A Parent's Guide to Age-Appropriate Discipline

While you may not relish playing the role of enforcer, children benefit from consistent discipline tactics. Read our pointers on how to stay firm, and check out our age-by-age discipline chart.

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Discipline confers a whole new role on parents: "the heavy." It's one most of us aren't comfortable with; we prefer the warm, fuzzy picture of ourselves snuggling with our children, reading storybooks, providing kisses for boo-boos, and doling out unconditional love.

But day-to-day life with a child isn't all snuggles, and, as experts tell us, kids need firm, consistent limits for their emotional well-being. Failure to discipline your child can cause their misbehavior to escalate—and the frustration could lead to far greater implications down the road.

Are you looking to learn how to discipline a 5-year-old, 2-year-old, 8-year-old, or any age in-between? While there are certain discipline tactics that are important and helpful for all young children regardless of their age (such as praising positive behavior and being mindful of your child's patterns), age is an important factor when it comes to strategies caregivers use. Keep reading for our top age-appropriate discipline tactics, and check out our handy chart for parents.

Age-Appropriate Discipline Chart
Age Discipline Tactics
1 Year Old • Keep expectations reasonable • Focus on preventing accidents and misbehavior • Handle meltdowns by comforting and distracting
 2 Year Old • Minimize power struggles by stating expectations and offering simple choices • Help them begin to master their feelings Handle tantrums with care; direct your child to positive behavior
 3 Year Old  • Have them help with tasks, but don't expect them to always follow through • Rehearse good behavior •Keep consequences short
 4 Year Old • Allow plenty of time for transitions • Ignore whining • Realize that lies and cheating are normal at this age, and handle these situations calmly
 5 Year Old • Broaden their view on certain behaviors by evoking empathy •Try a behavior management system, such as a reward chart • Use limits to emphasize self-control
 6-7 Year Old • Encourage independent problem-solving skills • Rely on short-term rewards and frequent reinforcement • Use praise to reward helpfulness
 8-10 Year Old  • Discuss their misbehaviors, especially for new problems, and set consequences together • Try more grown-up approaches • Emphasize natural consequences and making amends
Discipline will look different at every age, but this chart can help guide you.

1-Year-Old Discipline Tactics

Your 1-year-old is curious, energetic, and mobile. They're beginning to understand language and put words into context. They may not clearly grasp what "no" means or that yesterday's "no" also applies to today's experience. A 1-year-old hasn't learned how the world works—for instance, they don't realize that a glass vase can smash if it's knocked over. They want what they want now; waiting is extremely difficult, and they have no impulse control.

How to discipline a 1-year-old

  • Keep your expectations reasonable. Demonstrate proper behavior, but don't insist on it. Your tone of voice and facial expressions convey lessons best. Be firm yet positive, and don't overreact.
  • Focus on prevention. Childproof your home, and put away breakables. If they grab an off-limits item, take it away.
  • Handle meltdowns by comforting and distracting. If your 18-month-old struggles to stay in the car seat, for example, console them and say that you know they dislike being strapped in but they must do it. Put them in, then divert their attention.

2-Year-Old Discipline Tactics

Life is an emotional roller coaster for a 2-year-old who is beginning to make sense of their feelings. They constantly test their environment to get reactions from others: "What will happen if I refuse to wear my shoes?" Children this age have trouble understanding and communicating their powerful—and sometimes overwhelming—emotions. They discover they won't get everything they want and can have frequent tantrums.

How to discipline a 2-year-old

  • Minimize power struggles. State your expectations clearly, without yelling. Offer simple choices and don't overestimate their abilities. If necessary, give them an incentive to cooperate. Realize that their job is to test you.
  • Help them begin to master their feelings. If they hit, teach them to use their words ("I'm mad!"). Explain, "We don't hit" and "Hitting hurts." At about age 2 1/2, they'll start to develop empathy.
  • Handle tantrums with care. Don't give in to tantrums, but remain close by (and be sure they don't hurt themselves) until it stops. Then direct your child toward positive behavior. Though you shouldn't punish or isolate a 2-year-old with a time-out, you can briefly remove them from a situation to help them calm down.

3-Year-Old Discipline Tactics

Your 3-year-old's budding independence is a source of pride. Though they want to carry out requests that they're capable of doing, such as washing before bedtime, don't count on consistent cooperation. They comprehend the idea of cause and effect—for instance, that breaking the rules has consequences. Tantrums can still be common, but they may also sulk or whine. They're starting to handle frustration better.

How to discipline a 3-year-old

  • Help with tasks. Don't punish your child for not following through on a request. Explain a job simply, get them started on it, and acknowledge their effort.
  • Rehearse good behavior. Play games to practice routines. For example, try a get-ready-for-daycare game by playing a song and having your child try to finish three simple tasks before the music stops.
  • Keep consequences immediate and short. A 3-year-old is now mature enough to handle a time-out of about three minutes (one minute per year of age) if that's a discipline tactic you want to try, but they're less likely to connect the dots between misbehaving now and a consequence later. Head off trouble by averting frustration early and enforcing rules right in the moment.

4-Year-Old Discipline Tactics

Your preschooler's social skills are blossoming, and they may struggle to balance their needs with those of others. They can focus more intently on games and activities—and because of this, making transitions can become especially difficult when they're having fun.

They may whine more intensely because they're better able to think about what they lack and want. A 4-year-old sometimes bends the truth to fit a private version of reality, but they don't understand that this—as well as cheating—is wrong.

How to discipline a 4-year-old

  • Allow plenty of time for transitions. Give your child advance notice, but be mindful that time will mean very little to them, so reminders such as "we are leaving when this cartoon is over" will make more sense than "we are leaving in 15 minutes." Additionally, try to avoid power struggles. For instance, consider granting a polite request to stay a few minutes longer at a playdate if there's no pressing need to leave. If they lose control, explain that the two of you will talk as soon as they can calm themselves down.
  • Ignore whining. Tell your child that when they talk in a whining voice, you will not listen, and they need to speak to you in a normal voice. When they do, praise them, and respond to the request as you normally would.
  • Handle lies and cheating calmly. Such behavior is normal at this age, but it is important to teach children about honesty. Don't shame your child or dwell on whether they did or didn't do something, but point out that what they said is not true and briefly discuss the importance of being honest. For instance, if they spill a glass of milk and deny doing it, say, "I know those tumblers are hard to handle, so I'm not upset that you spilled it. However, I know that you did spill it, and we believe in telling the truth because it is the right thing to do," and then have them help clean up. They'll feel understood and less fearful of telling the truth in the future.

5-Year-Old Discipline Tactics

A 5-year-old grasps concrete consequences, and they're challenged to act according to their emerging sense of conscience. They're learning to put themselves in someone else's shoes. A 5-year-old is mature enough to follow rules and do some chores, but they may push the limits to test you. They're establishing better (though far from perfect) impulse control. Not getting their way may lead to outbursts, door slamming, and even hitting.

How to discipline a 5-year-old

  • Broaden your child's view. Ask, "Would you like it if someone did that to you?" Explain the effect of their behavior on others and the reasons for rules.
  • Try a behavior-management system. For instance, you could consider putting up a chart with expected behaviors, such as sharing with a sibling, making their bed, doing homework, and so on, and for each task they complete, they earn a sticker. After a certain number of stickers, they get to do a desired activity. Continue to also set consequences for major negative behaviors, such as hitting.
  • Use limits to emphasize self-control. For instance, set a timer and say, "You have three minutes to stop the fussing or you'll get a time-out."
Discipline Mistakes Mother Points Finger At Daughter In Grocery Story
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

6- to 7-Year-Old Discipline Tactics

Your child's world is expanding, and they're learning to deal with new social and academic pressures. They show appropriate self-control in school—cooperating in groups and raising their hand rather than shouting—and generally act out less often. They have difficulty waiting for long-term rewards and work best with frequent reinforcement. A 6- or 7-year-old wants to be treated more maturely because they're learning to handle new responsibilities, but they still need your help to reach their goals.

How to discipline 6- to 7-year-olds

  • Encourage independent problem-solving skills. Instead of simply correcting them, teach prevention strategies. For instance, review a situation and help them fill in the blanks: "I fought because Joey wouldn't sit with me. I felt ____." Help them figure out better solutions.
  • Think short-term. If your child keeps their room tidy, don't wait a week to reward them—provide a small daily incentive to keep them motivated. Your child also needs regular verbal reminders on issues like manners.
  • Use praise to reward helpfulness. Have your 6- or 7-year-old help with chores so they can feel good about pitching in. This will build their self-esteem.
  • In general, reinforce good behavior. If you've got to give a consequence, make sure it corresponds to the problem.

8- to 10-Year-Old Discipline Tactics

Children this age are learning about groups, social behavior, and where they fit in. They're old enough to follow through on expectations, though you'll see ups and downs as they become aware of how they stack up against their peers. They may swing from being cooperative to being difficult to motivate. They may also act preteenish—sensitive to comments and prone to backtalk. An 8- to 10-year-old understands the basic differences between right and wrong and looks to you for guidance and reinforcement.

How to discipline a 8- to 10-year-olds

  • Talk it out. Sometimes. If their misbehavior is a type that you've discussed before and that your child knows is wrong, don't give it undue attention. Simply administer the consequence. For new problems, discussion is now a great tool. Talk about what happened and why. Then set an appropriate consequence together (but on your terms), and follow through on it.
  • Try more grown-up approaches. 8- to 10-year-olds respond well to having options. If your child is cutting corners on homework because they're too busy with outside activities, let them pick which ones to keep and which to drop. They'll learn that life is about making choices and that privileges are earned by good behavior.
  • Emphasize natural consequences and making amends. If your child doesn't put their clothes in the hamper, don't wash them. If they lose their friend's toy, have them replace it. If they're hurtful to a classmate, insist they apologize. This will reinforce your values and help them develop a sense of responsibility.


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