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18th Feb 2017

Child Psychologist David Carey on putting positive discipline into action

David carey

All children’s behaviour, including misbehaviour, is a form of communication. All human life is movement towards some sort of goal or purpose.

When we understand that children are pursuing goals of which they may be unaware consciously we can begin to understand the reasons they do what they do. It’s important to remember that these goals are formed early in life, before the child has language to fully understand them. They are usually not a result of parental action but rather a result of the inner belief system the child creates as he or she interacts with the family.

What can we do with this knowledge?

The first step in creating a system of discipline (and remember-genuine discipline teaches a child how to live in the world) is to recognise your own feelings when misbehaviour happens. To do this we must take a look at each goal in turn and identify the most common parental feeling in response to its occurrence.

Attention: You feel annoyed, irritated, you want to coax or remind; the behaviour temporarily disappears only to return again, either as the same behaviour or as a different irritant.

Power: You feel provoked and challenged, you feel a need to assert your own power, “I’ll show her who is in charge around here!” or “I will make you do it!” or “You can’t get away with this, I’m the boss here!”

Revenge: You feel hurt, shocked, “How could they do this to me?” you feel powerless, don’t know what to do, you are stunned into silence and overwhelmed with sadness and disappointment for the child

Inadequacy: You feel despair, disbelief, sorrow and pity, you want to help, cuddle, comfort and do for the child what he or she can do for himself or herself.

Action Plans

Although nothing works all the time with all children there are useful guidelines for true discipline. Please remember that children’s discipline is the process of teaching them how to act on the useful side of life. It’s not simply the act of stopping a particular behaviour. Genuine discipline teaches. Let’s take each mistaken goal in turn and look at the simple steps you can take in response to misbehaviour.


As soon as the child begins to annoy you do the following: avoid all eye contact, do not use any words, act nonverbally and make the child feel loved by hugging, giving a pat on the head, smile, provide some comfort. Always remember you must attend in this manner to positive behaviour more than you attend to misbehaviour. If you do not have the ratio correct you will only get more attention-seeking behaviour.


Try as much as possible to give choices when you want a child to do something. This isn’t always easy but for some children it works like a charm and a lot better than issuing orders. Here is an example: “Would you like to brush your teeth, get into your pyjamas and have a story read to you in bed or would you prefer to get into your pyjamas, brush your teeth and have a story read to you?” Never argue with a child who is pursuing the goal of power – you will always lose. Use friendly eye contact, not a stern face. Be firm and calm, do not get emotional. Try to give your child a way to feel powerful, give them a responsibility around the house, not a chore, something of value that they can contribute.


Be sure to empathise with the child. Let them know you understand they feel hurt. Do not hurt back with harsh words, rejection (such as walking away), or forceful hands-on action. Try as much as you can to re-establish the relationship. Do something special with the child, just you and them. Try to avoid harsh punishment, instead use logical consequences (these will be discussed in a future article).


Do not coax or pity the child. Try to organise small successes for them instead. Ask yourself what the child can do best and organise an opportunity for them to do it and succeed. Never do for a child what you believe they can realistically do for themselves. Always be one step behind, ready to catch them if they fall. Use the power of encouragement – say to the child “I’m sure you can do it, have a go and if you need help just ask me.” If the child uses defeating self-talk such as “I can’t do it, I’m stupid” redirect this talk to more productive sentences such as, “Try saying this instead, ‘I’m going to give it a try and see how I do, I can ask for help if I need it.’’

What are the results of proper discipline?

Broadly speaking, your child will become more efficient at living in this world. Specifically the results are:

  • The child will ask for attention appropriately
  • The child will learn how to negotiate rather than overpower
  • The child will learn how to assert his or her feelings in appropriate ways
  • The child will learn to accomplish and overcome difficulty and feel capable and worthwhile

Positive discipline involves knowing the goals of misbehaviour. Recognising your feelings in response to misbehaviour and creating corrective interventions that teach the child how to do better next time. Try it and see how it works.

Dr. David Carey has over 25 years experience in both clinical and educational settings. The author of several books, he has worked with children, adolescents and adults with a variety of emotional and behavioural difficulties.