How can I discipline my child without smacking?

Smacking is sometimes used as a response to unwanted behaviour. It may feel like a quick fix and a release for built up anger and emotions.  

It’s important to understand the laws on physical punishment, the effect on your child, and other ways of managing behaviour.  

The laws on physical punishment

In Scotland physical punishment of a child has been illegal since November 2021. In Wales, it became illegal on 21 March 2022. This means you can be charged with assault. The law applies to residents and visitors.  

In England and Northern Ireland, physical punishment is illegal unless you can prove it’s reasonable punishment’.  

Types of physical punishment include, but are not limited to: 

  • Smacking. 
  • Hitting (with or without an object). 
  • Kicking. 
  • Slapping and shaking. 
  • Force feeding. 

    Impact of physical punishment

    Smacking can make a child feel fear, sadness, confusion or anger. They may also be hurt. Using this form of discipline can make a child think that violence is an appropriate response to conflict and strong feelings.  

    Physical punishment is sometimes associated with poorer outcomes for children. This can include poor mental health, antisocial behaviour, increased aggression or violence.  

    Dealing with challenging behaviour in the moment

    Physical discipline usually occurs when a parent or carer is overwhelmed by a situation. You might feel you have exhausted all other options. People often feel remorse after smacking a child.

    Coping with anger or frustration caused by your child’s behaviour isn’t easy. If you’re about to lose control, try to step away and take a few minutes to calm down. This can help you think of other ways to deal with the situation. After the moment has passed, reflect on what happened and what you can learn.  

    You can also ask others for help. Make a plan with a partner or family member who can support you when needed. Remember that it is a child’s right to be safe from harm, and a parent’s responsibility to ensure that this is the case. 

    Focusing on ‘positive parenting’

    When thinking about how to discipline your child, consider what’s important to you. Ask yourself what lessons you’re trying to give them when you put boundaries in place or have to say ‘no’ to things. What are good strategies for your family? 

    ‘Positive parenting’ is an approach that focuses on your child’s strengths over time rather than correcting weaknesses. You can still say no when you need to. Useful techniques include: 

    • Praising positive behaviour (name the behaviour so your child understands). 
    • Getting your child involved in creating family rules.  
    • Putting clear routines in place.  
    • Using your own behaviour to show your child how you’d like them to behave – they learn through watching you.  

      It may take some time for any new strategies to have an effect. If you’re changing how you react to behaviour, talk to your family about it and let your child know what’s happening.  

      Getting extra help

      You may want to contact your local children’s centre or family hub to see if they’re running parenting courses. This can be helpful for developing new approaches and sharing your worries with others in a safe space. 

      Other local support services include your midwife, health visitor, GP or family hubs or family information service.  

      If you need advice specific to your situation, speak to one of our parenting coaches for free on our live chat service. We also offer Welsh-language support. 

      Or read our advice on: 

        If you’re worried about a child

        If you are worried about a child’s safety, contact your local children’s social care team or the police. They can ensure the child is safe and that the family has appropriate support in place.  

        Find your local social care team through your local council.  

        You can also contact the NSPCC for advice.

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        This advice was written by our experienced Parent Talk coaches. Parent Talk is a free online service for parents and carers, provided by the charity Action for Children. For more advice, message our parenting coaches with our online chat.

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