Wondering how to discipline a child without hitting? Which is better, to discipline or punish? Not sure how to handle the situation? Discipline of children is undoubtedly the most unpleasant aspect of parenting. It’s aggravating, demoralizing, and draining. It’s one of parenthood’s most prevalent and difficult problems which affects children’s behavioral health. However, there is a distinction to be made between discipline and punishment. Let’s look at this from a different perspective.
Read Time: 20 min
There is a quote by Stephen Covey that has helped me through many a parenting struggle and it is one that I share with all of my clients. “Begin with the end in mind.”
What is the long-term goal that you have as a parent? I think that most people, myself included, would say that they would like their child to grow up to be happy, productive, and kind contributors to society AND we would like to have a great relationship with our kids throughout their life. With that end in mind, it helps us shape a strategy for how we parent from the beginning.
Have you ever considered the following:?
“What are ways to discipline a child without hitting?”
“How can we discipline children while still being able to maintain a mutually respectful relationship? – I’m not talking about permissive parenting here.
We’ll look at which disciplinary tactics work, and which do not work in this post.
We’ll also look at four excellent methods for disciplining kids:
- reshape the behavior of your kids, with cooperation
- help them develop their own personalities
- safeguard their mental well-being, and
- aid in the development of a deep bond with them
What’s the best part?
There will be no nagging, yelling, threatening, or punishing any longer.
So, let’s get this party started.
Punishment vs. Discipline
Here is the definition that Dictionary.com gives for Discipline: Most of it makes me want to cry. I am including these definitions to make a point. Is this really what we want for our children?
Let’s look at our children’s behavioral health. Many individuals use the terms punishment and discipline interchangeably. They are not, however, synonyms. Discipulus is derived from the Latin words disciplina (teaching, learning, or instruction) and disciplina (teaching, learning, or instruction) (disciple, pupil).
To discipline is to instruct. To instruct is to demonstrate and explain how to perform a task. It is not necessary to punish in order to instruct or teach. Discipline is the process of teaching someone to follow rules or a code of conduct in order for them to adopt a desirable future behavior.
Punishment is the act of inflicting pain on someone as a result of their previous actions.
The distinction between punishment and discipline is more than just semantics. A difference in how a child’s brain reacts to them exists as well. While punishment may get you the immediate change of behavior, it is ineffective and damaging over the long term of our children’s behavioral health. It is actually detrimental to the brain.
Parents, don’t we want our children to have healthy brains? Children’s brain develops in several stages, with each stage being highly specific, often requiring a different parenting approach towards children. As you’ll find out soon, punishment is never the answer.
Continue reading to learn why and how punishment harms our children’s brains, as well as what to do to modify or correct behaviors when necessary.
Punishment vs. Discipline: What Evidence Shows
Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, conducted a famous classical conditioning experiment. Many of you know this already. When a dog was being fed, it salivated. As a result, Pavlov devised an experiment. He rang a bell whenever he gave food to his dogs. He rang the bell on its own after several repetitions of this method.
The dog’s salivation increased as a result of the bell on its own. This experiment revealed that the dog had learned to correlate the bell with food, resulting in the formation of a new behavior. This is what is referred to as classical conditioning. The bell started off as a neutral stimulus, but over time it evolved into a conditioned stimulus. It was a conditioned reflex that caused the salivation.
Based on this finding, it appears reasonable to argue that if a negative consequence is connected with an undesirable action, a dog, or even a child, will eventually learn to adopt the desired behavior rather than the undesirable conduct based on the fear of negative consequences.
Isn’t this idea intriguing? Is this hypothesis, however, applicable to human children? Yes, but there’s more to it than that. It has to do with the human brain, as you would have imagined.
What happens in the brain?
The human brain, according to neurologists, is divided into three areas.
The three areas of the brain are:
#1. Without our conscious effort, the reptilian brain controls physical systems such as respiration, heartbeat, digestion, fight or flight response, and other survival functions.
#2. Fear, fury, separation anxiety, loving, nurturing, and other strong emotions are controlled by the mammalian brain, often known as the emotional brain.
#3. Learning, reasoning, problem-solving, decision-making, and sophisticated thinking all take place in the human brain, commonly known as the thinking brain.
The distinction between discipline and punishment is as follows:
The thinking brain is activated by discipline, but the emotional brain is activated by punishment which in turn leaves a footprint on children’s behavioral health later in life.
The Brain and Fear
What is the human brain’s reaction to fear? Let’s imagine you’re out hiking in the woods and a gigantic animal suddenly leaps out in front of you. What would you do in this situation?
If you’re like most people, you’d take a step back without even thinking about it. Then you see it’s just a playful and friendly dog when you get a closer look. So, now that you’ve made this conscious decision, you may relax.
Here’s what goes on in your head:
Without going through the thinking brain, danger sets off an alarm (and terror) in our emotional brain. Because you can’t afford to contemplate when you’re in danger! Cortisol, a stress hormone, is released to prepare the body to fight back or flee (or jump back) swiftly.
This is known as the fight-or-flight response. All of this happens without having to think about what to do next. Human survival depends on this system. This is the polyvagal nervous system in action. Let’s tie it all together now.
The Brain and Punishment
Punishment is a form of coercive discipline based on fear. Frequent dread is also bad for the brain. But here’s the deal:
Children, particularly toddlers and preschoolers, are naturally interested. They are both ambitious and courageous. This is the time in their lives when everything is new, and they are in exploration mode. They don’t, however, have a lot of experience with safety.
They are baffled as to why they are supposed to act in an expected and certain way. They also don’t follow the logic very well as that thinking portion of their brain hasn’t fully formed yet. As a result, many parents use fear or coercive techniques to discipline their children, such as corporal punishment, time-outs, yelling, or berating. They also try to reason with the child and use logic, which doesn’t register for the kids, again because this area of the brain isn’t fully formed and all that talking makes them even more amped up.
It’s important to note that fear isn’t limited to penalties. The threat of punishment can also make children fearful. Let me make a distinction here. The threat of punishment is different from well communicated consequences. Again, punishment is often physical or yelling and affects the psyche by intentionally inflicting fear or pain. Consequences are like removing something that the child cherishes for a specific amount of time or not getting a privilege, like watching a movie or not getting dessert.
When parents use punishment, they hope that by instilling terror in their children, they can train them to forsake the undesirable habit and adopt the desired one, like how a dog is trained to learn a new trick. The term for this is operant conditioning.
The fact remains that frequent worry or being in a chronic state of fear can wreak havoc on a children’s behavioral health in a variety of ways that will be described as you read on.
#1. MENTAL ILLNESS
The emotional brain takes over when the fight-or-flight mechanism is activated, while the reasoning brain is turned off. See also the article on Tantrums to learn more about the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain and how the amygdala can hi-jack the reasoning brain.
In the emotional area of the brain is where distinct memories are produced and kept separate from normal memory, specifically when the incident is life-threatening or generates severe dread. This form of exceptional memory is permanently carved in our minds, making us miserable so that we will avoid it in the future. As a result, that fear has the ability to condition us to modify our habits throughout our life. This is where stories that we tell ourselves in our mind are formed and limiting beliefs take root.
Later in life, this form of fear-conditioned memory is what causes mental problems like depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Because the construction (and recall) of this memory does not require permission from our thinking brain, it is difficult to prevent negative mental consequences because these patterns of thought are easily accessed and played on repeat in our mind.
Being severely reprimanded may not look to parents to be a life-or-death circumstance, but these emotions play over and over in our minds and the emotions can bury themselves deep in the tissues of our body and linger, sometimes over the whole lifetime. If there is a similar trigger or situation that happens when they are older, they may immediately be transported back to how they felt as a kid when their parents lashed out at them.
We may be able to physically recover quickly if we are hit or yelled at, but the emotional wounds linger. We can turn to friends, divert our attention to other things, or simply avoid seeing that person when we are older, but as a toddler, our parents are our world. We rely on them for safety and security. If the child is fearful of their parents, they have no foundation for stability, security, or safety. Their foundation will be shaky for the rest of their life, or until they are able to process through the fact that they actually are a good person.
Let’s not forget that, from a child’s perspective, grownups appear physically enormous, almost as if they are giants.
Harsh treatment by parents or caregivers can, and frequently does, feel life-threatening to children.
#2. ELEVATION OF STRESS HORMONE
When a child feels chronic fear, the child’s stress hormone levels (cortisol) become persistently raised, resulting in major health concerns including, but not limited to:
- brain shrinkage,
- memory and learning difficulties
- a suppressed immune system
- anxiety disorder
#3. DYSREGULATION OF EMOTION
Because a child who is repeatedly punished (or threatened with punishment) is always in an unsettled condition, the child’s fight-or-flight response is easily triggered, even while they are experiencing minor frustration.
When this happens, the emotional brain takes over and the amygdala acts as the “baby gate” not allowing any involvement from the thinking brain leading to the child acting out or having uncontrollable outbursts. The child physically can’t successfully control their emotions.
Research shows that on-going or repeated harsh discipline or punishment causes kids to have poor emotional regulation and engage in more impulsive violent conduct.
Self-control and emotional regulation are two of the most crucial abilities that young children should develop. It is so important for a parent to help their child learn how to self-regulate. There are neurological limitations depending on age and brain development stages, based on how the brain develops, but it’s never too early to start modeling how to regulate our emotions and learn how to self-soothe.
If parents are severe with their children whenever the child makes a mistake, the child will learn to be harsh with others when they make mistakes. Sometimes the kids even begin to think that they are terrible human beings for making a mistake or having an accident and will begin to self-loathe. Spilled milk happens. They are just learning to use their bodies and it takes practice. Sometimes things get knocked over by accident.
Here are two different ways that you can respond:
- You can say, “oops, that just happened, here is a towel, can you please help me clean it up?”
- You can yell at them for spilling their milk again and make them feel like they can’t do anything right.
What is the message you want your child to take away?
#4. INFLUENCE IN BOTH DIRECTIONS
When a child’s “bad” behavior causes or magnifies a parent’s negative reaction, the child’s response is also caused or amplified by the parent’s punitive reaction.
The effects are reciprocal. The actions of a child and the reaction of his or her parents can feed one another, spiraling into even more disarray.
The severity of the punishment may escalate to the point of being abusive when things get out of control. You, as the parent, need to recognize this “rising thermometer” before it gets out of hand. You are the adult, and your brain is fully formed. Anchor yourself into an ability to start calming yourself, de-escalate the situation, and become the safe harbor for your child and help them start to regulate.
#5. BEHAVIOR THAT IS INTERNALIZED
Several studies have demonstrated that harsh or punitive penalties, particularly those involving physical punishment, can lead to future hostility in children, even if they temporarily stop the unwelcomed behaviors. They are stopping the behavior but may be building up resentment internally. As previously mentioned, this resentment and buildup of emotion doesn’t just go away. It’s a seed that once planted and grows and grows until it bursts out at some point.
#6. BECOME VICTIMS AND/OR BULLIES
Children’s behavior health is affected as those who are severely punished may grow up to be bullies or victims of bullies.
When parents use fear to modify their children’s behavior, they are showing how to intimidate others by using superior positions or strength. They are normalizing abusive behavior or making it seem acceptable. When these kids go to school, some of them will start to bully other kids who they perceive to be weaker. Often the kids that they target have qualities or characteristics that they see in themselves and are projecting their anger and frustration.
The children have sometimes felt unable to escape or change events because of their parents’ actions. If these kids grow up to be in violent situations, they are conditioned to feel powerless and often will not leave the situation causing them fear or pain.
#7. ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE SUFFERS
The University of Michigan’s longest-running longitudinal Panel study, which began in 1968, exposes the link between severe punishment and children’s school achievement.
Researchers discovered that houses that are heavily punitive, such as punishing, lecturing, or restricting activities (that are otherwise unrelated to academic studies), are linked to lower academic attainment than homes with warm parent-child connections and those that use discipline as guidance.
The sequence of psychological events that lead to a disciplined child’s growth is a lengthy one. Classical conditioning, which is effective in dogs, is ineffective in humans.
Punitive punishment is unfortunately common because it provides parents with the immediate improvement in behavior they want, and it also gives an emotional release for the parent. As a result, people incorrectly believe it “works,” but they will soon discover that it’s rarely sustained overall. To fear-condition children, using harsh punishment is useless for long term results at best and destructive at worst. Even if it appears to succeed in the moment, the child pays a significant price for years to come.
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4 Ways to discipline a child without hitting
So what should we do when our child misbehaves or does something wrong? Punishment is the only way many parents know how to discipline their children. Punishment has been around forever and it’s how many of us were raised.
Discipline implies to instruct. You don’t use punishment to teach. Another way that we can think about discipline is by putting boundaries around issues of safety or concern that are important to us.
Here are four effective disciplinary strategies that can assist you in implementing no-punishment parenting.
#1. FIRST AND FOREMOST, ACT LIKE A ROLE MODEL.
Humans are one of the few species that can learn by watching and imitating others, and our kids are always watching us.
The mirror neuron system, a unique neuron circuit in the brain, is what is responsible for this ability. This neuron system allows us to not only copy but also understand why the person is doing what they are doing. Knowing this is helpful to understand why it’s so crucial for parents to model the behavior they want to see.
With this in mind, if you want your child to be courteous, show them how by your efforts in being courteous to others. Show kindness to your child if you want your child to be kind. Don’t hit your child if you don’t want them to hit.
#2. USE POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT AND POSITIVE DISCIPLINE
Do you remember being punished as a kid? For me, some of those memories are still crystal clear and I still feel the emotions in my body.
When parents use punishment to discipline their children, the child rarely learns the correct lesson. What they do learn is to fear their parents, and their brain kicks into safety and security to do what is necessary to protect themselves which can lead to vindictiveness, and vengeance.
Studies reveal, however, that punishment is not always required or efficient in teaching kids what to do and what not to do. This does not mean that anything goes and there are no consequences. I do not encourage permissive parenting. Kids do need and want boundaries. They do want to know what to expect and where it is safe and where it isn’t. Keep in mind that human beings are not meant to be sedentary and what I mean by that is that we explore and that includes exploring boundaries.
Non-coercive discipline, contingent encouragement, monitoring, and problem resolution have been found to be significantly more effective in disciplining. One example of a no-punishment disciplinary strategy is positive discipline. Mutual respect, good clear instruction, and communication are the foundations of positive discipline. Instead of the focus being punitive for not doing something or doing it wrong, positive discipline encourages learning on how to do something correctly or within boundaries.
Understanding the reasons why the child is doing an unwanted behavior, and addressing the fundamental cause for it, are the first steps in helping children stop it. Sometimes when we tell a child not to do something, they don’t fully understand why or maybe they weren’t listening to the instructions. By helping them to see why you don’t want them to do something they are able to grasp the idea more fully and understand. Remember, those brains are still forming, and they are taking in a lot of other information throughout their day. I’m not telling you anything new, but we need to remember to be patient. Patient with the kids, but also patient with ourselves.
Parents should also help their children in comprehending the natural consequences of their actions. An example is to wear your helmet while bike riding. A natural consequence could be that when they fall off their bike they could hurt their brain. Another example is “don’t put anything in an electrical outlet because a natural consequence could be a shock.”
What Exactly Is A Time Out?
Time out, often known as corner time, is an approach created by Arthur Staats using his own children as subjects in trials. Time out was originally used to refer to a break from reinforcement. The theory is that taking the kids away from the activity that is involved in the unwanted behavior for a brief time, will deter the unwanted behavior.
This method of discipline is favored over reprimanding, scolding, or spanking. Because it is not supposed to be used as a punitive technique, many pediatricians and positive discipline proponents refer to it as an alternative to punishment.
Now, a word of warning about utilizing time out…
Despite numerous studies demonstrating the benefits of using time out to discipline children, most parents do not utilize time out in the way that it is recommended in research. Many parents take the name “timeout” and the basic concept and turn it into a punishment.
Children are just as vulnerable to the punitive effects of this punishment as they are to other forms. In a 2003 UCLA study, researchers discovered that the effect of rejection appears to be the same in brain imaging as the effect of physical pain. When timeouts are used as a kind of punishment for children, such as isolation, shame, or fear, they can be equally harmful to their brains and mental health.
A better suggestion is to have a calming space. This should be a place that makes the child feel calm with a favorite blanket and stuffed animal, maybe some books, and a little sensory box with favorite things that can help regulate the child. This is used to help them come back into themself and separate from the “scene of the crime” or sibling if there was an argument. It is not meant to be punitive. It is meant to be nurturing. You would ask the child if they would like to take some time in their calming place. Sometimes they also just need a hug as a time-in. They know that they did something wrong and they need to know that you love them unconditionally even when they mess up or do something that upsets you.
#3. REMEMBER TO BE CONSISTENT
When it comes to no-punishment discipline, consistency is crucial. Researchers have discovered that the authoritative parenting style is the best parenting style in practically every parameter in studies on parenting styles. This is where expectations are set, but support is given to help meet those expectations. Although authoritative parents do not have as many harsh regulations as their authoritarian counterparts, they are exceedingly consistent in their enforcement of those restrictions and expectations.
Consistency is the magic ticket but I also know first hand, it is much easier said than done! It is so easy to give in when you’re too tired to follow through with consequences?
It might be easier to take the instrument or cleats to school, even though the child forgot them, after you reminded them. But then they won’t fully appreciate the natural consequences that would allow them to understand that their actions (or inactions) have real-world effects.
Another compelling reason to be consistent is that giving in on occasion is simply varied reinforcement. The child doesn’t know what boundary or rule is “real” or if it’s just you blowing smoke. Boundaries and rules are actually something that kids crave, although they may not realize it at a subconscious level. They need to know that the rules and boundaries are there to protect them and if you are not consistent, then the rules and boundaries aren’t really there to protect them, and therefore, they may not be as safe and secure as they thought. Also, if you are inconsistent with them, then they don’t know for sure that they can rely on you when they really need you, because you may not want to do the “hard things” like help them out if you’re tired because you always cave in when you’re tired.
So, no matter how difficult it may be, bite the bullet and resist the impulse to bend any rules you’ve established. It’s not an easy task. But it was well worth the effort. Consistency is key. Do not let your guard down.… imprint this on your sleep-deprived mind.
#4. REVIEW AGE-APPROPRIATENESS AND PARENTAL OBJECTIVES
It may come as a surprise, but age-appropriate discipline is required for effective discipline. I’m not talking about whether or not a specific discipline is age-appropriate. I mean, you should reconsider whether your behavioral expectations for your child are realistic and acceptable for their developmental stage.
You already know this but, like infant bodies, baby brains do not arrive in our world fully formed. They require time to mature and develop – A lot of time, years and years!
To understand difficult ideas like discipline, the prefrontal cortex, a portion of the thinking brain, is required. You may wonder, when is the brain fully developed? The prefrontal cortex does not begin to grow until approximately the age of three. As a result, children under the age of three simply cannot comprehend the concept of discipline, at least not in a way that is beneficial to their brain.
As any parent who has ever cared for a small child can attest, it is a demanding job and it’s a lot of work. As a parent, you must, however, decide on the trade-offs. Be patient and gentle with yourself (fill your cup first) and then extend that patience to your kids.
What is more crucial?
Children who look like perfect angels on the outside yet have troubled mental health on the inside as they get older.
Put extra effort into connecting, patience, and use teachable moments. Being raised in this kind of environment protects children’s behavioral health and those kids are able to distinguish between right and wrong and make their choices from what they have learned and grow up with healthy brains because of the parent’s efforts.
HOW DO I GET MY KIDS TO LISTEN?
Do you struggle with your child not listening to you?
If this happens regularly, it’s time to reconsider why you want your children to always listen to you. Obedience, contrary to common opinion, is not a virtue.
There are some things that everyone, whether children or adults, must follow such as the law or emergency instructions. However, there are plenty of other rules that may seem arbitrary, especially to kids. Children are individuals in their own right. We are all unique individuals with our own thoughts and preferences. Kids have their own thoughts and sometimes wish to do things differently than we do.
If one of your parenting goals is to raise a child with an independent mind, critical thinking skills, self-confidence, and the ability to not blindly accept orders…essentially, if you want your child to become a leader rather than a follower, then you can’t raise them like a dictator.
So, what are the values of your home?
How do the values of your family play into boundaries and consequences? Consider what is important in fostering your child’s independence and judgment, as well as maintaining a close, loving relationship with him or her.
Here are some examples of values that some of my clients have come up with in their homes:
- We value safety. Disobeying rules around safety will have negative consequences.
- The health of our bodies is very important. We will eat healthy meals, communicate our emotions and move our bodies daily.
- No causing harm to others, such as people, animals, or property
- If something happens or comes up that goes against any of our values, sorry, but that’s a boundary, no discussion.
- We respect our child’s preferences and decisions.
Let’s review. To properly discipline without punishment, follow these steps:
- Be a role model for others.
- To avoid punishment, use agreed upon boundaries and natural and logical consequences.
- Make a list of things that the family must obey (like specifics around safety) that are age-appropriate and satisfies your parenting goals.
- Organize a family gathering to discuss and go through all the family values and corresponding rules.
- Agree on the natural and logical consequences that you’re confident you’ll be able to carry out.
- Stick to your guns when it comes to enforcing them. To put it another way, choose your battles carefully and be consistent.
- There are many ways to discipline a child without hitting, or use of severe punishment.
Life experiences during a child’s formative years are crucial to children’s behavioral health and character shaping, according to neuroscience. If we can provide pleasant learning experiences for our kids, they will benefit and thrive for the rest of their lives.
To learn more about different ways to discipline a child without hitting check out our Connection Parenting guide! You will be able to connect with your kids, your message will be heard, and you will know to set boundaries in ways that actually make sense to them without encountering resistance.
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