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Child Therapy and Play Therapy: Teaching Discipline, Not Punishment

Mom standing in front of a child looking frustrated. Child counseling

Parenting young children can be challenging, especially when it comes to discipline. Many parents struggle to find the line between disciplining their children and punishing them.

The difference comes down to intent – discipline seeks to teach, while punishment seeks to penalize. Child therapists and play therapists can provide guidance to parents on using discipline effectively to shape their child’s behavior.

Understanding Discipline Versus Punishment

Discipline and punishment might seem interchangeable, but they have distinctly different goals:

  • Discipline is about teaching self-control, responsibility, and good decision-making. The focus is on the future – helping the child learn and grow. Discipline aims to correct behavior while preserving the child’s dignity.
  • Punishment is about penalty and retaliation for bad behavior. The focus is on the past – imposing a consequence. Punishment aims to inflict unpleasantness to discourage future misconduct.

Discipline allows the child to retain some control over the situation through choices. Punishment takes away control by imposing an unwanted consequence.

Play therapists emphasize that discipline helps children feel secure because they understand what is expected of them. Punishment can make them feel threatened and powerless. Effective discipline is firm yet thoughtful, compassionate, and solution-focused.

Play Therapy Techniques to Teach Discipline

Play therapists use a variety of techniques to teach discipline in a way that is developmentally appropriate for the child:


The therapist demonstrates desired behaviors in play, like cleaning up toys, speaking respectfully, and compromising. This model skills the child can learn.

Role Playing

The play therapist uses role play to act out situations where the child must practice self-control, listen to instructions, or cope with disappointment. Practicing discipline in play builds real-life skills.

Natural Consequences

Allowing natural consequences to unfold teaches cause and effect. For example, if a child wastes art supplies, they won’t have enough left to complete a project. The child learns the impact of their own actions.


The child’s therapist rewards positive choices with praise, stickers, high-fives, or small treats to motivate discipline. Children associate good behavior with positive feedback.


The counselor redirects negative behavior into a positive outlet, like turning a hitting impulse into a high-five game. This teaches self-regulation through substitution.

Modeling Emotions

The child’s therapist names and expresses emotions about difficult situations to demonstrate how to handle feelings. Children learn to recognize and respond to emotions appropriately.

Play therapists combine these techniques to promote discipline through interactive lessons that stick with children. Parents can embrace similar strategies at home.

Examples of Effective Discipline for Common Situations

Parents want to discipline their children in a way that teaches positive behavior, not just demands obedience. Here are examples of effective discipline strategies for some common challenges:

Encouraging Chore Completion

  • Make a chart with daily chores and space for stickers to track progress. Let the child decorate it.
  • Show the child how to do the chore first to ensure they understand expectations.
  • Use a kitchen timer to help the child visualize how long the chore should take. Praise them for beating the clock.
  • Schedule chores around activities the child enjoys so they are motivated to finish quickly.
  • Divide overwhelming chores into smaller, manageable tasks. Offer rewards after step completion.
  • Rotate chores so no one is stuck with the same chore every time.

Managing Screen Time

  • Establish technology-free zones like the dinner table and bedrooms.
  • Set clear time limits for daily screen use and have the child set a timer.
  • Provide screen time warnings 10 minutes and 1 minute before time expires.
  • Substitute active play when screen time ends. Go outside together.
  • Reward cooperation with bonus media time during long trips or for good behavior.
  • Designate tech-free days where screens are put away. Plan special activities.

Getting Ready for Bed

  • Make a colorful evening schedule with pictures for each step. Let the child check them off.
  • Give a 5-minute, 3-minute, and 1-minute warning before bedtime.
  • Allow the child to choose two bedtime stories or songs as an incentive.
  • Keep bedtime consistent to establish a routine.
  • Provide lots of praise and hugs when the routine goes smoothly.
  • Avoid screens for an hour before bed, as the blue light stimulates the brain.

Getting Out the Door for School/Errands

  • Have the child pick out clothes the night before so morning is less rushed.
  • Build in extra time for unpredictable events like lost shoes or spilled cereal.
  • Set a timer for important steps like teeth brushing and breakfast. Make it a game.
  • Prepare bags/backpacks by the door the night before.
  • Let the child choose a special morning snack or music for the car.
  • Try not to schedule stressful appointments like doctor visits before school.

The key is tailoring discipline strategies to the child’s needs and personality using consistency, preparation, incentives, and empathy.

Managing Emotions Around Discipline for Parents

Parenting can stir up strong emotions that make consistent, thoughtful discipline difficult:


It’s easy to become frustrated when children test boundaries or lack motivation. Take deep breaths and remember your child is still learning. Refocus on the lesson, not the defiance.


Anger might arise if your child’s misbehavior feels embarrassing or dangerous. Separate yourself briefly to calm down before addressing the issue compassionately.


Fatigue from parenting duties can erode the patience needed for discipline. Recharge with small breaks. Share duties with a partner. Prioritize self-care.


Discipline sometimes requires saying “no,” which can feel harsh. Remind yourself discipline keeps children safe and teaches critical life skills.


Misbehavior persisting despite discipline can leave parents feeling powerless. Seek support from parent groups, counselors, or play therapists to reset.

With self-awareness, preparation, and willingness to adapt approaches, parents can maintain emotional equilibrium while teaching discipline effectively.

Setting Clear Expectations

Setting clear expectations is key to effective discipline. When children understand what behavior is expected, they are more likely to comply. Creating an environment of predictable structure and routines helps children feel secure.

Be Concrete

Frame expectations in simple, specific language using clear directives. For example, say, “Please put away your toys in the bin before dinner,” rather than just “Clean up your mess.” Tell or show the child exactly what actions you want them to take. Being concrete removes ambiguity.

Be Consistent

Enforce rules and expectations consistently, even when it’s inconvenient to do so. Follow through on consequences for misbehavior every time. Avoid empty threats or warnings you don’t follow through with – these undermine your authority. Stick to routines like bedtime. Consistency and predictability help good habits take root.

Use Visuals

Post charts, checklists, calendars, or posters prominently display tasks, daily schedules, family rules, or behavior expectations. Simple pictures and drawings can be very effective for cementing expectations, especially for young children who can’t read yet. Colorful visual reminders keep information accessible.

Practice New Routines

Introduce new expectations through role-playing and practice. For example, act out each step of the bedtime routine until your child has mastered the sequence. Change takes time and repetition to sink in. Offer praise and small rewards when they successfully stick to a new routine.

Check for Understanding

Ask your child to explain important expectations or rules in their own words periodically. This checks that instructions are clear and rules are understood. Provide clarification for any confusion. Quiz gently to ensure comprehension.

Setting well-defined expectations paired with modeling, support, and consistency prepares children to meet discipline goals successfully.

Balancing Discipline with Nurturing

While discipline is crucial, over-disciplining without balance can harm children’s self-esteem, trust, and spirit. It’s essential to temper discipline with plenty of nurturing, affection, and unconditional love.

Foster Connection

Make time for child-led play, even when busy. Initiate plenty of hugs, cuddles, high-fives, and laughter. Discipline moments shouldn’t dominate your overall interactions. Building a nurturing connection satisfies children’s need for attention.

Choose Your Battles

Not every behavior warrants correction. Decide which issues are safety concerns, moral imperatives, or truly worth addressing. Let minor things go to avoid nagging. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Save discipline efforts for bigger priorities.

Add Encouragement

Sprinkle in frequent descriptive praise and encouragement when children cooperate with expectations. Applaud effort, not just end results. Say what you saw that was helpful. This motivates continued progress.

Allow Mistakes

Don’t demand perfection. Everyone makes mistakes, including parents. Model apologizing sincerely when you err. Help children frame mistakes as learning opportunities, not irredeemable failures.

Check Your Tone

Yelling, sarcasm, or harshness often backfires by provoking children’s own defiance. Strive to discipline with a calm, kind tone as much as possible. Your tone impacts their inner state.

With a nurturing approach, discipline becomes an act of love rather than a power struggle. Affection forms the secure foundation children need to respond to discipline and thrive.

When to Seek Professional Help for Discipline Challenges

While ups and downs are normal, consider seeking help from a child therapist, play therapist, or parenting coach if:

  • Discipline strategies that worked suddenly failed.
  • Behavior problems increase in frequency, intensity, or duration.
  • Your child reacts disproportionately or emotionally to discipline.
  • You find yourself losing control with anger or yelling.
  • Sibling conflict intensifies.
  • Standard discipline elicits little cooperation.
  • Your child expresses unusual anger, sadness, or defiance.

Child psychology experts can assess the situation, identify underlying causes of behavior, and help parents implement discipline in a healthier, more productive way.

Final thoughts

Discipline allows children to understand boundaries, develop self-control, and make better choices. But it only succeeds when delivered with empathy, consistency, and care. Discipline should teach, not punish.

Rather than reacting angrily to misbehavior, parents can see these moments as opportunities to build skills that will serve their child throughout life. Pick strategies tailored to your child’s needs. Aim for progress, not perfection. Discipline with love builds trust and cooperation.

Child Therapy and Play Therapy

Are you worried about you child?

The child therapy and play therapy experts here at Katy Counseling are here to help. If you think your little one may need some more support:

For More Resources on effective discipline for children, we highly recommend the book The Whole-Brain Child

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