Behavioral Techniques In Parenting Part II: Punishment

Our last article in the series discussed reinforcement, a term used to describe a technique that seeks to increase a behavior.  This article will focus on punishment which seeks to reduce a behavior.

Fewer things elicit more controversy and disagreement among family connected helping professions as punishment since the risk of harmful undesired consequences is greater when applying it.  In my experience, both as a parent and in working with parents, punishment tends to come from a place of emotion (fear, anxiety, anger, shame) and because emotions can contaminate reasonable thinking and are most closely connected to the desire to fight or flight, our decisions when applying punishment are prone to a host of vulnerabilities.

There are two types of punishment, Positive and Negative.

Positive punishment occurs when we add a consequence that is uncomfortable or undesired as a means of stopping or reducing the behavior.  We are adding something in order to reduce a behavior. A very basic example of positive punishment may include a young child accidentally touching a hot cooking pot.  The pain (punishment) causes the child to remove his hand from the pot (undesired behavior). In this case, the pain, although unpleasant, serves to protect the child from further harm. Another example may involve a mother scolding her child for talking in church.  The scolding (punishment) seeks to reduce the child’s conversation in church (undesired behavior). One more example includes a teen who steals money from his father’s wallet (undesired behavior) being assigned extra chores (punishment).

Negative punishment occurs when we remove something that is desired or comfortable as a means of stopping or reducing a behavior.  We are subtracting something in order to reduce a behavior.  An example of this includes a parent who takes away a cell phone after a teen uses the phone in an inappropriate manner. Taking away the phone (punishment) seeks to reduce the teen’s inappropriate use of the device (undesired behavior).  Another example may include taking away television time (punishment) after a child watches an inappropriate program (undesired behavior).

Punishment is something that, if applied, should be done carefully and outside of strong emotion.  Many times punishment may unintentionally humiliate or embarrass a child and can give the impression, to the child, that a parent is being vindictive.   One example may involve a 13-year-old who is trying to settle into adolescence and express her identity through clothing.  Perhaps she makes a choice in attire that her parents disagree with.

In this example, let’s imagine the parents react by mocking the child’s appearance and criticize her ability to make decisions for herself. The child changes her clothes to something that conforms more to her parent’s desires.  It would seem in this case that the punishment was successful.  Her parent’s reaction of mockery -even if good humored – (punishment) causes the teen to stop wearing clothes of a certain type (undesired behavior).  But we need to ask what else is punished here?  At a time when our teen should be taking certain risks, we may also be affecting the likelihood of her taking risks that the parents may want her to take and perhaps, create a sense of dependency on the parent’s judgment of clothing that may actually be socially harmful to the context the teen operates in.

Punishment can be effective but it is not what I prefer to use personally.  Usually, when I engage in punishment I’ll reverse my decision and replace it with something else which can confuse my kids.  The reason I reverse it is because many times when I punish it wasn’t a good call, it was a decision I made out of emotion mind.

In order for punishment to have the best chance of working, it should occur close to the event, fit the crime, be proportional to the situation, and the reasons should be communicated behaviorally (what specifically needs to reduce and to what extent), with empathy and clarity.  Be mindful to not attribute the behavior to a flaw (lazy, irresponsible etc) and focus on the potential impact of the behavior.  It may be more effective to present the punishment when you are less provoked by the behavior as this reduces the risk of the punishment being perceived as vindictive. Also, don’t do what I normally do which is to reverse it.  I hate seeing them cry, they are so cute.

As with most things, consistency and moderation are key.  Our next article will cover the last of the broader categories before getting into the weeds.  Until then be mindful of your impulse to punish – learn your punishment style and your state of feeling and thinking when you engage in punishment to determine whether any shifts or changes may be helpful to you.

Part III- Extinction


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