Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Oppositional Defiant Disorder and ADHD

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The Important Distinction Between Punishment and Discipline

Mark- I am on week 3, and have found your online counseling a huge help to our family and situation. I hope that if we follow this, that we will see improvements with our 7-year-old daughter that has gotten out of control at home. She has been diagnosed ADHD and ODD. Every doc has recommended medications for her. Mainly I am sure because of school and the fact that she does have problems with socialization at school. She is aggressive with kids, but a friendly aggressive like hugs and such. She has a heart of gold, and wants to do good, but she doesn’t have the tools she needs in order to be constructive. You mention that we as parents should 'discipline' and not 'punish'. I am wondering what is the difference between discipline vs punishing? What I mean is, what is considered discipline and what is considered punishing? Thank you, J.


Hi J.,

Discipline is: 

  • "Time-outs" that are open-ended and governed by the child's readiness to gain self-control
  • Acknowledging or rewarding efforts and good behavior
  • Consistent, firm guidance
  • Directed at the child's behavior, never the child
  • Giving children positive alternatives
  • Listening and modeling
  • Logical consequences that are directly related to the misbehavior
  • Physically and verbally non-violent
  • Positive, respectful
  • Re-directing and selectively "ignoring" minor misbehavior
  • Reflection and verbal give-and-take communication
  • Teaching children to internalize self-discipline
  • Teaching empathy and healthy remorse by showing it
  • Understanding individual abilities, needs, circumstances and developmental stages
  • Using mistakes as learning opportunities
  • When children follow rules because they are discussed and agreed upon
  • When children must make restitution when their behavior negatively affects someone else

Punishment is:
  • "Time-outs" that banish a child for a set amount of time governed by the adult
  • Being told only what NOT to do
  • Children are punished for hurting others, rather than shown how to make restitution
  • Consequences that are unrelated and illogical to the misbehavior
  • Constantly reprimanding children for minor infractions causing them to tune-out
  • Controlling, shaming
  • Criticizing the child, rather than the child's behavior
  • Forcing children to comply with illogical rules "just because you said so"
  • Inappropriate to the child’s developmental stage of life
  • Individual circumstances, abilities and needs not taken into consideration
  • Negative and disrespectful of the child
  • Physically and verbally violent and aggressive
  • Reacting to rather than responding to misbehavior
  • Sarcastic
  • Teaching children to be controlled by a source outside of themselves
  • Teaching children to behave only when they will get caught doing otherwise
  • When children follow rules because they are threatened or bribed

Discipline is when a lifelong lesson is taught, the person develops another part of their character and learns a lesson in something they can use for all kinds of situations in life. Punishment is when they just "get in trouble" - just get a consequence for an offense - but nothing was learned except maybe to not get caught or not make the person punishing mad.

Discipline is guidance. When we guide children toward positive behavior and learning, we are promoting a healthy attitude. Positive guidance encourages a child to think before he acts. Positive guidance promotes self-control. Different styles of discipline produce results that are different. Discipline requires thought, planning, and patience.

Punishment, on the other hand, is usually hitting, spanking, or any type of control behavior. Basically there are four kinds of punishment: 

  • Penalizing the child with consequences that do not fit the crime: Example: "Because you told a lie, you can't have your allowance."
  • Physical: Slapping, spanking, switching, paddling, using a belt or hair brush, and so on.
  • With words: Shaming, ridiculing, or using cruel words.

Punishment is usually used because: 

  • It vents adult frustration
  • It's quick and easy
  • Parents don't know other methods
  • Punishment asserts adult power

Punishment does not promote self discipline. It only stops misbehavior for that moment. Punishment may fulfill a short-term goal, but it actually interferes with the accomplishment of your long-term goal of self control. 

The consequences for children include the following lessons:
  • It is okay to hit people who are smaller than you are.
  • It is right to hit those you are closest to.
  • Those who love you the most are also those who hit you.
  • Violence is okay when other things don't work.


  • Address the situation; do not judge the child. This is important because diminished self-esteem leads to insecurity, even hostility.
  • Be firm. Clearly and firmly state that the child does what needs to be done. Speak in a tone that lets your child know you mean what you say and you expect the child to do it. It doesn't mean yelling or threatening. Being firm works for any age child and for many situations.
  • Be sure children know these limits. Be consistent.
  • Build self-esteem and respect. Avoid words that reduce self-esteem.
  • Guide through consequences. If a child leaves his toys outside and the toys are stolen or damaged--no toys.
  • Keep discipline positive. Tell children what to do instead of what not to do.
  • Keep your cool. Listen calmly to your child's explanation of the problem; talk about ways to deal with it. Come to a solution that's agreeable to you and the child--this helps the child learn to be responsible for his behavior.
  • Plan ahead. Prevent misbehavior by eliminating situations that spell trouble. For example, make sure children have been fed and are rested before going to the grocery store.
  • Set clear and safe limits.
  • Teach by example. Be a good example. If you hit children for hitting others, they won't understand why they can't hit.
  • When you discipline, explain why.

Sorry for all the bullet points. It makes it a bit impersonal, but also provides you with a digestible summary.

Thanks for the question,

Mark Hutten, M.A.

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