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Should You Punish Your Child?

Embark Behavioral Health
June 17, 2021

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the way you respond to your child’s behavior can have a lasting effect, shaping how the child thinks, acts, feels, and engages with others long into adulthood. Therefore, it’s imperative that you develop effective strategies to address behaviors and teach them to control their reactions to avoid harm or negative consequences. 

How to Stop Bad Behavior  

As parents, we can work to put an end to bad behavior — and it starts with not calling it “bad” behavior in the first place. 

“Instead, think of it as maladaptive or unproductive behavior,” says Chief Clinical Officer for Embark Behavioral Health, Rob Gent, M.A., LPC. “It’s an indicator that something is happening emotionally. Behavior is telling us a story.”  

Children do well when they can. If a child is demonstrating maladaptive behavior, we need understand the ways a child is doing his best, and what might be preventing him from doing better. Often, the unproductive behavior is being used to signal ways a child may be struggling. As a parent, it’s essential for you to try to read between those lines.  

Maladaptive behaviors could include: 

  • Lying 
  • Stealing 
  • Truancy 
  • Substance use 
  • Too much screen time 

No matter what the action might be, these behaviors might become barriers for connection and relationship with your child. Ironically enough, the most common underlying emotional issue driving the maladaptive behaviors is a desire for relationship and connection.  

Dr. Brian Daniels, Clinical Director for Embark’s Northwoods Wilderness Therapy program in Wisconsin, says, “It is important to step back and ask yourself, ‘What need are they trying to get met?  What’s going on?’ This approach allows us to increase connection and understanding –children are seeking ways to make sense of their worlds.”   

Many times, these negative behaviors are maladaptive attempts to fulfill an emotional need, usually one rooted in relationship. Because these behaviors are also a barrier for connection, when not addressed in a thoughtful way,  parents may misunderstand the underlying issue (connection), and respond in a way that inhibits the connection the behavior was attempting to create, thus unintentionally reinforcing the very behavior they are trying to diminish. 

Understanding your child’s behavior starts with understanding what they’re experiencing emotionally, developmentally, or psychologically, because that’s what’s driving the behavior. Your best course of action is listening, encouraging them to share, and creating time to connect with your teen (If you need help on how to do this productively, explore our helpful guide on how to listen to your teen). [links to post that’s not yet published] 

What Is the Role of Punishment and Rewards in Parenting? 

Gent recommends, as a parent, asking yourself how effective punishment and rewards have been in the past. Have they had a long-term, positive effect? Chances are, your answer is “no.” He adds, “Punishment is loaded with the presupposition that your teen has the cognitive ability to contemplate and weigh out disconnected consequences.” 

What does this mean, precisely? Punishments are often a disconnected, imposed consequence of some sort of behavior. Our children won’t necessarily make the connection between, say, losing their temper and punching a wall and having dessert taken away for a week. After all, what does dessert have to do with their anger?  

Punishment assumes the child has all of the tools and resources to make healthy decisions and that the child is simply choosing not to. Remember, kids do we well when they can. If they aren’t doing well, it is because they can’t, at least not all the time.  

“Punishment doesn’t work with people who have shame and low self-esteem — they actually feel like they should be punished,” adds Gent as a caution. 

Rewards are similar. They’re not directly linked to the action and don’t reinforce the outcome of the positive behavior, such as having built trust or showing responsibility. Luckily, some tools are far more effective. 

How to Use Consequences and Privileges to Parent 

“Life should be about the positive and negative natural consequences, logical consequences, and relational consequences,” explains Gent.  

Let’s explore this idea in the context of the example of a teen punching the wall: 

  • Natural consequence: Their hand hurts. 
  • Relational consequence: Others may not feel very safe around them. 
  • Logical consequence: The teen’s temper is not in control right now, and they may endanger themselves. Therefore, they should not drive and won’t be able to get the car keys until they’re calm. 

It’s not a punishment to not allow the teen to drive in that moment — it’s a consequence. This also mimics adult life where we bear the consequences of our actions, which are products of our independent choices.  

On the flip side, look at rewards through the lens of privileges. For example, when you have trust in your relationship, natural and logical privileges should stem from that connection. In the same example above, if the teen repairs the connection and trust returns, they could get more driving privileges, like more time to use the car. 

“It’s actually not a reward. Because, often when you get the carrot, you always have to have the stick — rewards are accompanied by punishment,” explains Gent. Privilege, on the other hand, is a reflection of relational trust and connection. 

How to Ensure Your Teen Learns from Their Actions 

When we look at it developmentally, children and teens go through an integrative process as they grow, where cognitive learning is connected to the emotional experience. So instead of focusing on the lesson you want your child to learn, think about their holistic development, where they discover they have value and a sense of self to give them resiliency. 

Teaching a lesson is linear and one-dimensional. Instead, look at learning as multi-dimensional by adding the context of the multiple impacts of their actions, which will help your teen develop the cognitive and emotional skills they need to succeed. 

The purpose of discipline to help children learn self-discipline 

Giving a child a consequence may or may not help them learn the skills needed. Remember our teen punching the wall? We articulated natural, relational, and logical consequences. However, be careful not assume that the consequence will teach the required skills.  

For example, not allowing your teen to drive until he is calm is a logical and reasonable consequence. However, on its own, this does not actually teach the teen the skills of self-regulation, or how to calm down. To the child, this consequence may feel loaded with judgement and assumption from the parent, which increases shame.  

Similarly, consequences that are designed to only be aversive can be shaming as well, as they assume the child could have done better, they just chose not to.  The child is left to figure out on their own how to manage, but if the child could do that in the first place, the negative behavior wouldn’t have happened. The message sent to the child is that they “should just know” how to do well, and it may inhibit them asking for help and continue the their distress and negative behaviors.  

In this example, a practiced parent will set clear boundaries on activities their child can do until they can be safe. Additionally, the parent might say, “I see you need to be calm before you can drive, so how about you and I go for a walk so I can better understand what is bothering you?” In this case, the parent was clear about the consequences and understands there is an underlying emotional need.  

Pay Attention to Indicators 

Maladaptive or unproductive behavior can be an indicator that something bigger is going on with your teen. Examples of indicators of distress, anxiety, and depression can include: 

  • Isolation 
  • Truancy 
  • Getting in trouble at school 
  • Substance use 

“If there’s withdrawal from the connection and relationship, that’s certainly a sign that something’s going on,” says Gent. When this happens, follow these steps on how to connect with your teen when they’re upset or emotional: 

  1. Use playfulness to diffuse a negative state or encourage a more receptive environment. 
  2. Start the conversation from a place of curiosity and attention, using statements like “I’m curious — how do you feel about that upcoming test?” and “I noticed that you’re not hanging out with Alex anymore. Would you like to talk about it?” (Avoid close-ended questions that can be simply answered with “yes” or “no” if possible.) 
  3. Consider their emotional experience and use first-person language to assess how they might be feeling, such as saying, “If I am you, frustration feels like _____.” Doing this ensures they know they’re not alone. 

“It’s not just about playing whack-a-mole and stopping the behavior,” explains Gent. “Emotions drive behaviors, so we need to understand their emotional state and create time to connect with our teen,” he concludes. 

These tactics can build trust and enable you to communicate with each other to solve problems and strengthen your relationship. We’d love to hear how they worked out for you! Let us know on Instagram if you gave them a try. 

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of mental health treatment centers, for young people, that is dedicated to reversing the trends of anxiety, depression and suicide by 2028. Our therapists are experts at engaging with teens and helping entire families heal and rebuild.