This Newsletter is taken from Getting to Better: Effective Discipline for Building Respectful, Responsible and Resilient Youth (de Groot, 2012) and supplements the October 2011 article, Discipline Shouldn’t Hurt .

[highlight-yellow]When we place our energy into blaming other people we lose our capacity to change or successfully adapt; to live responsibly. – Steve de Groot[/highlight-yellow]

Discipline is probably the most important factor and process essential for developing respectful, responsible and resilient youth. It is also one of the most common areas in which parents and caregivers struggle. Just as the past Getting to Better (G2B) article, Discipline Shouldn’t Hurt pointed out that effective discipline, regardless of the specific situation or context, is about creating conditions where there is openness for learning, development and growth. In the simplest terms, ineffective discipline occurs when actions or interactions are intended to discipline (teach or guide), but despite good intentions, result in limiting, constricting or jeopardizing the potential for any learning to occur at all. In some instances ineffective discipline may promote learning in areas that may move youth away from the development of respect, responsibility and/or resilience (See “Accidental Punishment” in Discipline Shouldn’t Hurt); actually away from BETTER.

Out of the thousands of parents and caregivers I have met and worked with, most want BETTER for their youth; among many things like health, happiness, and good relationships are the development of respect and responsibility. Therefore while it is important for parents and caregivers to know what and how to engage in effective discipline to support their youths’ journey on the road to BETTER, it is just as important to be aware of responses or approaches to discipline that may damage the caregiver- youth relationship and close off or restrict important learning and growth.

This newsletter has been developed out of the valuable lessons learned and compiled from over 20 years of work supporting parents and youth in and through the important process or discipline. It is intended to provide valuable insights into approaches to discipline that are ineffective and do little to contribute to the development of respectful, responsible and resilient youth. In addition to this, the discussion will touch on the negative implications of ineffective discipline and offer tips and suggestions for approaching discipline that is in a manner that is consistent with and supportive for moving youth towards BETTER.

  1.     Lack of involving the youth.

 It is critical that youth be involved in all interactions, actions and plans that affect or impact their lives; to the extent possible. Involvement is about self-determination and empowerment. When youth are not involved, it is less likely that there will be “buy-in” to the plan or adherence to a consequence or a set of consequences that are imposed. Keep in mind that for most plans to work out with youth, they must be important to the youth, or, the youth must at least see the value in what is being planned.

2.     Unanticipated, unpredictable or “unfairly” imposed discipline upon the youth.

Does this mean that all consequences need to be discussed first? If possible, absolutely! Imagine if at work you arrived late one day and your boss tells you that you are suspended for three days with out pay. What would that be like? Imagine you didn’t know about it? What if you’re Boss said that he told you a long time ago, “something might happen if you were late.” Does it change things?

Now, imagine if earlier that month in a meeting regarding your tardy behaviour, you were given a chance to discuss consequences and you had mutually agreed that 3 days suspension would be fair? Does that change your response to the consequence?

 The difference; your Involvement and a CHOICE. Energy must go into learning, not confusion, anger, resentment and/or retaliation. When youth are involved in a choice regarding a plan and consequences, they are more likely to learn from that situation; energy goes into what they did and what they could do differently next time. There may still be anger and frustration, but they will share the blame versus it being solely on the person enforcing a consequence that seems unfair or unpredictable.

 3.     Lack of considering the youth’s sensitivities; their uniqueness.

When possible, it is essential that we work to accommodate the unique developmental challenges and/or sensitivities of the youth we live with or work with. It serves little purpose to administer a 20 minute time out for a youth that has difficulty sitting still for more than 10 minutes. It is counterproductive to consequence a youth after 9 days, if he has memory issues and struggles to remember specifics following a 7 day time span. It is critical to accommodate youth differences or particular challenges when determining an appropriate or behavioural consequence.

 4.     Providing vague, ambiguous/arbitrary statements of threat or discouragement.

How often have we heard or said things like, “smarten up”, “things are gonna change”, or, “pull up your socks”? How about, “you can go to the dance if you’re a ‘good boy’” or ‘good girl’. What the heck do these even mean?! We often assume that youth know what we mean when we use such arbitrary or ambiguous terms. It is important to co-construct, if possible, the criteria for “appropriate” or expected behaviour. We at least have to be as specific and concrete as possible so that youth are able to understand and thereby do their best to accommodate expectations. For example, if a an 11 year old boy asks to go to the dance and you want to ensure greater success of learning responsibility versus creating confusion and frustration you may work on being specific about expectations. Rather than state, “you can go if you’re a ‘good boy’ today, you may want to elaborate a little more; “if you have your chores done by dinner time and you are nice to your sister, you can go to the dance tonight.”

 5.     Unrealistic or unachievable.

It is not realistic to ground a youth for a month. Guess who is grounded for that month? You are! We have to be realistic about what is possible, not only for the youth but for ourselves. Always ask yourself: “Is this realistic; do we have the energy, time, resources or support to follow through on this?”


There is only one way to KNOW for sure whether something is achievable. That is, has it happened before? If we or others have not seen it with our own eyes and/or experienced it, there is no way to know for sure that this “something” is achievable. Setting unachievable expectations often happens around grades at school. Some parents/caregivers will inform a youth that unless they get straight B’s, they can not play sports. Now B’s may not seem difficult if siblings are achieving them, or other kids are doing it, but has this particular youth achieved this mark before? If the answer is maybe or no, then we have to consider whether this is achievable or not. Start with what the youth has accomplished in the past, as a starting point, and move up little by little from there.

 6.     Irrelevant (to the identified behaviour) or unimportant to the youth.

For discipline to be effective it is critical that the “time fits the crime” or that the consequence is at least important to the youth. If a youth breaks a window and loses his phone privileges or is held back from a concert he was looking forward to attending, this may cause confusion, frustration and anger. Paying for or fixing the window makes more logical sense.

The consequence must be, if possible, important to the youth. If it is not, the approach to discipline may do little to motivate the youth to adjust his behaviour. For instance, restitution works for many youth. But, if the amount of restitution is perceived by the youth to be too high/expensive, it may do little to influence the youth’s behaviour. It may perpetuate a “why even bother” attitude which at times can perpetuate misbehaviour.

 7.     Disrespectful in the process (this includes put downs, reactive, sarcastic, power over, name –calling, yelling, bringing up the past).

Even some of the best laid plans have not worked out. Often when youth feel put-down, disrespected, controlled, punished in the process of discipline, they can feel quite disrespected. Just as respect often begets respect, disrespect can evoke resistance, rebellion or even retaliation with some youth. Energy may go into revenge versus learning or adhering to “appropriate” or expected behaviours. Further to this, it is important that when working to develop respect and responsibility with youth adults role model the type of behaviour they are trying to develop through discipline. Approaching discipline in a disrespectful and/or hurtful way does little to contribute to the development of respectful and or responsible youth.

 8.     Lack of or inconsistent follow-through.

Often parents and caregivers will “give in” to a consequence for many different reasons. Sometimes they want to show the youth goodwill for adhering to half of the agreed upon plan (grounding) and other times the youth whines or complains so much that caregivers fold and do not follow-through on an agreed upon plan. Inconsistency undermines “appropriate” behaviour development and learning. It mostly reinforces behaviours other than the ones we are trying to promote. In the case of whining and complaining, the message to the youth may become, “maybe if I whine longer or complain louder my parents will eventually give in.” Consistency is essential. If you can not uphold or adhere to a plan or consequence, you may want to reconsider your strategy.

9.     Lack of evaluation and follow-up (youth experiences, did it work? was it helpful).

Sometimes our plans or approaches to discipline seem like they are working. However, sometimes there are other things going on in the environment or in the youth’s life that may be contributing to positive changes. If we do not check-in, evaluate or follow-up we may never know this and, when it comes time to enact a similar plan it may not work out. This may frustrate all parties involved. Further to this, it is important to know what is working, how it’s working and why. This way we can increase our capacity to respond to future challenges in ways that we know will be effective.

 10.   Out of step with youth’s goals.

Goals are the future-oriented anchors that guide and provide direction. They are also the most important element for creating focus, motivation and enthusiasm. When a plan is not linked to goals or what a youth sees as important or sees the value in, there is a good chance that motivation and focus will also be missing. When plans are not connected to goals, it is often less likely that they will not work out.

11.   Poor relationship between youth and disciplinarian.

Often, when youth are not feeling “ok” to “good” about their relationship with the disciplinarian, there is a good chance that things do not work out. The relationship is one of the most important factors for influencing behaviour and eliciting motivation and cooperation. If there is more than one person that can deal with the situation, send in the person with the BETTER relationship. If you indeed are the only one, consider your relationship; if the youth is angry or there is conflict, consider whether this is something that needs to be taken care of now. Can this wait a little while, for people to calm down or repair the relationship somewhat prior to dealing with the situation? If it can not wait, at least consider how your relationship will impact the process.

 12.   Reactive as opposed to responsive.

Often things are done or said in the heat of the moment wherein later there is regret. Research shows that when the heart and emotions are overwhelmed, the brain does not work so well. Be careful. Do what you can to calm down prior to dealing with a challenging or problematic situation. Consider the youth. Consider the situation. Consider the goals. Stay calm…and proceed.

 13.   The Double Consequence: (There has already been a consequence imposed).

A double consequence is when an additional consequence is placed on a youth, for the same situation or behaviour, after there has already been a consequence applied or imposed. This is unfair and can be perceived by the youth as punishment and control.

Example: It has been agreed upon between a youth and a parent that, if the youth is more than ½ hour late for curfew he must stay in on the following night. That is the consequence. However, the parent, in order to really get the seriousness of “the message” across adds that the youth can not watch movies or have pizza with the other kids (double consequence) while they stay in for the night.. Double consequences often elicit confusion or resentment and lead to resistance, rebellion or outright retaliation.


 The implications of ineffective approaches to discipline vary from youth to youth and situation to situation. However, there are some common experiences that arise as a result of ineffective approaches to discipline. The following list represents just some, to name a few:


Confusion                  Frustration                Resentment               Hurt

Fear                            Anxiety                      Stress                         Stress Reactions

Helplessness             Resistance                 Sadness                      Disappointment

Low self esteem        Self Doubt                 Dishonesty                Manipulation

Rebellion                   Revenge                     Hopelessness             Powerless


The above experiences are not not not supportive conditions nor are they conducive to promoting better relationships or an openness to learning. They are experiences that often move us and our youth away from Better.

If you have any comments or questions regarding this article, please do not hesitate to leave a comment here or contact Steve at steve@gettingtobetter.