How To Discipline A Child That Breaks The Rules And Doesn’t Listen

You broke your own rule mama! You used the car as a closet!  Said my daughter beyond excited to have noticed my forgotten coat, wrinkled and abandoned in the freezing cold car.You are right. And I am so glad you noticed and told me. I offered with a smile. I will be sure to take it inside next time. I said to her.

Mom! It’s a no biggie!  Can I have a piggyback ride when we arrive? Oh and I bet you will do better next time.  She added with a silly, silly smile.

As my daughter had playfully explained that my forgotten coat was not a big deal,  I could hear my words coming through.The very words I strive to use when small mistakes happen and just a hint of guidance will do the trick.

But what about when Children break the rules and don’t listen? Positive Discipline can help.

Children sometimes break rules or don’t listen. Sometimes we realize it’s just a mistake, like my daughter’s playful imitation of a “no biggie”.  Other times, we are certain the rule breaking or not listening is misbehavior, or even defiance in need of discipline.

A common response in these cases is to search for the best discipline – but what is best isn’t always clear. Just that something should be done… because children “should not get away with breaking the rules!” and “Children need to learn the consequences of their actions.”  as parents recently shared with me in a workshop.

Whatever the response, helping children learn, to accept responsiblity or the value of listening to our guidance is usually the goal. And for that reason, not choosing a punitive approach is important. So that the child will NOT end up feeling worried, confused and misunderstood. Disconnected from the very person that is supposed to offer safety and guidance.

Guidance Instead Of Punishment 

Punishments for breaking rules can lead to a child retaliating or withdrawing (Jane Nelsen, Positive Discipline Series). What does that look like?  It might be a child refusing to eat, delaying bedtime, talking back or otherwise behaving in ways that invite negative attention. Mistakenly we sometimes perpetuate the “not listening/ not cooperating” behaviors precisely because of how we are trying to stop them in the first place. But two negatives when it comes to children and listening is not likely to equal a positive outcome.

There is magic, and sound reasoning, in taking a calm, kind, inquisitive and understanding approach to helping children when they break rules or don’t listen.

Because a guidance approach opens the door for working together. It creates trust and invites cooperation. It offers children a chance to understand themselves and others.  To reflect on their choices and decisions. It gives you an opportunity to be seen as a safe and trusted source of meaningful information.

My daughter’s playful copycat moment was a powerful reminder of just how much words really imprint and impact our children. If we choose to encourage and help when the stakes are low, we have a better chance of getting through when the stakes are high.

These Rules Were Made For Breaking (not quite…)

Having rules is important. Particularly rules that keep children safe.  Adjusting rules to reflect your family values and needs is wise. Knowing your child will test, push and probably break some of these rules is also wise.

Testing limits is a way of testing independence, and that’s a good thing, even if it makes us want to stick a fork in our heads. It’s exhausting, yes, but it’s a necessary part of creating independent kids. – Jessica Lahey, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed

Striving to help and guide your child (instead of punishing) when the rules are broken is even wiser. Because it gives children a blue print for solving problems, learning responsibility and it flexes their failure and resiliency muscles.

Focusing on understanding mistakes and misbehavior,  instead controlling or punishing preserves trust and encourages capability. It also cultivates a cooperative “working with” dynamic that you can use from the toddler years and beyond.

Discipline really is more effective when it focuses on teaching, understanding and guiding the child, instead of trying to make the child feel bad.

What To Do When Your Child Breaks the Rules & Doesn’t Listen To You

  1. No Biggies:  If your child breaks a rule that is small, and it’s really just a mistake or oversight, calmly let them know it’s a “no biggie” moment.  Follow up with any missing information they may need to not do it again.
  2. Involve and Listen : Ask if your child has ideas how to fix her own mistake. With time, your child may start doing this on her own. (Read an example of a child learning to take responsibility for a big mistake here.)
  3.  Do Over:  Notice an unhelpful behavior? Let your child start over or have a second chance.  It might sound like “Can you show me a way to pet the dog that is gentle and kind?”
  4. Stop The Behavior & Listen To the Feelings:  When you notice your child is behaving in a way that is unhelpful and unnecessary calmly step in to stop the behavior. Then follow up with an opportunity for the child to connect with you and express himself. It might sound like   “I will not let you hit your brother!”  Step between the two children. “I’m here for you. Can you tell me what is going on?”   When we listen to the feelings, we help children learn to self-regulate and make better choices as they grow.
  5. Help WITH vs. doing for: You can offer your child help fixing, cleaning up or mending when needed.  A doing “with” instead of “fixing for”  attitude helps transform misbehavior into a teachable moment. Your child can walk away with a sense that not only is she expected to fix her mistakes, that she is capable of doing so as well.
  6. Say NO & Yes when you mean it:  Set and keep limits that are clear so your child understands what you really expect.
  7. Respect & Encourage: Speak to your child with the same respect and consideration that you hope to hear when she speaks to you, her family, friends and teachers.
  8. Teach then Trust:  Strive not to lecture or dwell on the broken rules ( You may need to vent to a friend or write it down to let it go). Aim to teach and then move forward, trusting that your child is learning to follow your guidance.

What if a child keeps breaking the same rules over and over again? 

  • Jane Nelsen, author of the Positive Discipline Series suggests “Take time for training” meaning, be sure your child has had enough time with you to practice and learn what is expected.
  • Reflect and reduce the number of rules. Too many rules becomes controlling and constricting. And most children will become quite creative (i.e. lying, breaking more rules) just to not get caught.
  • Reflect if there is a need to adjust expectations and surroundings (house proof, supervise, explain differently) to match your child’s age and development.

Focus on connection:  Is your child getting plenty of unconditional and positive attention from you? 

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Do you make time to be with your child, to play games, listen to dreams, thoughts and wishes? Do you create special moments together?  Do you look at your child with love, kindness and care? Do you forgive and even expect imperfections?

Because loving a person means seeing him, really seeing him, above the distractions, the chaos, the mess, and the imperfections. -Rachel Macy Stafford, Hands Free Mama

The more your child feels welcomed, understood and encouraged the more she is likely to follow your guidance.  You don’t have to be perfect, and you don’t have to come up with complicated behavior charts or schemes either. Simply having a willingness to invest in your relationship, in these early years really makes a huge difference.

positive discipline for how to discipline a child

You haven’t failed if your child has been testing limits and pushing boundaries. As you help your child grow, you will have many opportunities to say no, explain rules again (and again), listen to tears, frustrations and fears. Offer hugs, look for the “doing with moments” allow second chances. Pause, involve, remember your child is capable and willing to learn from you.

Peace & Be Well,


Related Reading:

Just starting out with Positive Parenting? Check out this post on looking beyond behavior to the heart of your child by Becky Eanes of

Not convinced about the positive approach? Check out  Is this what causes so many kids to be brats? by Alissa Marquess of Creative with Kids.

If you are feeling disconnected from your child, Andrea Nair has very helpful suggestions in How to Do Parent Child Relationship Repair

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Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a B.S. in Communication, is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator, and has completed several graduate courses in child development, psychology and family counseling. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, one cuddly dog and "bluey" the fish.

18 thoughts on “How To Discipline A Child That Breaks The Rules And Doesn’t Listen

  • Kerri

    My 33 month old son knows I love him all the time, even if he’s behaving badly.
    He continues to climb on a certain chair. I’ve explained how and why I don’t want him to do so. I have (100 times) taken him down. I’ve told him how his sister (1 year behind him) follows what he does, and tries to climb as well. (He reprimands her and says she can get, “Bad boo-boos.”)
    None of this, in including my upset, gets him to stop.
    I am a stay at home Mom who is never on a device while her kids are up. He is showered with positive one on one attention all day long. Our ” connection” is strong.
    So, what do I do about this behavior. He ignores my pleas, assertions, to get down.

    • Hi Kerri, toddlers are experts at repeating things over and over again while they learn about social interactions, limits and what parents expect. Sometimes we get stuck in stop mode “you can’t climb on this” and forget to move towards a CAN DO substitute in a very calm way. It might be helpful to just sit on that chair so that it is off limits. THis is a clear limit and it may bring up some tears, in which case listening to the tears and validating feelings would be the next step. it might sound something like “I see you are upset, because I will not let you climb.” After that, finding alternative outlets like climbing at the playground or even set up a very fun area in the house for physical work, like a mattress and some big cushions for jumping on safely can help too. This climbing exchange is fulfilling some sort of need, physical or emotional, From what you describe, it seems to have become a routine of sorts, an interaction that is just part of your day and calmly choosing to not engage in that is probably a better way to stop it than to keep with “pleas” which is exhausting. It is probably more helpful to decide what you are going to do about this and stick with the plan, in a way that is not emotionally charged but rather calm and confident. Explaining too much, pleading etc…sends the message that you aren’t sure about your limit. I hope that is helpful.

  • Alyssa

    Hi! I’d suggest using positive reinforcement. On days that you’re sure he doesn’t climb the chair, or when you see him using it properly (e.g. sitting in it not climbing it) give him something he likes! He could have a sticker. Then offer better incentives after a week of continuous non-chair climbing. Maybe a trip to an ice cream place!

  • There are some really great discipline strategies here, thank you. I also find that gently assisting my children when they are struggling to follow instructions is helpful. Eg: After not stopping jumping on the couch when they have been told I might say. “You really like jumping on the couch. I don’t want the couch ruined so I am going to help you to stop. If you would like to jump you can bounce on the trampoline.” I find that with my children it is much easier to set limits before they have pushed them too far or before I am finding myself getting cranky. They appreciate the support to prevent them testing too far as it makes them feel safe and secure. What do you think?

  • Anya

    Kerri, as Kate said, how about give him an opportunity to climb on smth that is ok. Seems his body simply needs climbing experience to regulate 🙂

  • monica

    Hello. Would for you to help me to know can I help my 6 year old son..because when he get upset he endures so much time angry and dont want to talk or to try to solve the problem even for hours..?
    Thank you

  • Isabeau Maldonado

    Ariadne, my name is Isabeau, and I am the proud mother to two beautiful girls, one 2 mo old and the other, a spunky, SUPER SMART 3 1/2 yo. I am married and have the youngest daughter from my marriage, and my oldest daughter is from a past relationship out of wedlock. My toddler Roarie spends 3 days with her father, and 4 days home with my husband and her sister and I the rest of the week. I know that she runs the house when she is with her father, and he allows her to get away with a lot. When she comes home, my husband and I have to be the disciplinairies and it can be rather exhausting. Unfortunately, her paternal father is a narcissistic co parent… He is very manipulative and, most times, very unreasonable. We have had to resort to legalities and things in the past to be able to make decisions for her because he is power hungry and constantly uses her as a weapon to keep hold of some control over me. That being said, the consequences for bad behavior are not equal from one house to another, and when she comes home every week, my husband and I end up spending a day and a half getting her back to normal again. She comes back very sassy, wanting to test boundaries constantly, deliberately Doing things she is asked not to, and not taking me seriously the first time I ask her not to do something. She is very good with the new baby, and loves her SO much! I try to keep her involved as much as possible, but we’re home-locked a lot of the time because the baby is so small yet. She gets bored and acts out and occasionally I lose my temper and yell. She gets upset and it’s heartbreaking. I need some guidance as to how to be PATIENT and teach differently then my parents taught me. Let’s just say they didn’t have the recourses that I have now to parent gently. Any advice is welcomed 🙂 thank you!

  • Tia

    I have a 6 & 2 year old boys my oldest son has a hard time listening to rules and to myself or my husband i dont want my yougest to pick the bad behavior up… when my husband and i say “No” he goes full out explode and whines for awhile… what do i do

  • Mysty

    Okay I babysit a few foster kids and I’m having a lot of Trouble with the five year old he blantently ignores me when I’m talking to him and then of he is upset he acts like an angry toddler and kicks screams and cries to get his way, I have explained my reasons for every rule which is like 4 of them because I usually just take him to the bus stop and get him from the bus and all have to do with being safe and respectful of others. how do I get him to see I’m not being mean I’m doing what’s best for him

  • Jessica

    My seven year old must have gotten up early this morning, because when I got up there was coffee water all over the counter top. Ok .. fine *hands him paper towels* Clean it up right? Don’t play with adult stuff. Then I pick the coffee pot up and the bottom is broken off. >__< WTH? So now he's up in his room writing out why it's dangerous to touch adult things. (He can get cut by the glass, or burned by the hot water.)

    Any ideas on what else I can have him do so that he gets that these everyday things have a hidden danger to them? (To kids its not obvious that they are dangerous!)

    Boy … our parents had the lazy way yell and give a spanking. 😛 But that's a suck way to do things I want him to learn why it's wrong and dangerous, so he doesn't do that again. So how to teach him it's not good to touch outer peoples stuff?

    Also he's severe ADHD real super impulsive so it's going to be harder and take longer. It doesn't help matters when his father tells him: He can't help it. !@# oh yes he can, I had ADHD and he can so help it. !@#$ Anyways any advice would be great as I grew up with paddling, yelling and yelling day long lectures and that doesn't teach anything but how to be sneaky and have fear for your dad/mom :/

    Thanks for any advice.

    • Hi Jessica

      Does your son have someone following him for the ADHD? Positive discipline can work very well with children with ADHD, I have used many of the tools with a foster child with adhd – it’s really helpful to implement routines, agreements, and to have plenty of special time each week too. Kids with adhd get told often that they are doing something wrong, but often receive very little encouragement. Try to notice three to four things that are positive each time you are together, maybe compliment your son on one of these things you notice. As for safety issues, at age seven repetition and repetition and asking your child to repeat back what they have understood are your best friends. Yes it may seem like a lot of work, but this is what your son needs, positive, respectful guidance he can count on to keep him feeling safe and loved. I would encourage you to find ways your son can make meaningful contributions to the household. “adult stuff” is interesting because children notice how much can be done with all those things – maybe teach him HOW to make you coffee? Maybe he wants to help cook, wash veggies? rake leaves? If these moments are shared, meaning you work together (not as a mandatory chore or consequence) children learn skills and learn to be responsible!!! Hope that helps you.

  • Amanda

    How do you maintain positive discipline ie no threats of punishment to get a kid motivated to cooperate within a largish family? I will soon have 4 kids and one of my kids consistently is defiant and oppositional. He does have some gut health problems that we are currently addressibg, but in the meantime me and the other members of the family are missing out on outings and sports practices when he gets into one of his oppositional moods. I dont bother taking him out in public when he acts like this anymore. I am afraid his older sibling will eventually come to resent him.

    • Hi Amanda,
      Not sure how old your child is but if you are noticing that this opposition is interfering with every day activities it would be very important to get this sorted out for all of you as quickly as possible. I understand that the gut issues can bring up irritability and crankiness for sure but It’s tiring for you and also for the child that is struggling to go through this opposition all the time. Have you worked with positive discipline tools already or is this something you are looking into starting? For sure one thing you can do, even if it’s an extra step is always preparing ahead, talking things through with your child what the day / outing will be like and what the child needs to succeed. Making agreements or a CAN DO PLAN can be a great help too so that what you decide together what happens if your child starts to have a hard time. Because you call it a mood I am going to guess that it doesn’t happen all the time but often enough to be very difficult for you – so understanding what prompts these can be some help too. These situations are best worked out individually either with coaching or in person because it’s important to get a sense for the dynamic of the whole family AND to understand the needs of the child. For sure, no child wants to be stuck in this opposition and you obvious care a great deal about your kids so it’s very likely that you can overcome this challenge.

  • Sarah Newton

    I have a 24 month old who happily gets in the car as long as she’s allowed to do it herself but then screams like I’m murdering her when I try and put her seatbelt on. I’ve tried asking her what she’s feeling, naming her emotions etc but it makes no difference. I explain to her why she needs to wear a seatbelt every time, show her mine and other passengers belts. If I have time I take her out of the car, give her a cuddle etc. I tell her we can’t go anywhere until the seatbelt is on and I stay calm and relaxed the entire time (outwardly!!) In the end I have to force the seatbelt on while I gently explain why and tell her I love her and kiss her as she screams blue murder. She calms down after about a minute. This has been going on in almost every car trip for about a month. What do I do???

    • sam

      Do you still have her in a car seat? (She should be in one still). She may just be feeling independent. Can she buckle herself and then be checked by you to make sure all is correct? My oldest could buckle her car seat alone at 2 (I always checked it), my second couldn’t until much older. Perhaps let her pick a new toy that she may only play with while buckled. As soon as the buckle is off the toy goes away.

  • Ashley

    Hi there! I have a 5 year old he is 6 in March, who consistently doesn’t listen. For example, he will wake up in the middle of the night go out to our living room and watch television. I have a rule, a new one albeit I started it maybe 3 weeks ago, that if a parent isn’t awake we play quietly with our library voices in our bedrooms until a parent wakes up (that is usually 6am) he will wake up his little brother, make him scream and cry, he will bang his feet on the walls, and just all around be extremely loud. He gets pretty aggressive with his little brothers, to the point that they scream and cry and when they do he has no idea why they are crying. I’ve explained to him time and time again that they are smaller then him and he needs to play gently with them. He continues to play rough with them. I’m just not sure what to do with him. I also have an almost 2 year old boy, who constantly takes things from his brothers, for example they got a lot of legos for Christmas, his brothers would be building things in their room, he will go in there and kick the legos destroying what they spent time building. I will ask him to put something simple away, like his favorite stuffed dog and he will just throw it on the floor. Is there a way to curv that? Thanks for any advice!

  • Britney

    I have a 13 year old that refuses to follow a single rule. I try to positively reinforce but it’s hard when he doesn’t do anything to be positive about. He has been kind this since he was young and we have tried everything to curve the behavior. Any advice?

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