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Punishment Making Things Worse? Here’s 3 Reasons Why

“I’ve tried everything.” Disappointment and frustration flashed in her eyes. “And nothing works.” Her tone was defiant. Testing, even. But under it, there was fear.

Fear that this is her life. Forever.

After trying every strategy she’s heard of, and her child’s behaviour isn’t getting any better, can you blame her?

Do you ever feel that way?

If you do, know that you aren’t the only one. Know that you’re doing fantastic with the knowledge and skills you’ve got. And know that the reason things are hard right now is that no one’s told you that punishment isn’t the best way to deal with challenging behaviours.

Behaviour is NEVER the problem

We see behaviour, so we tend to think it’s our issue. If our child’s behaviour got better, life would be better. The truth is, behaviour is NEVER the problem. It’s a sign that something isn’t right.

When we’re happy, it’s easy to listen and do what other people want us to do. Humans are designed to try to make people happy. After all, one of our essential needs is to belong. To belong, we need people to like us.

However, when we’re unhappy, stressed, or scared, we go into Survival Mode. In Survival Mode, we’re focused on one: to do whatever we need to feel safe.

This usually means defeating whatever is threatening us.

To do this, we have three options:

  1. Fight: hitting, kicking, throwing, biting, etc.
  2. Flight: run away
  3. Freeze: avoid going anywhere, refuse to do anything, hide, stay still, cry, etc.

“But Cindy, there is no threat! I just told her no, or not right now.”

While not getting your own way, things not going as expected, or being asked to wait isn’t a life or death situation, it IS a threat to what you want. And for children, who don’t have the same impulse control, rational thinking, and emotional regulation skills that adults have, the threat is big enough to trigger Survival Mode.

It’s always about feelings, thoughts, and unmet needs

Our behaviour depends on how we’re feeling. How we feel depends on what we’re thinking. Think positive thoughts, you’ll experience feel-good emotions. Think non-positive thoughts, you’ll experience yucky-feeling emotions.

Our thoughts depend on whether our needs are met.

All humans have the same type of needs that must be met. For example, we all need to eat, drink and sleep. We all need to feel safe. We all need to feel loved and that we belong. We also need to feel we’re good at something. There are tons of needs, and what one person needs at any given time will be different from someone else.

Punishment focuses on stopping what we SEE – the behaviour.

This means the underlying feeling aren’t soothed, and the underlying needs aren’t met. The result?


Can you see how it’s taking us further away from the conditions that make “good” behaviour easy to engage in?

They need to learn!

The most common reason parents tell me they use punishment is because children need to learn how to behave.

Just so we’re all on the same page, punishment includes parenting strategies that withdraw attention (which is needed to feel loved), such as ignoring and time-out. It also includes strategies such as taking things and privileges away, as well as consequences.

It is 100% true that children have a lot to learn and that grown-ups are responsible for teaching them the skills needed to live their best lives. The problem with using punishment is that it doesn’t teach what we think it does!

Punishment teaches children:

I must avoid being punished

This might be by not doing the behaviour again, but it might also be by avoiding getting caught. Just because you don’t see your child engaging in the behaviour doesn’t mean they aren’t doing it! Let’s take smoking, for example. Your child doesn’t smoke at home, but they do when out with their friends. Has the smoking behaviour stopped? No! They just don’t do it in front of you. It looks like punishment worked, but it hasn’t. The behaviour is still happening.

If you child or teen always blames others or likes, it’s often because they’re trying to avoid punishment. Not quite the skill we want to teach them, is it?

Others have control over me

This plays out in two ways:

  1. One way is learning to act tougher, shout louder, dig their heels in more to keep some control. After all, no one likes to be controlled. Children are no different
  2. Another way is learning to look to others (e.g. you or teachers) to stop you from doing “naughty” things. We see punishment as a way to teach children to control their behaviours. But instead, you might end up hearing hear your child say things like, “Yeah, but he made me do it,” or “If she hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have done that.”

Some emotions (e.g. anger, frustration, fear, sadness, disappointment, etc.) aren’t acceptable, so I need to hide my big feelings

When we learn this, we’re more likely to struggle with anger and depression. We stuff our feelings down using food, TV, alcohol – anything that distracts us and makes us feel happier.

Over time, we become less able to cope with whatever life throws at us, and we’re not able to live our best lives.

Fear gets people what they want

The old saying, “Monkey See, Monkey Do,” applies so well to how children learn. Children learn from their experience, as well as from what parents do. So if they learn that fear can help you get your own way, what do you think they end up trying?

Often we punish the very same behaviour we are doing to our children: they yell, we yell back; They use force (hit, throw), you use force back (take away a privilege, put in a consequence).

I’m only lovable when I behave well

Love is a fundamental need.

When we love someone, we WANT to please them. We WANT to make them happy. We trust that they have our backs.

Punishment creates a divide between parents and children. When children feel they aren’t loved, they’re less likely to want to do what their parents want.

And so the negative cycle continues…

Hear something enough times, you start to believe it

I can guarantee you that no child (or teen) WANTS to get into trouble. They wish it was easy to do ‘the right thing’. But right now, they need support to make it easier for them to do the right thing.

Punishment DOES NOT support children. It frightens, shames, and makes them feel like they’re not as good as others. It also creates a sense of hopelessness, resentment and anger. And over time, it creates a feeling of, “What’s the point?”

That is NOT a stage we want our kids to get to. When they get to the “what’s the point” stage, they feel they have nothing to lose. So they might as well prove everyone right: They are a bad person who does bad things.

The cycle of bad behaviour keeps going. A self-fulfilling prophecy – you become what you think you are –  also gets created.

The great thing about self-fulfilling prophecies is that we can use them to work FOR us. Teach your child what you WANT them to do. Support them in learning the skills they need to become the best version of themselves.

Over time, the prophecy will come true. The negative behaviour will be a thing of the past.


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