Discipling your child on your own

cc_gemtck1@flickrAs a single parent, it can be harder to discipline your children as there is no other adult backing you or re-enforcing your rules. This can become especially hard at times when you may feel emotional and less strong than usual.

People often think that the word “discipline” means 'punishment' however it actually means 'teaching'. Knowing this means that any action you take is teaching your child how to behave in the world, which is one of our main roles and aspirations as parents.

I don’t know where to start

  • When ALL of your child’s behaviour seems bad, it can be hard to know where to start
  • Praise any good behaviour, however minor, very enthusiastically. Every child will do an occasional thing right, no matter how they try to the contrary.
  • Be specific: “Well done! You have made such a good job of that picture, I am very proud of you, that’s absolutely fantastic!”
  • Once you have established praise, choose one behaviour at a time to change. Opt for a behaviour that is fairly easy, such as hanging up their coat when they come in the house, or not making a fuss at bedtime, and heap praise upon them when they get it right.

Do as I say, not as I do

  • The most effective form of discipline has been shown to be modelling: in other words our children will often copy us.
  • If we reprimand them for swearing, for example, they can counter this with “well, you swear, so why can’t I?” So we need to have a think about our own behaviour.
  • We don’t have to be saints, but the way we live in terms of treatment of other people, integrity and respect for authority will be a very strong influence on our children. 

Stay calm

  • This is easier said than done, but is one of the key tools in maintaining discipline.
  • Teenagers in particular seem to specialise in knowing how to make us lose our cool. If you can realise that that is what they are trying to do, it might be easier not to do it!
  • If you find it hard to stay calm, just say “I will discuss this with you later” and walk away. If they come after you, keep repeating the phrase and even lock yourself in the loo if necessary.
  • Say to your child “When you can speak to me in a respectful way, then I can listen to what you are saying”.
  • A younger child will respond better to “When you can speak to me in a nice way..”

Look at consequences

  • Children need to realise, quite early on, that their behaviour has consequences.
  • For example, if they have sweets on a Monday, there is no money for sweets for the rest of the week...and make sure you stick to it.
  • Younger children respond surprisingly well to star/sticker charts although don’t make the rewards too big or you will end up severely out of pocket.
  • Older children can have negative consequences explained to them, such as the fact that they will be grounded if they get in later than agreed.
  • Make a written agreement with an older child, as teenagers will often deny that they agreed to be in at a certain time, for instance.

My ex undermines me

  • The children may go to their other parent and come back saying “Dad lets us stay up till 11 o clock” or “Mum lets us have sweets every day”.
  • Do not feel you have to compete, just say “Maybe there is a different rule in Mum’s house”. They will soon get used to the different regimes.
  • It is very tempting to try and be more popular than the other parent but it helps to realise that they actually do want boundaries to keep them safe, no matter how much they may seem to hate you for setting them.

I feel awful when we have a row

  • It is very easy to slip into a pattern of feeling guilty towards your child when you have a disagreement.
  • Of course apologies may sometimes be necessary if you have behaved badly (and that “models” good behaviour to them) but if you do it all the time, all they will learn is that you will always give in and they won’t take you seriously.

Top Tips

Praise good behaviour, no matter how minor

Tackle one behaviour at a time; Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Remember your children will copy your behaviour

Exchange ideas with other parents and reassure each other.

Think about how to teach your child about consequences

Don’t try and compete with your ex. Have your own rules in your own house.

No-one is perfect: give yourself credit for getting this far!


Come and talk with other single parents and experienced single parenting specialists on our Parenting Support discussion boards.

Thank you all for your replies they are very helpful……..She does still have her moments of aggression but the length of time she is violent seems to have shortened and tonight no aggression before bed - amazing! I will post again with any new developments but thanks again for all the advice it's much appreciated. x x

If you are having extreme difficulties, you can ask a personal question and receive confidential email advice from our Relationships Expert.