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You Can’t Punish Your Child into Behaving Better

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You Can’t Punish Your Child into Behaving Better

Many parents seek out help due to their child not complying with requests they make of them. Often these children are defiant or oppositional. These parents have tried numerous ways of changing their child’s behavior often with very little success. By the time they come to me, they are looking for what I call the “magic consequence”. This is the consequence that if applied correctly will make their child’s oppositional behavior disappear and instead replace it with obedience to whatever the parent asked of the child.

Let me tell you right now – – there isn’t a magic consequence.

In fact many parents I work with, despite what is ever said to them, still want to continue to believe this.

I understand. On some level there is a desire to have a “quick fix”. Something that will work almost every time you use it. Much like putting a key in the ignition and turning on the engine.

If children were only so simple….

In fact, children are complex beings and there is a lot that goes into whether requests by parents are followed or not.

I’m here to tell you, coming up with bigger and better consequences for your child’s behavior will not work in the long run to change their behavior. This has to do with the very nature of punishment.

Technically, punishment is the addition of a negative event that reduces the likelihood of a behavior occurring. In small doses, it can help to alter behavior. For instance, if a child is reaching for a hot stove, it is not unusual for the parent to quickly pull a child’s arm away and say in a loud voice “No touching the stove!” This negative event may make it less likely the child will reach for the hot stove again.

Let me lay out the trap for you though that can occur with punishment that is done with increasing frequency and intensity.

1. Its effects are temporary. That is, it stops the child’s behavior only briefly, so that the same behavior will show up again once the punishment is lifted or the punisher is not around.

I like to think of this a bit like getting a traffic ticket for speeding. Most of us in the time immediately following a ticket become very cautious about the speed we drive. Soon, it does not take long for the effects of the speeding ticket to wear off. We are often then driving close to the same speeds we were before we first got the ticket. We often go back to what is “typical” for us.

In parenting, punishment may work briefly to stop a behavior, but many children will become more secretive or lie to avoid being punished.

2. Punishment doesn’t teach the child any new behaviors.

This is one of the biggest drawbacks of punishment. If a child does not have the skill set to produce the desired behavior, continuing to punish the child for the behavior will not automatically help him learn the skill. We want the focus to be on helping the child develop the skills necessary to manage situations they are being punished for. For instance, if a child is getting in trouble for fighting with other peers, they may not possess the skill of learning how to share more effectively. Or they may be dealing with not being able to verbalize what they are upset about so they turn to physical aggression.

When your child is getting in trouble for some behavior they are exhibiting, ask yourself “What skill would they need to have to stop engaging in this problem behavior?” Once you discover that answer, make sure you are teaching your child that skill on a regular basis until they master it.

3. Children build up a tolerance to pain that can cause punishment to escalate to the point of becoming abusive (name-calling, slapping, hitting).

I see the impact of this on a regular basis in my office. Parents often report that matter how big the consequence they use with their child it doesn’t seem to be effective in changing the child’s behavior.

This is where parents often escalate themselves in their interactions with their child hoping that these negative interactions will produce more positive behavior by their child. They rarely do.

Couple that with the child who says the parent “I don’t care what you do. It doesn’t bother me” and you will likely have a recipe for intense conflict between the parent and the child.

There was a family I worked with where the parents were at their wits end regarding the child. They had basically removed anything from the child’s room except a bed and a dresser. This child was then frequently grounded to his room for long periods of time with the hope that the boredom and the lack of access to fun activities would somehow cause the child to be better behaved.

The father told me this soon after beginning therapy with me. He further said “I knew we were defeated when I went into his room and he had developed small characters made from gum wrappers. He was playing with these, despite all the other things we had taken away”.

Here was a child who had relied on his creativity to overcome the punishment that his parents thought would help him listen to them better.

4. Punishment leads to escape conditioning, whereby the child looks for any means to avoid the punishment, which sometimes leads to desperate actions, including aggression.

This is it related to number three above. In trying to create bigger and more impactful consequences, I see children up the level of aggression when desired activities are taken away from them. I see this around the use of phone or other electronics. The child becomes more escalated and reacts with either physical aggression or more outrageous behavior to stop the removal of these desired activities.

I had a mother who would respond to misbehavior by the child by removing videogames he liked to play with. He would retaliate then by taking something of mother saying that she won’t be able get back until he got his games back.

Without more support, this mother had difficulty being able to enforce limits with her child since he so quickly escalated when consequences were put in place.

The key to overcoming some of these limits with consequences is to make sure that you are addressing not only how you are responding to negative behavior, but what your plan is on how you will reinforce the behavior you want to see from your child. Reinforcing the desired behavior you want from your child is far more impactful over time than consequencing non-desired behavior from them.

So here’s a quick recap:

1. You can’t punish your kid into better behavior.

2. Avoid over utilizing consequences to change your child’s behavior.

3. Make sure you teach skills rather than just punish.

4. Excessive punishment can create more defiance and/or aggression not less.

5. Focus more on rewarding the behavior you want to see and not on punishing the behavior you don’t want to see.

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