment. Researchers have linked corporal punishment to an increased risk of negative behavioral, cognitive, psychosocial, and emotional outcomes for children. 

7. “Can I find a special toy for you?” If a child is fighting over a toy with another child, redirecting their attention and refocusing on something else can alleviate the tension. Children sometimes misbehave because they are hungry, bored, or don’t know any better. Experts said encouraging something new or different to focus on is a useful reframing and disciplining tactic.


mom hugging son

8. “It’s OK to be upset.”  Permitting children to experience their feelings is important to developing their sense of self and security. “Kids have a lot of emotions and outbursts, and sometimes they don’t understand why,” says Kramer Arsenault. “Just explaining and teaching them that it’s OK to feel upset is an important lesson.”

9. “Can you choose a better word to use?” Talking back or potty talk can be alarming. For example, parents may experience their potty-training kid suddenly expressing themselves with colorful (and inappropriate) language like “poopy-head.” Fortunately, the American Academy of Pediatrics assures that this is a normal developmental stage, and parents should avoid overreacting or making light of unwanted language. Instead, encourage problem solving and finding better, more appropriate language.

10. Sometimes, silence is golden. While there are serious misbehaviors that should never be ignored—including aggression or anything that puts a child or others in harm’s way—selectively ignoring relatively minor, negative attention-seeking actions, such as whining, temper tantrums, and talking back, may help to curtail those problematic behaviors in children. According to research, positive reinforcement through praise and support, with consistency and clarity, results in greater emotional stability and health of children.

When words fail, Boston Baby Nurse & Nanny’s Carole Kramer Arsenault suggested three simple reminders: 

  1. Parents need to better educate themselves to appropriate, positive disciplining.
  2. Parents can build trust with their children through consistency and clarity.
  3. Lastly, and most importantly, parents should model the behavior they want from their children.
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