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Caring for Children
Owned and managed by Department of Communities & Justice

Positive behaviour

Children and young people who have experienced trauma have particular challenges to overcome. Some kids enter care with a mistrust of adults and a belief that they have to look out for themselves. Because of that, they may react or behave in ways that carers find difficult to manage.

Using effective discipline

Understanding your child's behaviour

The chronic stress of being exposed to abuse and neglect over a long period of time can affect a child's emotional development and will have a big impact on their behaviour. Their internal thoughts and feelings are usually quite different from those of kids who have not been exposed to trauma.

It’s important to understand that the child or young person in your care is not just trying to be difficult. Most kids in care live with ongoing anxiety, alarm and deep emotional pain, even if it isn't obvious on the surface. Usually, it's those underlying feelings that are driving the behaviour. It can also be linked to factors including:

  • being exposed to violence and extreme aggression early in life
  • trying to cope with grief, loss and separation
  • repeated rejections by loved ones and feelings of abandonment
  • health and developmental issues
  • inconsistent parenting
  • having to adjust to new environments with different rules and ways of doing things too often.

Kids who have experienced trauma are often acutely aware of what’s going on around them, even if they don’t show it. Your caring, kind and consistent manner teamed with the use of effective discipline strategies will, over time, influence their behaviour.

How 'effective discipline' can help

Some people assume that ‘discipline’ is the same thing as ‘punishment’. In fact, using positive strategies to teach and encourage positive behaviour is often more effective than using punishment in response to negative behaviours. This is called ‘effective discipline’.

Using effective discipline within a safe and caring relationship can help the child or young person in your care feel secure and confident. They will benefit from knowing their environment is stable and a competent adult is taking care of them.

Effective discipline:

  • protects children and young people from danger and helps them feel safe and secure
  • teaches them to understand and care about others
  • teaches them emotional self-control and self-direction
  • helps them develop a sense of responsibility
  • teaches values
  • helps them to be happy and well adjusted.

Just breathe … there are some situations you just need to walk away from. Later, when things are calmer, open up the dialogue again.

Why ‘punishment’ doesn’t work

A carer must not use any form of discipline that involves spanking, slapping, shouting, blaming, shaming or ridiculing a child or young person. Those actions may feel like a quick and easy solution, but physical and psychological forms of punishment don’t teach self-control. Instead, they reinforce the child or young person’s experience that the bigger, angrier and stronger you are, the more you get your own way. Carers should also be aware that some practices are specifically restricted or prohibited.

Getting started with effective discipline

Explain the ground rules Make sure your expectations are clear and well matched to the age and maturity of the child or young person in your care. When they do the right thing, show that you have noticed and you appreciate it.

Keep it simple Having just a few simple rules helps kids understand what the limits are. Set reasonable and enforceable limits and follow through consistently. Being consistent is easier when you focus on the things you think are most important, for example, ‘remember your manners at home and when you’re out’, ‘clean up after yourself’, ‘help others whenever you can whether or not they ask’, ‘stick to the safety rules’.

Stay calm Avoid getting into power struggles. Recognise your own triggers and be ready with strategies that will help you cool down such as walking away and discussing the issue later when you are calm, or giving yourself some time out.

Teach rather than punish Punishment puts the focus on what not to do instead of teaching kids what they should be doing. When problems or misbehaviour occur, think less about 'punishment' and more about helping the child recognise more appropriate behaviours.

You can learn more about effective discipline from Relationships Australia, Kids Matter and the Raising Children Network.