Beyond Behaviour - Defining Punishment

Module one : Lesson three

Countless adults are experiencing daily struggles and regret around their use of punishment and shaming. For parents and educators reliant on yelling, threats or even bribes to shape behavior and cooperation this module will take you through why so many of us are drawn to punishment and what we can do instead to begin making calm, mindful decisions during behavior challenges.


Navigating early childhood behavior can be very difficult. And more often than not, we can be drawn to using punishment or we can feel reliant on using threats or bribes and rewards in order to shape behavior. What I want to do is I want to explore why it is so common to be drawn to using punishment and some of the things that we can start doing instead once we see beyond the child's behavior and understand their needs in the moment.

More often than not, when we're experiencing those difficult behaviors, we're going to have an emotional response to it, usually because it makes us very uncomfortable. And as soon as we're uncomfortable, our brain gets into that defensive state where it starts to look for problems and small things start to amplify and become bigger until, ultimately, they may feel insurmountable by the time our brain is done. Unfortunately, that does make navigating behavioral challenges much harder. As soon as the brain experiences something that it believes to be a risk or it believes may cause harm or discomfort, then it's going to start responding to it. It's going to start reacting to it. This goes back to understanding your emotional brain and knowing that stressors on the brain send us into that flipped lid state.

When your child is engaging in difficult behaviors, 8 times out of 10, we are going to go into that midbrain state as well. That means that we're going to be looking for problems. We're going to be focusing on the bad rather than considering, why is my child engaging in this behavior, and what support do they need? What we might do instead is, how can I feel better as quickly as possible? And unfortunately, the answer to that question is by taking control.

As soon as we start to control the environment or manipulate the people around us, then we start to feel empowered. This is why we're so drawn to coercion and coaxing other people to listen to us because things simply become easier. As soon as we are able to control somebody else's behavior, we start to feel comfortable again. We start to feel safe again, and we can relax. This leads to a self-reinforcement of, "I've accomplished something. Clearly I've done the right thing because I feel comfortable again." However, it doesn't consider the child's need in the moment. This is just one of many reasons that we are so drawn to punishment and why punishment is not actually as effective as we think it is.

Now, sometimes we'll put a child in timeout or we will threaten to remove the iPad for a week or something. It's true that children will start to regulate immediately. We'll see a consequence. We'll see a result to that decision almost right away. Children might straighten up, and the behavior starts to go away, and it feels like, "All right. I have successfully shaped my child's behavior." But here's the thing, is just because children learn to suppress specific behaviors, it doesn't mean that they have been given this skillset in order to cope next time the challenge arises. That means that what they are learning is how to manipulate the environment the same as what we are doing, right? So it's almost like a shortcut into getting the behavior that we want to see.

We want children to listen the first time. We want children to be able to get along without fighting with each other. We want them to be able to make better decisions. But if we're relying on punishments, rewards, and threats in order to create and shape all of those things that we want to see, then chances are good that we're missing out on a very important opportunity to teach children the skills in order to be successful. This is so important to be able to separate ourselves from our own feelings of discomfort in order to see what children need in the moment. And chances are good that punishment is not going to be the answer.

You may get a temporary fix, but we're here for the long term. We're here about the long game. We want to be raising resilient, compassionate, cooperative kids that are able to cope when challenges arise, whether we're in the room with them or not. We want to know that they can make beautiful decisions calmly and mindfully on their own independently. That requires us to really consider the responses that we are using. Again, this is why emotional coaching is such an important resource for you to introduce with your family. Hopefully that gives you a clearer picture of why we may be drawn to punishment and ultimately why it's not the solution to those challenges.


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