Teaching children

Alternative names 
Setting limits; Discipline; Punishment


Frustration, anger, and occasional “acting out” are inevitable behaviors in every child. Whether you are a strict disciplinarian or more laid back and easy going, it is important to find a strategy of discipline that works for your family. The following guidelines may help you shape your approach.

1) Always consider your child’s developmental level when setting limits. It is unfair to expect more than a child can do. For example, a 2 or 3 year old cannot control the impulse to touch things. Instead of instructing them not to touch, remove fragile objects from their reach.

2) Set the punishment to your child’s developmental level. If you send your toddler to their room for more than 5 minutes, they will totally forget why they were sent there in the first place since they have such a short attention span. See Time outs.

3) Be consistent. Do not change rules or punishments at random. Punishments will obviously change as the child gets older, so make sure you explain why the rules changed.

4) Make sure all caregivers are consistent with the discipline strategy. If one caregiver accepts certain behaviors while another will punish for the same behavior, the child is likely to become confused. Eventually, he or she will learn to play one adult against the other.

5) Remember that you are a key role model for your child. The more even-handed and controlled your behavior is, the more likely your children will pattern their behavior after yours. If you spank or hit, you are showing them that it is acceptable to solve problems with violence.


You should allow your children to express their feelings, but at the same time you must try and help them to channel their anger and frustration away from violent or overly aggressive behavior. Here are some suggestions on dealing with temper tantrums:

  • When you see the child starting to get worked up, try to divert his or her attention with a new activity.  
  • If you can not distract your child, ignore him or her. Every time that you react to one of these outbursts, you reward the negative behavior with extra attention. Scolding, punishing, even trying to reason with the child may encourage him or her to act up more.  
  • If you are in public, simply remove the child without discussion or fuss. Wait until he or she calms down before resuming your activities.

If the tantrum involves hitting, biting, or other harmful behavior, do not ignore it. However, you still should not overreact. Instead, tell the child immediately and clearly that he or she is not allowed to behave this way. Move the child away for a few minutes.

Remember that a child cannot understand complicated explanations, so do not attempt to reason. Give the punishment right then and there, because if you wait too long the child will not connect the punishment with the behavior.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 3, 2012
by Levon Ter-Markosyan, D.M.D.

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