Written by Emma Hogg;
Emma graduated with a degree in Psychology and is now in her final few months of training at the Gestalt Psychotherapy Training Institute Malta. She has worked at schools with young children and their parents and now works in private practice as a psychotherapist in training. Currently, she mostly works with adults and adolescents, helping them cope with experiences such as anxiety, low mood, career difficulties, relationship struggles, self-esteem, and grief.
She shares her love for psychology with us on her website, A Life I Choose. She encourages her readers to be in tune with themselves and take ownership over their lives. She also practices yoga, mindfulness and gratitude.
How to discipline kids: Punishment is OUT, Empathy is IN!
Dear Mothers & Mothers-in-becoming,
Today I’d like to speak to you about what the most up-to-date research is teaching us about disciplining children. I’ll explain why punishment doesn’t work. And I’ll show you how to discipline your child through modelling emotional-regulation and using empathy.
What is the purpose of disciplining children?
We discipline so children will learn the difference between behaviour that is good and bad. We discipline so they will grow to be responsible, honest adults, capable of making good decisions.
The word “discipline” means “to guide”, yet we associate disciplining with punishment. To punish is to introduce an unpleasurable consequence to an action, with the hope of teaching that the behaviour is not acceptable. Some of the most common punishments given to young children are time-outs, spanking, and the removal of something the child enjoys (such as tv or chocolate).
Why do we punish children?
We punish because it’s the parenting method we are most familiar with. We learnt it from our parents, we learnt it in school, and we see other parents teach their children in this way. It seems to be the most popular method for teaching.
The research agrees that punishment works to stop the behaviour in the moment, but what we’re finding is that it doesn’t work to teach children long-term.
Children typically “misbehave” because they are emotionally stimulated. They feel jealous of the attention their sister is receiving and they hit. Or they want to go to a friends house, you say no, they feel upset and throw a tantrum. Children do not behave inappropriately because they are naughty or mean-spirited. A child’s limbic system is much more developed than their frontal cortex. This means that their emotions are much stronger than their ability to reason. Their frontal cortexes only begin to develop when they are toddlers and this is just the beginning. It takes until adulthood for it to be fully-developed (around late 20s).
How do the emotional processes of children relate to punishment?
Children need us most when they misbehave. Their behaviour signals that they are in distress and don’t know what to do about it. They need us to tune into their experience, to empathise with them, and to soothe them.
When we punish, we stop ourselves from understanding our children. Our child hits her brother out of anger, and we send her to the corner to think of what she’s done. In the corner, she doesn’t think of the consequences of her behaviour; her brain doesn’t have the ability to do that yet. The time-out doesn’t teach her that it’s okay to feel angry but that we shouldn’t hit. Instead, she learns that when she’s angry she has to deal with it on her own. She feels rejected and desperate for us to accept her again. She says sorry, but there’s distance between us now. She doesn’t trust us quite as much. She’s learnt that she’s not acceptable when she experiences unpleasant feelings and this confuses and upsets her.
Left with more unpleasant feelings, the child is more likely to act out again. She doesn’t feel understood, and we know from our own experiences, that when we don’t feel understood we feel terrible emotions, and we become more likely to act out too.
So how can I discipline my children? They need to have limits.
If this is your question right now, you are 100% right, they do need limits. A child without limits is also going to behave inappropriately because there is no one guiding them. Their emotions can make them do anything, and this brings about feelings of unsafety. When we are too rigid though, our children learn to fear us, and I’m sure that’s really not what you want.
There are 3 guidelines that we can use to discipline our children:
1) Regulate our emotions
To teach our children not to let their feelings get the better of them, they need to see us regulate our emotions. If our children see us shout and scream, they will definitely do the same. We need to teach them that emotions happen. We feel different things and not all of our feelings are enjoyable. But emotions have a purpose: they guide us, they tell us how we feel in response to the world around us. If we listen to our emotions, we can set boundaries for ourselves – “I am okay with this, I am not okay with that”. So, through us regulating our own emotions, our children learn how to listen to their emotions and this enables them to self-discipline; choosing what behaviours they feel are okay, and which one’s aren’t.
Children who are punished don’t learn to regulate their emotions. Instead they’re taught that their emotions are unacceptable. Lacking the skills to notice their emotions and learn from them, they typically end up making impulsive, less responsible decisions.
2) Nourish your connection
Children are more likely to behave well because they don’t want to disappoint a parent they feel close to. Research has shown that teenage girls are less likely to lose their virginity at a young age if they feel safely bonded to their mothers. This is not because they fear her punishment, but because they know they are accepted by her. If a child knows deep down that she is accepted even when she is behaving badly, she doesn’t need to seek love elsewhere. A parent can foster this connection over time, by listening, empathising, soothing, and lovingly correcting their child.
Children who are punished learn that they cannot go to their parents with their troubling feelings. They learn that their parents shame them when they act out, so the child ultimately feels worse. This damages the bond between parent and child. They may seem to share a secure connection from the outside, but the child learns that they are only acceptable if they behave as desired. This could lead to a teen/adult who is disconnected from their emotions and maybe even hides certain aspects of themselves out of fear of disapproval.
3) Be your child’s behaviour coach
We are all more receptive to teaching when it comes from love, as opposed to punishment. I’m sure we can all remember a parent or teacher shouting at us and our brains blanking out. No one is able to process new information when they are in a stressful state.
If you want your child to learn that what they’re doing is unacceptable, you must first:
1) Acknowledge their feelings. “I saw you hit your brother. You must be feeling angry that he took your teddy.”
2) Soothe & empathise. “I understand, I feel angry when people take my stuff without asking too. But it happens sometimes.”
3) Lovingly correct the behaviour. “I see that you are angry, but it is not okay to hit people. If you are angry use your words instead, “I feel angry when you take my toys without asking. Please don’t do it again.” If this is difficult, come and tell mummy, I’ll help you use your words next time.”
When you stay calm, you child calms down because they don’t have to fight you. And when they are calm, they can learn.
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When children internalise the message that they are accepted even when they misbehave, they can rest in the assurance that they are good people who learn from their mistakes. People who believe they are good are more likely to make good decisions.
I invite you to try this informed method of disciplining your children.
Emma Hogg B.Psy (Hons)