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Nov 18, 2021

How to discipline without punishment

Knowing what to do when your children misbehave isn’t always easy and enforcing limits to their behaviour is not only difficult, but it can also be incredibly frustrating and exhausting. As well as being a mum of two myself, I’ve also worked with the parents and carers of tonnes of children in the out of home care sector, so I’ve seen the odd challenging behaviour or 20.

I truly believe that some of the most difficult parenting moments are some of the most teachable. Our children are watching us all the time and so seeing how we manage ourselves and how we treat others in moments of high stress is teaching them how to manage themselves and how to treat others.

What is the difference between discipline and punishment?

So, lets take a look at what is discipline and what is punishment. The two terms are often used interchangeably but they are not synonymous, their meaning and their effect are very different.

Discipline originates from the Latin words ‘discipulus’ (disciple, student, pupil) and ‘disciplina’ (teaching) and is about training or guiding our children to be more willing (yay) to obey and therefore behave more desirably. Discipline helps to teach new skills such as problem solving, conflict resolution and how to feel and manage their emotions.

Discipline sets the foundations for teaching and guiding the future behaviour of our children.

Punishment is about past behaviour and relies on causing some kind of suffering or pain (physical or emotional and sometimes both) in an attempt to try and teach the child to know or do better next time or to ‘pay for their mistakes’. Punishment doesn’t teach children the behaviour you would like to see, nor does it teach the child why their behaviour wasn’t acceptable. For example, a child that is hit because he hit his brother doesn’t learn it isn’t ok to hit his brother or how to resolve conflict he will just be very confused about why it’s ok for you to hit but it isn’t ok for him to do it. He will go on to learn that it’s ok for big people to hit smaller ones.

Discipline is an opportunity to guide behaviour through connection.
Punishment is a missed opportunity to guide behaviour and involves fear, pain and/or rejection.

Discipline and the Brain

When we talk to our children in a calm, regulated manner and communicate to them in a way that can teach and guide their future behaviour we engage the part of their brain that is responsible for learning. This is known as the pre-frontal cortex or the ‘thinking brain’ and is responsible for executive functioning such as thinking, reasoning, emotional control, working memory, judgement, logical reasoning etc.

Punishment and the brain

When we punish our children using pain-based techniques such as shouting, yelling and smacking or shame based techniques such as belittling, isolation, time-out and rejection our children activate their ‘emotional brain’ where their ‘flight, fight, freeze response’ is located. This part of the brain is responsible for survival and puts the body in automatic mode so that we don’t have to think. If you’re in the woods and come across a bear, you haven’t got time to think you need your brain to get you running away. When this part of the brain is activated, stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol are released to provide energy.

Constant activation of this stress response as a result of punishment or fear of punishment can cause physical changes to the brain and prevent its healthy development.

Why punishment doesn’t work

Young children, especially toddlers and pre-schoolers are naturally curious beings. They learn about the world through exploration which sometimes involves less than desirable outcomes and can often involve accidents. They don’t know societal norms

They don’t understand why they should or shouldn’t behave in certain ways, they are reliant on your guidance to show them the way.

They are naturally quite fearless as they are unable to plan ahead and lack skills in consequential thinking. This often leads them to act without thinking.

They lack conflict resolution and communication skills and so often they lash out or act aggressively if they don’t get their own way.

This is all developmentally very typical behaviour and it does not make them a bad child and should not mean that they are treated like one.

“We should speak to our children like they are the wisest, kindest, most beautiful and magical humans on this earth. For what they believe they will become.” – Brooke Hampton

I’m Sarah, principal therapist of Secure Foundations; a unique sleep support service based on trauma informed and attachment-focused parenting. My speciality is working with those who are caring for children with a trauma history or attachment disorders, however we welcome the connection with all family journeys.

Secure Foundations was born out of years of study, work and an enduring passion for raising stable, resilient children and their healthy emotional development. We are big believers that each family is entirely unique, and all our recommendations are individualised and completely tailored to meet the goals of your family.