17 Aug

Why Punishing Kids Doesn’t Work & 3 Steps to Finding Solutions to Problem Behaviors

Mother scolds the child

Many adults complain that parents ignore or excuse kids’ rude behaviors and don’t punish them enough. “Today’s children are entitled” “They tyrannize their parents.” Parents should teach them a lesson, they say, by giving them tough consequences––a good slap, scolding, or time-out.

I disagree. Punishing isn’t the most effective way of delivering a message of respect or responsibility. Here are some reasons:

  1. Criticism, shaming, and blaming do nothing to teach children how to cooperate and be accountable. Not that a parent should condone the unruly or disrespectful child’s behavior. Far from it. You should be firm about what is acceptable and what’s not. Help your kids be open to learning by approaching them from a place of kindness and respect, not anger and retribution. When you hit or yell at a child for being disrespectful, you’re relying on physical or emotional pain to be the teaching mechanism. True, your kids will remember the pain, but it won’t teach them the long-term life lesson you’d like it to.
  2. Slap your kids and they’ll focus on how unfair and hypocritical you are, not on what you’re trying to teach them. They see their parent lose control and do something––hit or scream––that they know you don’t want them to do. Or, if they’re smart and sneaky, they may strategize how to get away with the behavior that you’re punishing them for by hiding it better next time. Some will hold onto their resentments and plot how to get back at you. Others do this unconsciously by underperforming at school, picking on their siblings, or finding passive-aggressive ways of disappointing or undermining you.
  3. As much as you might like to, you can’t control your kids’ thoughts. If you put kids in time-out and try to get them to “think” about what they did wrong, they quite possibly might sit there and stew in their anger at you for putting them there. They’re not saying in their heads, “Oh, I’m so lucky to have parents who care so much about me that they’ve given me this opportunity to think about how to improve my behavior. I’ll use this time wisely to contemplate why I behaved so poorly, and then I’ll surely figure out how to become a nicer human being!” No, that’s not how it works.
  4. Your kids may take the blame and shame to heart and begin thinking of themselves as “bad” or “unworthy.” You don’t want to diminish your child’s self-respect while trying to encourage respect for others. Doing this teaches them to submit to others, even if it means losing dignity, or gives them carte blanche to wield power over others by trying to force them to submit.

Three Steps to Finding Solutions for Problem Behaviors

In the heat of the moment, neither of you is capable of logical thought. Upset adults react to their children’s upset. This means that they, too, have lost control. And when adults’ judgment is clouded by raging emotions, they’re not able to respond skillfully to their children’s misbehavior. So, Step One is:

  1. To get to the bottom of misbehavior, first you and your kid need a cooling off period so you can get back to your senses. This might mean a positive time-out where each of you finds a calm, safe place to relax and pull yourself together. In your peaceful place, you might listen to soothing music, read a funny or inspirational book, or look at pictures or objects that are calming to you. Your children’s positive places may be equipped with pillows, fun books, stuffed animals or other toys that make them feel relaxed and peaceful. Once you and your child are calm, proceed to Step Two:
  2. Figure out what’s really going on. Take time to connect emotionally and show empathy for your child. What emotions are motivating the misbehavior? When a child acts up, they’re in an upset state. Research shows that people who are upset are in their “reptilian” or limbic brains and their logical, reasoning brains are off-line. To get them into a more balanced, rational state, you need to calm them, or allow them time to calm themselves, and then show empathy. Without condoning the poor behavior, you begin by connecting to your kids emotionally so your kids can access the higher level cognitive skills needed to work on solutions. Use your intuition and be sure to act from your heart. An emotional connection can involve a hand on the shoulder, a kind expression, or a statement showing empathy for the feelings they’re expressing. Only after you’ve connected can you re-direct.
  3. After you’ve established connection, it’s helpful for you to ask “curiosity questions.” Gently inquire with open-ended questions. Encourage kids to figure things out for themselves, instead of telling them what to think. When kids find the solutions themselves, they’re more likely to act on them.

Here are some questions you might ask (from Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline: the classic guide to helping children develop self-discipline, responsibility, cooperation, and problem-solving skills):

“What happened?” or “What’s wrong?”

“What do you think caused it to happen?”

“What were you trying to accomplish?”

“How do you think this affected _______ (the other person or people)?” or “What do you think _______ (someone) felt when this happened?”

“What did you learn from this?”

“How, in the future, can you use what you learned?”

“What ideas do you have for solutions?”

You’ll get a better understanding of your child’s world if you listen carefully, and show empathy and acceptance. Try to avoid asking “why” questions, which invite defensiveness.

For some adults, showing empathy sounds like a “reward” for poor behavior. They believe that kids should “pay” for their misbehavior. However, research has shown that punishment, punitive time-outs, scolding, taking away privileges, and other forms of parental retribution only serve to further activate the child’s limbic system, where dysregulated emotions run the show. Punishment triggers the limbic-based fight-flight-or-freeze reaction, setting the child up to resist and react. At best, the child learns nothing in the process––except perhaps to suppress anger or resentment, better hide the undesirable behavior, or turn the anger inward as low self-esteem or unworthiness.

You have a choice as a parent. You can go down the path of imposing consequences when your kids misbehave, or you can make an effort to connect to your kids with empathy, kindness, and firmness. One strategy for doing this is asking the right questions and allowing children to work on the solutions themselves, and with your help when needed. This opens the door for you to teach them life-long skills in cooperation and problem-solving––a win-win for everyone.

To your joyful and wise parenting!