When Parents Struggle with Discipline

ByDr. Marshall

When Parents Struggle with Discipline

Of particular interest today is a column at PsychologyToday.com offering some simple but worthwhile advice to parents who can’t seem to get their children to follow the rules, to do what is expected, to be obedient. The author begins by telling us that many of these struggling parents are asking the wrong question. Many parents come to therapy searching for new, clever, or interesting ways to get kids to follow the rules.

It’s not so much that parents are asking the wrong question. It’s that certain types of child-rearing practices are doomed from the start. For example, many new parents assume that they will establish a set of rules for the child to follow. If the child follows the rules, he or she gets rewarded. And if the child does not follow the rules, he or she will be punished in some way. The thinking goes something like this: I am the parent; I will decide what is acceptable and not acceptable; I will do what is necessary to make my child know that I am in charge; if they break a rule, they will be punished.

But what if this doesn’t work. What if you do all this and your child still breaks the rules? And it is at this point that parents seek assistance. Now their thinking goes like this: okay, I have these rules in place. My children know that if they don’t follow the rules they will be punished. They are not following the rules, therefore I need better and more effective punishments.

But the problem is not with your punishments. (Well, it might be, but that’s another topic altogether.) The problem is that you have a flawed system; the flaw is that you have left out several key ingredients.

First, you are trying to make a broken system work. Take the example of a car or a computer or any other device. If all the parts are not in place and functioning properly, the device will not work—regardless of what you do. If your car’s transmission isn’t working, it doesn’t matter how much gasoline you put into the tank. Your car still isn’t going to run properly. And so it is with raising children.

But what are the parts that must be in place? Well, to begin with, you have to define what you mean by DISCIPLINE. For many, perhaps most, parents, discipline is what I do TO my child if they do not conform.

But that definition creates the flaw in your system. Discipline is the structure we use to help our children learn to fit into the world into which they are born. In our culture, children go to kindergarten at or about age five. So we structure things in our home to prepare children to leave home at five and to function without us. American institutions (businesses, schools, stores, banks, agencies) open around 8:00 and close around 5:00. Some stores may be open all night, but you’re not going to get a job interview or negotiate a bank load at 2:00 am. So we establish a sleep cycle that allows us to function when the institutions are open. So from an early age, we get our kids accustomed to be awake in the early morning. That immediately establishes a discipline (a structure) for the entire day. I could go on and on, but you get the point.

So our task is to impose (not with a hammer, but with a soft but persistent glove) that structure on our children; if we fail to do so, we place our children at a distinct disadvantage. If we allow our children to stay up late, to eat when and if they choose, to make messes they don’t have to clean, they are going to have a very difficult time when they enter the “real world.”

So the challenge is not to get our kids to obey the rules, our task is to establish a structure that they learn to accept and use to their advantage. Every parent knows that it is easier to clean up the mess that a four year old makes, but in doing so, we deny our child the opportunity to learn that in the real world (kindergarten) she will be expected to clean her own messes. What a terrible disservice to the child.

The other point the article makes is that if you want your child to change you have three choices. You can do nothing and hope they mature into it; you can punish them until they submit; or you can change something you are doing that will change the child. Clearly, the obvious choice is the last one.

Which one you choose depends on your parenting style. Permissive parents wait; authoritarian parents try to impose their will; authoritative parents search for sensible and effective ways of working WITH the child to make change happen. But this requires that the parent is willing to change what isn’t working for something that does work. But if you search for more or better punishments, you are simply pumping more gasoline into a car with no transmission.

A second bit of advice is to think long and hard about your anger. When kids are defiant, when they break rules, when they resist us, when they disagree with us, we get angry. And we get angry because defiance, resistance, and disagreements feel personal. Some parents are able to remain calm and not feel personally offended. At the other extreme are those who get very angry and start shouting and threatening. You have to know your AQ (that’s your anger quotient).

Once you’re familiar with your AQ, keep in mind that when you get angry you get stupid. As Forrest Gump famously said, “Stupid is as stupid does.” Again, we’ve all lost patience with our children. But if you are quick to anger, you have some changes to make. We can rationalize, justify, and make excuses for our anger, but in the end, anger simply has no place in child rearing. We all justify our anger by blaming the child. But that doesn’t cut it. Anger may seem unavoidable, it might even seem appropriate, but it doesn’t change the fact anger is a sure path to ineffective (or worse) parenting.

If you are quick to anger, try to figure out why. HINT: It probably has something to do with how you were raised and what role anger played in your family of origin. Like it or not, we all learned to parent from our parents. And while you may vow to raise your children differently, somewhere deep inside you your parents reside. At one time or another, virtually all parents catch themselves saying, oh goodness, I sound just like my mother (or father). It’s okay. We all do it. But you need to understand your anger and decide what to do about it. Getting angry with your children is another one of the changes you can make that will have positive effects on your children.


  1. Discipline is not how you punish or what consequences you use. Discipline is how you structure your life.
  2. The first step to changing your children is to change what is currently not working.
  3. Understand your AQ and vow to banish it from your child rearing.

About the author

Dr. Marshall administrator

Richard Marshall earned an Ed.D. in reading and learning disabilities at West Virginia University in 1982. While completing his doctoral studies he served as an educational specialist in the Pediatric Neurology. Upon completion of his degree he became an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the WVU Medical School. After moving to Florida in 1983, he joined the faculty in the Department of Pediatrics in the College of Medicine at the University of South Florida and worked for five years in the Neonatal Developmental Follow-Up Program. In 1993, he completed a Ph.D. in School Psychology at the University of Georgia with an emphasis in Child and Adolescent Neuropsychology. Upon degree completion, he taught courses in the biological bases of behavior and neuropsychology at the University of Texas in Austin. He also served as developmental psychologist at the Children’s Hospital of Austin. He and his family returned to Florida in 2001 and he once more became a faculty member at the University of South Florida. He is presently an Associate Professor in the College of Education and he is an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at the USF College of Medicine. In 2008, Dr. Marshall co-authored the Pediatric Behavior Rating Scale; in 2011, he co-authored The Middle School Mind: Growing Pains in Early Adolescent Brains (2011) and is currently revising the Handbook for Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child (2012). In addition to writing and a busy schedule of workshops and presentations, Dr. Marshall also maintains a private practice in Lakeland, Florida where he specializes in the assessment and treatment of children and adults with emotional, behavioral, and learning disorders; parenting; family therapy; and couples counseling. As part of that practice he maintains a daily blog and he co-hosts The Mental Breakdown Podcast (iTunes, Google Play Music, and YouTube) and the Psychreg Podcast. He has spoken to professional and community groups throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, and South America.