By: Cristina Trette
Sometimes children act out in maddening ways. They tantrum, fight with siblings, or refuse to cooperate. When these kinds of behaviors happen in homes with frequency, many well-intended parents think that the remedy is punishment. We live in a culture that, generally speaking, tells us the way to change behavior is to reward "good" behavior and punish "bad" behavior. Yet, if you are anything like the hundreds parents I have worked with over the years, you may find that punishment does not help. You may also wonder, "if I am not going to reward or punish, what am I supposed to do?".
The practice of punishing children has been passed down through generations. We also live in a world where punishment is still the norm. Schools, prisons, workplaces, and our justice system utilize punishment to control bevhavior, produce order, and gain compliance.
Yet based on everything we know about neuroscience and optimal human development, punishment-based parenting is not the appropriate pathway for raising well-adjusted and well-behaved children. In fact, punishment can make problem behavior even worse.
Let's back up a bit.
Why do kids behave badly? Is it because they need to be controlled in order to behave "well"? Is it because they are manipulative? Is it because they know that poor behavior gets them attention or what they want?
I am going to take a stand and say it is none of the above.
Brain science tells us that kids "behave badly" when the level of stress they are experiencing exceeds their ability to cope. Something is happening internally for the child. Difficult behavior shows up when children have moved into a state of fight/flight/freeze. In these moments, they lose access to important brain functions that manage their ability to stay regulated. They can't access impulse control, perspective taking, compassion, body control, or emotional tolerance.
Generally speaking, kids need their parents or other secure adults in their life to help them co-regulate until they learn to self-regulate. If parents punish a child that is already dysregulated, the child is likely to become even more dysregulated, and we will see behaviors decline.
Unless parents learn to look below behavior, they are likely to overlook the possibility that their child is experiencing internal struggle and strife. For example, if a kid's tantrum is triggered by poor sleep, poor nutrition, a hard day with friends, or difficulties at school, punishment will not stop the tantrums from happening.
Most young children do not have the ability to articulate what is happening in their inner world, that is, unless they have been taught to do so. Therefore, when having a really hard day or when going through challenging life events such as changing schools, moving, or divorce, many kids will act out their feelings which can show up as angry outbursts or defiance. Note, that some children will hold all their worries and struggles inside, for quite some time, then it will all come out.
For example, lets look into the world of Matt, age 10. Matt was woken up in the middle of the night last night by his parents fighting. He heard them talking about divorce. He does not know exactly what is going on but there has been a lot of tension between the parents that he can feel. It was scary for him to hear them shouting and it took him quite some time to go back to sleep.
In the morning, Matt woke up, ate breakfast, and went to school without mentioning his fears to his parents. Then, at school, because he was tired, he had a hard time following directions from his teacher and his teacher moved him from green to red at two different times on the classroom behavior management chart. Being on red is a very stressful experience for Matt, in particular because he was not trying to be ignore his teacher, he was just having a hard day.
On the way home from school, Matt did not mention a word to his mother about any of his troubles. In fact, he is not even aware of how distressed he is, but his nervous system is activated. When the mother-son pair arrived at home, Matt's mom tells him to get started on his homework in tone that is a bit sharp. Mom is having a hard day too.
Matt says no to homework and says he wants to play on his iPad. Mom sets a boundary and states that he knows the rule, he has to do his homework before screen time. Whines quickly lead to a rude outburst and an outright refusal to do his homework. Matt can feel his face getting hot and tear welling up in his eyes. Matt yells at his mom, runs to his room and slams the door behind him.
Mom is feeling angry and baffled. What-just-happened? She may think he is manipulative and is blowing up because he did not get his iPad. She may think that she needs to be firmer and that he needs a punishment to learn better behavior. Yet this is not about the ipad and it is not about him getting what he wants. This is about nervous system regulation.
On the surface, it appears that her son had just become an angry and defiant little monster! She could storm into his room, raise her voice, lay down the law, and demand that Matt begin his homework RIGHT NOW. She could sternly remind Matt that he will not be allowed to play outside or enjoy screen time until all of homework is finished.
This won't work. Most likely, if mom does this, they will get into a power struggle, and the discord and distance will build up even more. Or perhaps he will comply with his mom, but it will come at a cost to their relationship, and they will miss a very valuable opportunity for Matt to talk about his struggles, feel his emotions, and receive compassionate support from his mom.
This is the point, where many parents, that are trying to shift from punishment-based parenting to relationship-focused parenting, get stuck. Yet there is a way for parents to navigate hard moments like this that is likely to elicit cooperation while also keeping the relationship intact.
Mom could look at Matt's outburst as a signal that something is going on inside of him that he is having difficulty with understanding, processing, feeling, and talking about. Matt's mom would see that he is having a hard time coping - with an issue (or multiple issues) in his life. Rather than focus on the behavior itself, she would seek to discover what is driving his behavior. She will begin by making sure she can get herself back into a space of balance and regulation. Once she is there, she will move toward her child with the aim to support them in regulating.
Notice that she is not going to scold, enforce consequences, lecture or treat him with disrespect. None of these things will help. They will only make his behavior worse or they will lead him into compliance that diminishes the relationship.
Punishing poor behavior assumes that children act out on purpose and that they are choosing to be difficult. Although this may happen from time to time, most of the time children do not choose to act poorly. Instead, poor behavior is a sign, a symptom, a signal that the child is experiencing difficulty with some aspect of his life. Looking at our children through this lens is the key to instilling behavior change while also increasing closeness within the parent-child relationship.
With this realization, Matt's mom will slow down, move toward connection and closeness, tap into her genuine compassion and empathy, and become curious. She will focus first and foremost on helping her child regulate. Different kids have different needs in this regard. Matt may respond to a hug, mom staying close, or being given the chance to talk about what is happening. Or, he may prefer some space, or a snack, or the chance to run around outside.
Once Matt is back into balance, mom can check in and ask if there is something bothering him. With this approach she is likely to get tears and an earful about the situations and events that are troubling Matt. And once Matt has gotten his troubles of his chest, feels heard, and re-connects to his mother, it is likely he will be ready to tackle homework.
Once he is regulated, mom will move into teaching mode and explain that all of his feelings are valid, and that she is always there for him as a sounding board, but it is not OK for him to whine, yell, slam doors, or have screen time before homework. The tone she uses when delivering this message is more likely to be received if mom is not judgmental, critical, and blaming. She will treat him with respect, because he is inherently worthy of respect, and it will make it more likely that the boundary is received.
This approach takes patience, time, and a willingness on the part of the parent to be open to exploring the child's inner world. Yet, it teaches children valuable skills such as emotional regulation and responsiveness, gives them the ability to reach for adults for help and guidance, models conflict resolution and assertiveness, and creates a strong internal model of healthy relationships.
Hi, I am Cristina Trette. I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the Founder of Integrative Family Therapy. I help others improve their most important relationships. If you have any comments or questions, please let me know in the comments box below.
Hello. I am Cristina Trette. I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. I help others create thriving relationships, joyful families, and vibrant wellbeing.