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When you're stressed because your kid is stressed and acting out because of it, you may feel like externalizing all the crazy feelings you're having. Should you go with the natural flow and yell or punish, or is a more compassionate approach better?

My boss, who has children who are more than a few years younger than mine, asked me to write this article — and though the headline immediately has you think of very young kids, the general question really applies to much older ones, too. Should we deal with stress-related "bad" behaviors" through punishment or compassion?

When put like that, the answer seems pretty darn obvious, but the kinds of situations that raise the question prove otherwise:

  • Perhaps your toddler son frequently throws tantrums in stores — ostensibly because you refuse to buy him that candy or stuffed toy, but perhaps, though you're not sure, also because he's tired or overwhelmed by the number of people around him. You don't want a brat who cries when he doesn't have his every whim indulged. You also don't want to punish your child for being unable to control his behavior when he's tired or overloaded. 
  • Your teen daughter storms out on you when you try to have a heart-to-heart after you notice she's grumpy, perhaps using, how shall we put it, not such nice language as she slams the door to her room shut. You don't want to raise your child to think that behaving that way is OK, but also — hormones. And also — high school drama. 
  • Your tween son and daughter have been landing themselves in verbal fights much more often than you'd like recently, always accusing each other of doing something wrong and almost never owning up to their own inevitable part in the drama. It drives you up the wall. You want them to have a good relationship. Is punishing for fights the answer, or is there another approach?

So yes, the question of how to deal with tough behavior that you definitely want changed — you're just not sure how — is a hard one. 

How do punishments impact your child's behavior and your relationship with them?

There's some very interesting research that addresses how children feel, and what they want to do, when they're met with "punishments". (That's, broadly, option one from the headline — choosing to scold your child. Punishments can be anything, from yelling to shaming, from time-outs to removing privileges, and then, at the more extreme end, also spanking and physical abuse.)

We don't necessarily need research to know certain things are true, mind you, as we're all bound to have experienced them as children. Anyone who is now a parent was once a child, so you won't be surprised that:

  • When a child is punished for something, they tend to feel bad about being punished more than they feel bad about the bad behavior, and this means they're not as likely to reflect on why their behavior was less than stellar and what they can do to fix it. 
  • Punishments teach children to focus on external input as a guide on how to behave, rather than developing their own moral compass as to what's right and what's wrong. This can foster a state of "helplessness". It can also mean that kids develop some strange ideas about whether they're a good or bad person. If you're punishing your child in what they perceive to be an unfair way, they may conclude they're a bad person, which actually makes them engage in more of the behaviors you don't want to see. 
  • A punitive parenting style may also give a child the idea that it's OK to be nasty to people who are smaller or less powerful; studies have shown that kids who grew up with harsh parenting methods are more likely to bully others when they're teens. 
  • People — so children, too — have a harder time remembering what was said to them if they're anxious or scared. These are both emotions yelling can induce. That means that any lesson you're trying to teach your child in, hey, "not your indoor voice" may not even get through to them!

While around 80 percent of US fifth graders will have received some sort of physical punishment, such as spanking, something we now know to be pretty harmful, milder forms of obvious punishments are still popular. Perhaps you're using these techniques, such as removal of privileges (toys, wifi, etc), time-out, and even yelling, but you're in the "I want to just hug my child when they're stressed" category and you want to know what to do instead. 

Is it really possible to parent without punishment?

This question may fall slightly outside of the remit of this article. The question "Should you scold your child or just hug them when they're stressed?" was a bit more specific, so let's start with that. If you already know your child is acting out because they are stressed, go with the "just hug" option. Depending on the exact child and their age, that may also look like leaving them alone to cool off (their choice, not you sending them to their room), dropping everything to go for a walk or jog together, or acknowledging their feelings and letting them know you're there to chat when your child is ready. Remember, stuff you say in this riled-up state of mind won't get through to your child the way it would when they're not stressed, so save it for later. 

Saving it for later may include so-called anticipatory strategies, which may mean something like (continuing the stories above):

  • Telling your child: "We're going to the store now. We're getting what's on our shopping list and nothing else. You may see other things you want, but we're not going to be able to buy them." Your child now knows what to expect. It may also mean not taking your toddler to the store when they're already tired or cranky. 
  • Listening to your teen in an open-minded, non-judgmental way, and offering advice when they need it and are feeling calm and happy. Talking to your teen about how to talk to you, and how not to, when you're not already in the middle of a drama. This sets the stage for future behavioral expectations.
  • In the case of sibling fights, looking at whether your children have adequate opportunity to be alone without interference from their siblings, having a family meeting to decide and discuss how to handle conflict, and seeing if your children have any unmet needs that they're acting out about. 
Can you truly parent without punishment? I've aimed to do so for a few years now. In my home which features a teen and a tween, that means no removal of privileges, nothing that looks like time-out, definitely no physical punishment, and a commitment on my part to really keep yelling to a minimum. My kids don't always want hugs when they're stressed, so instead we may go for a jog, watch a film, or give each other space. And when the storm's passed? We talk about it. I focus on asking my kids how they believe they should behave and who they want to be. I give my opinion and do, absolutely, tell them when I think a certain behavior or action is completely unacceptable, and why. When I am the one acting out because I'm stressed (whether by them or something else), I apply the same techniques to myself. 

It's not perfect, granted, but on the whole, it works surprisingly well. The thing about parenting is that you have to work your way of doing it out for yourself. If you're asking whether you should scold your child for behaving poorly when they're stressed or just hug them, the answer is likely that you already know you want to choose the compassionate approach.

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