Vicki Polin
Social Justice Activist

Guidelines For Disciplining Children Who Have Been Abused

Disciplining children who have been abused can be a real challenge! And while there is no single method which has been proven to work for all children, the following tips represent what mental health professionals who work with and/or study child behavior have learned.

Using the discipline techniques outlined in this pamphlet, in combination with what you already know about your child(ren); will help you to develop the best and most effective way to set appropriate limits. Remember children learn best when you practice consistency in your discipline techniques.

Tip #1  Physical: means punishments that are inappropriate, ineffective, and harmful to children!

This includes spanking, hitting, pinching, whipping, slapping . . . Spanking children teaches them that violence is an acceptable way to deal with problems. There is a fine line between spanking and abuse. In addition, it simply does not work. Children, especially children who have been physical and/or sexually abused, often have learned how to dissociate themselves from pain. Basically, being hit or hurt in some way is nothing new to abused children. Spanking is also tremendously humiliating for your child. No child should be made to feel that way — it leads to shame and low self esteem, which in turn lead to further behavior problems. Spanking kids can lead to a vicious cycle. Hitting children is a way to take out your anger on a child (this should never be the guiding emotion behind any punishment). In short, spanking benefits the spanker more than the spanked. When you feel like hitting a child, go into another room, hit a pillow instead. Once you’ve cooled down, then you’ll be ready to go back and deal with the child.

Tip #2  Positive reinforcement works wonders. It is much easier to increase a positive behavior than it is to decrease a negative one. In simple terms, that means if you lavish praise on your children when they do well, they will continue to do the right thing. It is much easier to get a child to “keep up the good work”, than to get a child to stop doing something which gives him/her lots of negative attention. But if you give lots of

Remember children thrive on attention, (either positive or negative attention).

Tip #3  Use the time out method. If you isolate a child for a certain amount of time when he or she gets a little unruly, it gives him/her a chance to cool down. If a child is misbehaving, give a warning that he/she will need to go to a “time out”, if the behavior does not stop. The most important part of the warning is following through with the warning. If the behavior does not stop, send the child to a chair or a corner for a few minutes (depending on the child’s age . . . 1 minute for each year). Use a kitchen time to make sure the time out is exactly as long as you say it will be. One important lesson learned by giving a warning prior to “time out”, is that the child learns there are choices in ones life.

If you spank a child, you teach him/her violence. If you yell at a child, you teach him/her shame. If you use choices and fair, NONVIOLENT consequences, you teach the child that he/she has power to effect his/her own life, and that he/she can make a choice to behave or not to behave (and suffer the consequences of a “time out”).

Too Much Pressure?

  1. Take some deep breaths. Remember, you are the adult
  2. Remember that good parenting must be learned and, at times, is very demanding. It’s okay to ask for help to improve your parenting skills.
  3. Close your eyes and think about what you want to say. Don’t just say the first thing that comes to your mind.
  4. Put your child in a ‘time-out’ chair (one minute fore each year of age).
  5. Think about why you are angry. Does the situation call for such a reaction?
  6. Phone a friend.
  7. Splash water on your face.
  8. Turn on some music
  9. If someone can watch your child, take a short walk

Communication Tips

  1. Gently touch your child before you speak
  2. Say their name.
  3. Speak in a quiet voice.
  4. Look at your child in the eye so you can tell if he/she understands.
  5. Bend or sit down-get on your child’s level.
  6. Give children the same courtesy and respect you give your adult friends.
  7. Encourage talking by asking about your child’s day or asking his opinion about important things.
  8. Children are never too young or too old to be told “I love you”.


Find opportunity to praise your child, it is the best way to encourage good behavior. Be observant and you will find many.

Ways to praise your child:

  1. Way to go.
  2. I’m proud of the way you did that.
  3. Thank you
  4. I knew you could do it.
  5. Good job.
  6. Excellent.
  7. I trust you.
  8. You mean the world to me.
  9. Beautiful work.
  10. I love you.
  11. Well done.
  12. Good for you.
  13. You’re terrific.
  14. Great discovery.
  15. Fantastic work.
  16. Job well done.

Children need discipline

  1. Discipline is not punishment. It is a way to teach a child appropriate behavior.
  2. Set reasonable, clear and consistent rules and limits. Do not change from day to day.
  3. Ignore negative behavior. Children ‘act up’ to get attention.
  4. Let children help with your daily activities and give them responsibilities that fit their capabilities.
  5. Show children how to correct what they’ve done wrong, by apologizing, cleaning up, etc.
  6. Determine appropriate discipline for misbehavior.
  7. Change the environment. Remove the child from the situation.
  8. Talk to your child about self control and how t make better choice
  9. Avoid yelling. Speak in a clear, serious tone of voice.
  10. Rejection, Withdrawal of affection, or preferential treatment of one child over another can be as damaging as physical abuse.

 If you say “NO” too much, it loses impact.

  1. Try words other than “non” like “stop”, “oh”, or “wait”.
  2. Call your children by name when warning them.
  3. Explain the situation to them.
  4. Anticipate conflicts and address it before it happens.
  5. Suggest alternatives to unacceptable behavior. Explain you love them, but there is problems with their behavior.
  6. Listen to your children. You may change your mind.

(This article was originally published in 1995)

About the Author
Vicki Polin is a feminist who has been a Social Justice Activist since her childhood. Vicki is also an award winning, retired psychotherapist who worked in the anti-rape field for just under forty years. For fun Vicki is an artist and nature photographer.
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