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  • Writer's pictureDr. Luisa Bryce

The punishment pitfall: Why punishing your child is bound to backfire

Updated: Aug 22, 2019


Kids do some horrendous stuff. Flushing your wedding ring down the toilet, emptying the ENTIRE surplus size container of baby powder onto the new carpet, sneaking into the pantry and eating the whole, previously unopened bag of Pirate’s Booty…. the list is endless. It’s every parent’s first instinct to lay the punishment on thick when something like this happens.

However, contrary to popular belief, punishing your child will not stop the bad behavior. Punishment pitfalls go a little something like this: Your daughter hits her younger brother for taking her crayons. You punish your daughter for hitting by yelling, threatening, or spanking. Consequently, your daughter stops hitting immediately, but it’s short-lived because the punishment is only effective temporarily. Why? Because your kiddo stops the behavior out of fear of getting punished again. Sure, she may know that hitting is wrong, but she’s still frustrated with her younger brother. By punishing your daughter, you’ve let her know you don’t want her to hit, but you’ve done nothing to help her deal with feeling frustrated and you also haven’t let her know how you’d like her to act instead. Research demonstrates behavior stopped by punishment alone is very likely to resurface. So again your daughter hits, and again she is punished; only this time, the punishment is slightly harsher and longer lasting. And the vicious cycle begins. Punishment stops the bad behavior temporarily, only to have it return at a higher frequency, which leads to increasingly harsher and longer lasting punishments. Pretty soon you’re left with nowhere to go.

Punishment also has negative effects on your child including modeling unwanted behavior (hitting teaches hitting), increasing aggressive behavior at home, and paying attention to (and thus reinforcing) bad behavior. More importantly, punishment does not increase the chances that the behavior you want will occur, and it teaches your child nothing about alternative, more desirable behaviors. For example, if you yell at your daughter when she hits her younger brother, she’s learning that when she hits her brother, you pay attention. Yeah, yelling is negative attention, but nonetheless, it’s attention. For younger kiddos especially, negative attention is better than being ignored.

Punishment DOES communicate to your child that you want her to stop doing something. That being said, mild punishment can be effective when paired with a positively reinforced alternative behavior. For example, let’s say 4-year-old Leah has just hit her 2-year-old brother for taking her crayons while she is attempting to color. Immediately you say something to the effect of “Leah, do not hit your brother. We don’t hit in our house” (mild punishment). Then you say “I really LOVE it when you show your brother how to share. Can you show me how you teach him to share?” (positively reinforced alternative behavior). Make a huge deal out of Leah modeling sharing behavior and offer lots of specific praise (e.g. “Wow Leah! Great sharing! You are really showing your brother how to be such a good sharer!”). Children love praise and so it’s highly likely Leah will be more likely to repeat this behavior in the future. Teaching little Leah how to cope with frustration and anger is also essential. Another alternative way to handle the situation is to say something like “Leah, I can tell you are really frustrated. I don’t like it when people snatch my things either but we don’t hit in our house. What’s a better way you for you to get your crayons back?” (validation of Leah’s emotions and encouraging/teaching effective, non-aggressive problem solving)

Keep in mind, pairing mild punishment with a positively reinforced alternative behavior will likely need to be implemented several times before the behavior you want (e.g. sharing) occurs without the behavior you don’t want (e.g. hitting). And remember, consistency is key.

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