Is Punishment Always the Answer?

Exploring Alternative Methods for Addressing Problematic Behaviors from Children

By Tessa Mak, M.A.

Trying to find an effective method for disciplining your child when he/she is misbehaving can be a challenge, especially when you feel like punishment is the only option (i.e. spanking and taking everything away).  Although punishment can be effective, it may not work in every situation or for every child.  For example, some children can have all of their toys taken away and still continue to demonstrate the same problematic behaviors.  In addition, spanking may result in immediate compliance with requests, but excessive disciplinary spanking can also increase aggressive behavior in children.  Therefore, it is important to have a wide variety of strategies to address your child’s problematic behaviors.

When addressing your child’s problematic behaviors, it can be helpful to first understand why your child is misbehaving and what he/she is gaining from these problematic behaviors.  For some children, their misbehavior is to gain attention from adults or peers (it is important to remember that even negative attention is still attention). 

For example, a child may start screaming because he/she wants attention from a preferred adult who is busy doing another activity or a child may burp loudly in public to make siblings or classmates laugh.  Other children may misbehave because they are trying to escape or avoid an uncomfortable situation.  An example of this would be when told to begin working on homework that the child does not understand how to complete, he/she may start to scream or cry in an attempt to not have to start the difficult task.  Still other children misbehave because their actions either feel good to them (i.e. making noises with their mouth because it feels good) or relieve internal discomfort (chewing on shirt collar because it is soothing).

Once you understand why your child is misbehaving you can start to use more effective methods for addressing his/her problematic behaviors.  When you start to utilize some of these strategies, it is important to be consistent and follow through with what you have started.  One strategy is to address the triggers that cause your child’s problem behaviors.  This may involve teaching your child appropriate ways to ask for attention as well as identifying and discussing with your child age-appropriate specific behaviors for them to do at home, school, with peers, and in public.  Another strategy is to give the child appropriate choices for their behaviors (i.e. your child can walk holding your hand or sit in the cart when at a grocery store). 

Another strategy is to utilize effective consequences for both your child’s positive and negative behaviors.  When your child behaves in a positive way, give specific praise about what you liked so your child knows he/she behaved appropriately and he/she will be more likely to do the behavior again to receive praise from you.  When your child behaves inappropriately, use logical consequences, which may involve taking away privileges or requiring the child to do extra chores.  When giving a logical consequence for a negative behavior make sure the punishment fits the crime because children who feel like the punishment will never end are less likely to feel motivated to make changes to their behaviors. 

Even when using some of these alternative strategies, addressing your child’s problematic behaviors may still be a challenge.  Therefore, it is important to use your own social support (i.e. talking with friends and family) to help decrease your emotional distress as well as help you stay consistent with your approach.  It may also be beneficial to gain some professional assistant from a mental health provider to develop, establish, and maintain effective discipline strategies specific for your child.  

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