Positive Parenting: Discipline Without Harshness

Positive discipline strategies for different child age groups

A smiling family of four relaxes in a pleasant outdoor park setting.

Positive discipline strategies for different child age groups

Raising children is certainly rewarding, but it isn’t always easy. Power struggles, misbehavior and tension can happen in every family.

“Fortunately, there are many things parents can do help minimize negative behaviors and promote healthy ones,” says Hayley Avol, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Clinic Mission Valley and Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley.

Positive discipline can mean explaining wrong behavior to your child without being harsh. It could mean using timeouts, sending them to their room, or distracting them with new activities to help correct negative behavior.

Harsh parenting — yelling, threatening or hitting — is never recommended. Research shows physical and mental punishments are ineffective in correcting a child’s behavior and can negatively affect their development.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends non-violent discipline strategies, such as reinforcing appropriate behavior, setting limits, redirecting and setting future expectations.

The following are age-appropriate discipline tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) —from toddlers to teens.

Toddlers (1-3 years)

During this stage toddlers begin showing defiant behavior. Work on showing patience and:

  • Praise behaviors you like and ignore those you want to discourage.
  • Teach your toddler not to hit, bite or use other aggressive behaviors. Model this by not spanking them.
  • Anticipate temper tantrums with well-timed naps and meals.

If your child is a picky eater, don’t worry too much. Turn this into an opportunity to offer a selection of healthy foods and see what they like.

Preschoolers (3-5 years)

Preschool age children can test the limits of parenting. Just remember they are still learning about appropriate behaviors. Be clear and consistent when it comes to discipline.

  • Explain that it’s okay to feel mad sometimes but not to hurt someone or break things.
  • Teach them how to deal with angry feelings in positive ways, such as talking about them.
  • Use time-outs to resolve conflict or remove the source of the conflict.

Middle childhood (6-11 years)

As children get older, friendships become more important. Take notice of any negative influences. Peer pressure can get stronger from 9 to 11 years old.

Make clear rules and stick to them. If you provide reasons for rules, it will help them to know what to do in most situations.

  • Talk about choices they have in difficult situations, good and bad options.
  • Explain the consequences of unhealthy choices, such as smoking or dangerous physical stunts.
  • Talk about what you expect from them when no adults are present.

Young teens (12-14 years)

Young teens might experience more moodiness, be more influenced by peer groups and express less affection toward parents. Sometimes they might seem rude or short-tempered.

Parents can help their teens by showing respect for their opinions and considering their thoughts and feelings.

  • Continue to show plenty of affection and attention.
  • Make time every day to talk.
  • Be honest and direct when talking about sensitive subjects, such as drugs, drinking, smoking, and sex.
  • Meet and get to know their friends.
  • Show an interest in their school life.

Be clear about goals and objectives, such as getting good grades, keeping things clean, and showing respect. Allow them to have a reasonable say in how they reach those goals, such as when and how to study or clean.

Teenagers (15-17)

Older teens may show more interest in romantic relationships and sexuality. Some may feel a lot of sadness or depression, which can affect their grades in school or lead to alcohol or drug use, unsafe sex and other problems.

Talk with your teen about their concerns and pay attention to any changes in behavior. Ask if they’ve had suicidal thoughts, particularly if they seem sad or depressed and seek professional help if necessary.

Stay involved in their development by showing interest in their school and extracurricular interests and activities.

  • Compliment and celebrate their efforts and accomplishments.
  • Listen to them without playing down their concerns.
  • Encourage them to develop solutions to problems or conflicts.


“If you have any questions or concerns about your child’s development, don’t hesitate to call your pediatrician,” Dr. Avol says.

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