Parents often struggle with how to discipline their children. Trying to balance what feels right to you as a parent with the opinions of others, your own experience as a child, and what social media advertises can be extremely overwhelming and confusing. I often hear parents confess that they desire their children to follow orders and not ask questions, because that type of obedience certainly would lessen stress. The “Do as I say, or else” mindset. However, while this type of authoritarian parenting may elicit “obedient” children in the short-term, research consistently suggests that children who are shamed or punished in the name of discipline face challenges in the long-term. Findings indicate that children who are harshly disciplined or shamed tend to lack independence, confidence, resilience, positive coping skills, and are more fearful. Overall, they tend to be less happy in their lives, have diminished problem solving skills, and grow up to be more likely to engage in substance use and experience mental health issues as adults and adolescents.
Why? Because absolutely no one grows and thrives from being shamed or having their emotions invalidated. Unfortunately, an authoritarian parental approach often does just that: invalidates and shames children for their feelings, which is why research shows that punishing and shaming kids prompts more misbehavior.
Understanding Problem Behaviors
Let’s consider what problem behavior often truly represents by first understanding what it does not mean:
It does not mean:
· I’m manipulating you.
· I need you to immediately meet every need that I am yelling at you right now.
· I need you to punish me.
· I hate you.
· You’re a bad parent.
· I’m a bad child.
What it does mean:
· I’m overwhelmed.
· I’m trying to tell you about a need I have.
· I’m possibly hungry, tired, overwhelmed, lonely, hurt, or angry and I haven’t learned how to cope with that yet.
· I need to learn a new way to express emotion and don’t know how to ask for help.
· My brain can’t understand you when I’m feeling this much emotion.
· I’m watching how you respond to my big emotions, so I know how to respond to them next time.
· I love you and feel safe with you.
Understanding the function of your child’s behavior is vitally important in order to respond in a way that is meaningful and healthy. However, as a rule of thumb, a parent should always connect with their kiddo before redirecting, correcting, or punishing them. Whether we understand or agree with a child’s emotional outburst, the emotions are real. Your child is feeling a strong emotion that needs to be addressed, not shamed or dismissed. As adults, we tend to become defensive, angry, or hurt when others tell us not to feel a certain way, instruct us to “get over it,” or tell us to do something without explanation and children are no different.
Consider this Scenario
You’re completely swamped at home, your child was sick all weekend, and you show up to work already exhausted and overwhelmed. Your boss comes in asking you to add some additional tasks onto your already overloaded to do list. While you manage to get the work done, it’s clearly not up to your usual standards and you know you could have done better; however, lack of sleep and stress at home has interfered with your work performance. Upon reviewing the work, your boss angrily enters your office and yells, “What is this!? My kindergartner can do better than this! If you don’t have this entire thing redone by tomorrow, you’re FIRED!”
How does that interaction make you feel? You already felt awful and now you’ve just had a nice dose of shame to fuel your negative mood. You may fix the work out of sheer fear of losing your job, and maybe you’ll never turn in that level of work again; however, did your boss’ response help address the root of the problem? No. His angry, punitive response made you feel insignificant, misunderstood, and angry. Both at yourself and at him.
Now consider this:
Same scenario, except after you hand in the work, your boss knocks on your door and asks if he can come in and talk with you for a moment. He sits down and explains that he was surprised that it wasn’t up to your normal standards. He asks if everything is okay and genuinely seems concerned. You explain that you’ve had some recent issues at home, and you’ve been a bit overwhelmed. Your boss listens attentively and empathizes, saying how sorry he is to hear that you’ve been having a rough time. He explains that you’ll have to stay late to revise the work but suggests that you take a personal day to care for your child and rest.
How do you feel? Seen, heard and understood. Relieved. Cared for. You stay late and work extra hard to fix the work. You turn it in with confidence and head home feeling less anxious and empowered.
Shame Leads to Disconnection, Fear and Anger
While dealing with negative behavior from our child—a huge meltdown over a toy they can’t live without, or some action we think they should “know better” than to do—we may instinctively react with shame and punishment, thanks to how prevalent this disciplinary reaction is in our culture. But shame and punishment never result in lasting or positive change. It may seem like the easy way out to yell at our kids, to send them to time out, to shame them with our words and punish them with our actions. But this only disconnects us, creates fear and anger in our children and lessens our influence on them. We do not need to punish our kids to teach them a lesson, just as we don’t need to be punished in order to shift our behavior.
Try This Instead…
So, how do children learn to behave, cope, and problem solve?
· They learn through our modeling.
· They learn through connection, love and compassion.
· They learn through being seen, heard and understood.
· They learn through consistent and firm limits.
· They learn through guidance.
Decades of research shows us that overly strict parenting and punishment are not effective long-term. We can set limits and have high expectations for our children while also tuning into their emotional needs. Positive reinforcement, emotional connections, and modeling positive behaviors can be utilized while also setting boundaries. Shifting our perception of problem behavior from a child needing punishment to understanding that problem behavior is simply a cry for help leads to creating a happy, healthy, well-adjusted child and home.
Next time your child acts out, instead of reacting with shame or punishment, try getting down on their level and connect with him by saying something like, “I see you’re frustrated and upset,” then giving them a hug. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the outcome. During an emotional outburst, connecting with the child is the main priority. Later, after the child is calm, there can be discussions regarding appropriate behaviors, use of calming skills, and the meaning of being respectful. You can’t learn calculus while in the midst of an anxiety attack just like your child cannot learn deep breathing while their heart is broken over their stolen toy.