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How do you discipline a child that won’t listen, in the smart and healthy way

Reading time: 13 minutes
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| Updated on
February 8, 2024
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What you’ll learn

As a parent or caregiver, you may explore numerous methods to deal with behavior problems. A common approach between parents when nothing seems to work to improve their child’s behavior, it is to resort to punishments. A statistic by the World Health Organization shows that 60% of children between 2 and 14 our the world experience some sort of physical punishment at home.

As a parent or caregiver, you may explore numerous methods to deal with behavior problems. A common approach between parents when nothing seems to work to improve their child’s behavior is to resort to punishments. 

A statistic by the World Health Organization shows that 60% of children between 2 and 14 experience some sort of physical punishment at home. It’s important to note that there are alternative approaches to consider, such as understanding how to discipline your child without punishments.

Parents must acknowledge that there are healthier ways to discipline a child that doesn’t listen. The key to managing misbehavior like tantrums, back-talk and power struggles, lies in cultivating a good parent-child relationship. Read on to discover how to bypass hurtful methods of discipline and what to do instead.

1. What is the Goal of Discipline?

The ultimate goal of discipline is to help children grow into responsible, respectful, and independent adults. Yet many parents still struggle to spot the difference between discipline and punishment or between authority and permissiveness. 

Understanding how to discipline your child effectively is essential for fostering his growth and development. It involves setting clear boundaries, providing consistent guidance, and teaching them valuable life skills. By incorporating positive discipline techniques, parents can create a nurturing environment that promotes healthy behavior and instills important values in their children.

Discipline and punishment are two different things. While punishment is often a short-term solution to address misbehavior, discipline intends to educate children on how to make better choices and cultivate positive behaviors that can benefit them in the long term.

2. How do you discipline a child that won’t listen – Golden Rules

Parents can face many challenges in finding reliable information to help them raise and discipline their children while promoting their well-being. This can lead to criticism and stigma from others who may not fully understand the challenges of parenting. 

Therefore, adopting a set of universal, common-sense rules and practices can make the process easier for parents. 

By following best practices such as clear communication, positive reinforcement, and setting appropriate boundaries, parents can find the best ways to discipline a child and create a supportive and nurturing environment for their children’s growth and development.

👉 Unlock the power of kind and smart words when your toddler doesn’t listen! Discover the article “Empowering Phrases to Use When Your Toddler Doesn’t Listen” and learn effective techniques to communicate with your child in a positive and influential way.

2.1 Set clear rules and consequences

what to do when kids dont listen

How to discipline a child that won’t listen involves setting clear limits and consequences. Parents need to involve their children in the process. A balanced approach to consequences can encourage positive behavior and a sense of responsibility in children. 

Parents should make age-appropriate and relevant consequences. These should be adjusted to the child’s age and developmental stage and be connected to the behavior that needs to be corrected. Aim to encourage positive behavior rather than simply punishing negative ones. 

How to discipline a 2 year old or how to discipline a 3 year old is different from how to deal with an older child that doesn’t listen. This might mean prioritizing the use of natural and logical consequences. 

Natural consequences

Help a child learn to anticipate what happens in real life if they choose to behave a certain way. If your child doesn’t go to bed at a set time, the natural consequence is that the next day he will probably feel tired. 

Emphasize how he would feel the next day, and help him see the benefits of going to bed early. If you have a 4 year old that is going down a wet slide, the natural consequence will be that he will get wet and eventually cold. 

Parents can guide the little ones by explaining what happened and why, and by assisting them in solving problems on their own to prevent similar situations from happening  in the future.

Logical consequences

It can be useful for the parent to set clear expectations. For example, failure to clean up toys may result in the child being unable to play with them the following day. It can be helpful to explain to children that toys should be put back in their place at the end of playtime. 

This way, you emphasize the importance of respecting their belongings and the time spent cleaning. If they choose not to listen, an appropriate consequence would be taking the toys away for a set amount of time.

As for an older child who doesn’t want to clean his room, instead of saying“ I want you to clean your room, otherwise you’re not going out today” try saying “I expect your room to be cleaned by 4 pm, then I know you are ready to go out and play. If your room isn’t cleaned by 4 pm, I’m going to assume that you’re okay with having 30 minutes less playtime outside. Does that work for you?”

A consequence that works for a young child might not be relevant for older ones. As your child grows and develops, the rules and consequences may need to change. 

It’s okay to make adjustments and change your approach. By adopting a problem-solving approach, you can continue to find new solutions and strategies that work best to deal with a child that doesn’t listen.

Children might refuse to follow these instructions at the moment. However, once those natural consequences occur, they may begin to see your perspective. This will build trust and make children more open to communicating and cooperating. 

For best results, discuss the rules and consequences in advance, and in a calm environment. Don’t engage in lengthy explanations when your child is distracted, is tired, or you are in a hurry. Focus on effective consequences that can help your child learn and grow.

👉 Master the art of effective communication with your children and nurture a deeper connection! Explore the article “How to Communicate with Children Effectively” and discover practical tips, techniques, and strategies to enhance your communication skills as a parent.

2.2 Be consistent

Consistency in discipline is crucial for effective parenting. When you establish rules and consequences to deal with a child that doesn’t listen, it’s essential to enforce them consistently. This helps your child understand what is expected of them and helps them feel safe and secure in knowing the boundaries. 

Inconsistency can have negative effects on your child’s behavior and well-being since you are making them unsure of what to expect. This may result in children developing a disregard for rules and authority figures, which can lead to behaviors such as back talk, anxiety, and feelings of insecurity. 

Moreover, it can cause frustration in children who feel they can never meet their parents expectations. Nothing they do is good enough. This can have a long-lasting impact on a child’s self-esteem, which is heavily influenced during early childhood and adolescence. 

For example, if you let your children get away with breaking a rule one day, but punish them for the same behavior the next day, they may become confused and unsure of what is expected of them.

2.3 Use positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is a disciplinary approach that prioritizes the reinforcement of positive behavior to promote its continuation. The focus is on rewarding desired behavior rather than punishing negative behavior. 

Consistently setting limits, offering encouragement, and showing kindness are what to do when kids don’t listen. Parents might think of rewards as a form of positive reinforcement. 

However, positive reinforcement is not limited to giving rewards. This method should be used to motivate and reward positive behavior, rather than as a tool for manipulation or bribery. Positive reinforcement can also include verbal praise, encouraging words, and approval. 

The goal is to help your child develop intrinsic motivation and a desire to behave well, rather than relying on external rewards.

An example of praise that encourages intrinsic motivation is, “Hey, great job on the project! You worked really hard on it, and it turned out amazing. You should feel proud of all the effort you put in.” 

This type of praise focuses on the child’s effort and hard work, rather than just the end result or outcome. It encourages the child to feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in their own work, which can help to build their intrinsic motivation and sense of self-worth.

2.4 Be a good role model

Ways to discipline a child

Having good role models is incredibly important for children. When kids have someone to look up to, they’re more likely to follow in their footsteps and adopt their positive behaviors. 

It’s crucial for their development because children who have good role models are more likely to learn habits and attitudes that can last a lifetime.  


As a parent, there are certain qualities and behaviors you can model for your child that can help them grow into well-rounded individuals. Showing empathy and kindness towards others and modeling respectful communication can help your child learn to do the same. 

Additionally, understanding how to discipline your child effectively is crucial for his development. It’s also important to be responsible and accountable for your actions and to admit when you made a mistake. 

Demonstrating the importance of prioritizing mental and physical health can serve as a positive role model for your child to emulate. Take any opportunity to practice self-control first, so your child understands what it looks like and why it’s important.

Spot the teaching moments when you exemplify healthy boundaries, self-respect, and remaining receptive to constructive criticism and feedback. These conflict resolution skills will help you and the child get over challenging situations easier. 

Your children are always watching you, even when you don’t think they are paying attention. They observe how you handle different situations, how you treat other people, and how you manage your emotions. So, it’s essential to model what you preach to deal with a child that doesn’t listen.

2.5 Communicate effectively 

To discipline your child effectively, it’s important to communicate with your child in a manner that assures them of being listened to and comprehended. By expressing your expectations and feelings clearly, you can build a relationship of trust and openness with your child.

Understanding your child’s perspective can aid you in developing disciplinary strategies that are personalized to meet their needs.

When it comes to how to discipline your child, several strategies can be utilized to communicate effectively when kids don’t listen. First, listen actively by giving your child undivided attention, focusing on what they’re saying, and showing empathy to demonstrate that you understand their perspective. 

When expressing your own feelings or concerns, use “I” statements instead of “you” statements to avoid accusatory language. Be clear and specific when setting expectations or boundaries, avoiding vague statements like “Behave yourself!”

It’s important to avoid criticism and blame, which can be counterproductive and damage your relationship with your child. Instead, focus on the behavior and how it can be improved. 

Positive reinforcement is also a strategy for clarifying expectations and encouraging good behavior. When your child meets your expectations or exhibits good behavior, make sure to praise and reward them.

👉 Discover the reasons behind your kids not listening and gain valuable insights to improve your communication with them. Read the article “Why My Kids Don’t Listen To Me” to explore the root causes of communication breakdowns, learn how to establish clear expectations, and develop effective listening skills.

2.6 Avoid physical punishment 

Using physical punishment to discipline a child that won’t listen may seem like a quick fix. However, it can have serious negative consequences. You have to understand that there are healthier and better ways to discipline a child.

Studies on physical punishment of children show that children who experience physical punishment are at higher risk of developing mental health problems and behavioral issues. Physical punishment can also harm the parent-child relationship, cause injury, and even have long-term effects on a child’s physical health. 

Parents should calm themselves down before dealing with challenging situations like when your kids go through a tantrum, meltdown, or experience big feelings.

Here are some practical parenting tips on alternative physical punishment:

  • Creating a loving and supportive environment is important, and, instead of time-outs, parents should give their child a time-in by acknowledging and validating their feelings.
  • Active listening is crucial for understanding and validating the child’s perspective.
  • Reflective statements can help reduce frustration and negative behavior.
  • Offering choices can help decrease misbehavior and empower children to be responsible for their behavior.

3. Steps on How to Effectively Discipline Your Child That Won’t Listen

As a parent, it’s essential to know how to deal with a child that doesn’t listen in a way that promotes learning and growth. Understanding the reasons for their behavior and addressing any underlying issues can also play a crucial role in helping children become more receptive and responsive.

3.1 Set clear boundaries and consequences

Sometimes, children may feel that they are being punished unfairly. When a child says “I didn’t do anything!”, they might truly believe they didn’t do anything wrong. It may be a sign that they don’t fully understand the rules and consequences set by adults for their behavior. 

Receiving consequences without understanding the reasoning behind them can lead to confusion and frustration for the child. This can also lead to them repeating the same behavior.

That is why, when choosing to discuss rules and consequences with your children, parents should ensure they have their child’s full attention. This means finding a quiet and distraction-free environment where they can speak calmly and clearly with their child. 

It’s important for parents to make eye contact and speak in a way that their child can understand. By doing so, parents can increase the likelihood that their child will understand the rules and consequences being discussed and be more likely to follow them.

3.2 Follow through on set consequences at all costs

When parents follow through with consequences, it helps their children understand what is expected of them. By setting clear rules and expectations, and consistently enforcing them, children can learn the value of responsibility, accountability, and good decision-making.

We must not forget that children are not born with an innate understanding of what is expected of them. Adults may assume that good behavior is common sense. However, we need to remember that childhood is a time for play, exploration, and learning. 

When you are looking for answers regarding how to discipline your child, keep in mind that children will naturally test boundaries and experiment with different behaviors as part of their development.

 It’s important to recognize that this is a normal part of childhood and not necessarily a sign of misbehavior. This is where consistency takes center stage. We want to help children make good choices, but without hindering their natural need to explore.

3.3 Discuss why and ask them to repeat it back to you

Sometimes, children may nod or say “yes” to rules or instructions. In reality, they may not fully comprehend what is being asked of them. This can lead to misunderstandings, misbehavior, and frustration for both the parent and child.

A valuable communication tool is to ask children to paraphrase what they hear. This can help ensure that they fully understand and internalize what was said. It allows adults to confirm that the child heard and comprehended the message, while also giving the child an opportunity to practice active listening and communication skills. 

Paraphrasing can also help clarify any misunderstandings or confusion that may arise during communication. This can lead to a more effective and positive interaction between the adult and child.

3.4 Offer forgiveness and reconciliation

How do you discipline a child that won't listen - dad hugging his little son

When children make mistakes, it’s important to hold them accountable while still offering them the chance to make things right. By doing so, parents can help their children understand the importance of taking responsibility for their actions and learning from their mistakes. 

This approach encourages healthy communication and a stronger parent-child bonding, which can lead to the development of valuable life skills. When parents offer forgiveness and reconciliation, they are teaching their children the power of empathy and kindness.

Conclusion

Discipline is an essential part of parenting and it shouldn’t be confused with punishment. Instead, how do you discipline a child that won’t listen should be a means of teaching and guiding your child toward healthy behavior. 

By taking a proactive approach to parenting and implementing positive discipline techniques, you can develop a nurturing relationship with your child, while also fostering their emotional and behavioral growth.

It’s important to make sure your approach is based on the latest research and academic facts to effective discipline, rather than outdated methods or personal opinions. To help you deal with a child that doesn’t listen, we offer webinars and a community of like-minded parents who are navigating the challenges of raising a child. We invite you to join our free online masterclass, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen: 3 Proven Methods, where you can learn essential strategies. With patience, consistency, and a positive outlook, you can offer your child the optimal foundation for a successful future.

References

Abdel-Khalek, A. M. (2016). Introduction to the Psychology of Self-Esteem. In F. Holloway (Ed.), Self-Esteem. Nova Science Publishers. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019, November 5). Why are discipline and consequences important https://www.cdc.gov/parents/essentials/consequences/whyimportant

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Steps for Using Consequences. https://www.cdc.gov/parents/essentials/consequences

Desautels, L. (2018, March 1). Aiming for discipline instead of punishment. Edutopia.  https://www.edutopia.org/article/aiming-discipline-instead-punishment/

Durrant, J., & Ensom, R. (2012). Physical punishment of children: lessons from 20 years of research. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l’Association medicale canadienne, 184(12), 1373–1377. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.101314

Edwards, C. P., Sheridan, S. M., & Knoche, L. L. (2010). Parent–child relationships in early learning. International Encyclopedia of Education, 438–443. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-08-044894-7.00528-5

Grebelsky-Lichtman, T. (2014) “Parental patterns of cooperation in parent-child interactions: The relationship between nonverbal and verbal communication,” Human Communication Research, 40(1), pp. 1–29. https://doi.org/10.1111/hcre.12014.

Michigan State University. (June, 2018). Addressing challenging behaviors positively. Early Childhood Development. https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/addressing-challenging-behaviors-positively

Nieman, P., & Shea, S. (2004). Effective discipline for children. Paediatrics & Child Health, 9(1), 37–41. https://doi.org/10.1093/pch/9.1.37

Rosanbalm, K. D., & Murray, D. W. (2018). Promoting self-regulation in the first five years: A practice brief (OPRE Brief #2017-79). Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Smith, A. B. (2006). The State of Research on the Effects of Physical Punishment. Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, (27), 114–127.

Stephens, K. (2007). Parents are powerful role models for children. Parenting exchange. https://www.easternflorida.edu/community-resources/child-development-centers/parent-resource-library/documents/parents-powerful-role-models.pdf

World Health Organization. (2021). Corporal punishment and health. https://www.who.int/news-room

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Patrick Ney
Lead Trainer at All About Parenting
Patrick Ney

Patrick Ney is a Neurodevelopmental Specialist who has been working with parents at All About Parenting for 5 years. He is husband to Maja and father to 2 beautiful daughters, Zofia and Mia. Patrick joined All About Parenting, determined to become a better parent before becoming a Certified Trainer. To date, he has run over 1000 workshops, events, and masterclasses for more than 100,000 parents.

Patrick is certified in a range of other methodologies, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Solution Focused Brief Therapy, and the HANDLE Methodology for neurodiverse children. He is a Certified DIR Floortime Practitioner and has been described as a ‘natural born play therapist.’ Patrick bases his work with parents on neuroscience, studying Applied Neuroscience at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London. Patrick has appeared as a TEDx speaker, and his first book, ‘The Storm: How To Stop Shouting At Your Kids’ will be published in Autumn 2022.

But more than anything else, Patrick is a father. His love for his daughters has led him on a journey to being a better dad for his girls and sharing that story with other parents. His work inspires thousands of parents to start learning parenting, and he shares both his successes and his many failures.

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