If you raise your children with punitive discipline, they are more likely to have tendencies toward anger and depression because you are teaching them that part of who they are — their emotions — isn’t acceptable.
Since parents aren’t there to help them learn to manage those difficult feelings, they’re left lonely, trying to sort out for themselves how to overcome their “not-nice” impulses. This makes it harder for them to manage their anger, and more likely that they’ll take it out on their siblings, who are often the closest target.
Kids raised with punishment learn to use it against their siblings to increase their own power. When children know that their rival will be punished, they have an incentive to tattle, both to hurt their sibling and to be able to play the role of the “good child.”
When siblings are punished for fighting with each other, they become more resentful of each other and more focused on revenge. Often, they get into a negative cycle of inciting conflict while trying to make it look like the other child’s fault.
Punishment teaches fear. Kids learn what they live and what you model. If kids do what you want because they fear you, it’s a small step to bullying. If you yell, they’ll yell. If you use force, they’ll use force.
Research Shows that Punishment Doesn’t Work
Children end up learning some entirely unintended lessons from punishment — about wielding power, resolving disagreements, and handling upsetting emotions. So punishing children not only undermines your child’s development in general, but it also has a negative impact on your children’s relationship with each other.
The way you handle and express your anger is the most powerful teaching tool you have. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not a good idea to encourage your child to beat a pillow or other object to release his anger. It doesn’t work, and worse, it reinforces the notion that it is okay to act out anger with violence.
The only healthy way to express anger is verbally, exploring the cause of it and the fear that lies behind it, and then finding positive ways to use the energy and power it generates. Children need to know it is okay to be afraid and to express it to safe people (parents) and to explore what might be done about it. Often, just talking about anger diffuses it power, and having a parent listen with empathy, not interruption or interpretation, can make all the difference. The child can then solve his own problems appropriately, with a clear head.
An Example of Helping a Child Handle Anger
For example, your young child comes home in tears, angry that a trusted friend hit him and took away his toy.
Parent: “That must have felt awful! You probably feel very angry.”
Child: “Yeah! I’m gonna hit him!
Parent: “It would feel better if you could take back what he took from you, wouldn’t it? Hitting is one of your choices, but it might make things worse later, don’t you think?”
Child: “I dunno. But I’m not just gonna take it like a baby!”
Parent: “Hmm. This is a hard one to figure out, isn’t it? If you hit him, he could just hit you back, and pretty soon everybody’s hitting everybody, you lose a friend, you get in trouble with the teacher, and you get in trouble with us because we don’t hit in our family. So you know it would lead to consequences at home. But you don’t want to feel like you have no power at all.”
Parent: “Let’s see, what other choices do you have?”
Child: “I dunno. If I don’t fight him everybody will say I’m a chicken.”
Parent: “Do you feel like a chicken?”
Child: “No! I’m just so mad!”
Parent: “You must feel sad because he was your good friend.”
Child: (sniffing, tears) “Yeah. I can’t believe he did that. Now I hate him!”
Parent: “It sounds like the whole thing is super-frustrating.”
Child: “Yeah! But what should I do?”
Parent: “You could just let it go, choose another toy, and let him know he can’t make you feel afraid or angry, even if he tries. Maybe he’ll be sorry and you can be friends again.”
Child: (looks doubtful).
Parent: “You can tell him what he did made you feel angry, and ask him if he meant to hurt you. Maybe he’ll tell you he didn’t mean it. If he doesn’t want to talk about it, then walk away. Sometimes we walk away strong on the inside, with a different kind of courage, and find other ways to fight back. People who hit don’t have any courage, and they are usually scared inside. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll figure out what to do. Let me know if you want to talk about it some more. And thanks for sharing your feelings with me.”
An Example of Modeling the Handling of Anger
Once my sister and her daughter witnessed a man beating his three boys, all under age seven, in a large department store. He slapped them hard across the face and slammed them into the wall. He was obviously out of control. My sister knew she had to do something about it, and at the same time model for her daughter how to intervene safely in such a situation without getting caught up in it. She was very angry and felt helpless, watching this strong man throw his babies around like rag dolls. “God only knows what he allowed himself in private if that was the way he acted in public,” she said.
She found an onlooker nearby who was willing to go with her and follow the man to his car to take down his license plate number. They then called the police, and waited there to make statements. By that time, her willingness to step forward gave other onlookers the courage to give corroborating statements. When the man arrived home, there was a police car waiting for him, and officers ready to inspect his children for signs of abuse and arrest him for assault.
My sister modeled for her daughter and other bystanders the appropriate and dignified, middle-path use of the energy generated by her anger; it was neither the extreme of total non-involvement and abandonment, nor the extreme of reactivity — that is, hitting him over the head with a shovel, which is what she felt like doing!