A Surprisingly Effective Alternative To Punishment


 guest post by Claire Battersby

What’s The Problem With Punishment?

Punishment is a popular discipline technique, but is it effective at encouraging kindness, respect and consideration of others feelings?

We know children naturally imitate us because that’s how they learn to walk and talk, along with many other skills. I’ve always wondered if children understand that we don’t want them to copy us when we spank, ignore, shout or take away beloved items. We actually want them to behave the exact opposite of the punishment they just received. Young children take how we treat them at face value because being able to reason using logic only develops around six-years-old, and it’s still developing through teen years. (1). So that means punishment shows children that using violence or emotional manipulation is the way to get what we want.

However nicely we warn children or calmly enforce the punishment, spanking, time out, grounding or withdrawal of privileges all cause high levels of fear. (2) Time outs are revered as a kinder alternative to spanking, but being ignored has been proven to cause the same chemical reaction in the brain as experiencing physical violence. (3) Research also shows that feeling fear shuts down the parts of the brain that are responsible for learning and logical thinking. (4) Punishment fails to teach children what to do instead of what they have done wrong. (2) Even if we explain what would have been better actions or words at the same time, science tells us that punishment actually gives children a disadvantage at learning what we are trying to teach. The fear that is felt when they are given a threat of punishment could restrict the child’s being able to think straight and increase the chance of them making a mistake, resulting in the punishment they were afraid of.

Many people have wild and scary thoughts of adults who are raised without punishment. Christian Pfeiffer, the director of the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony in Hanover, Germany has found a correlation between declining rates of children being spanked (or otherwise punished physically) and subsequent decreases in violent crime in Germany. (5)

Many parents are proving that there is a middle way in discipling children between using punishment and being permissive. Setting age appropriate limits and holding firm boundaries is an important part of taking good care of children. Supporting children’s needs and understanding that they require our help when they act in undesirable ways are the basics to parenting beyond punishment.


Children Act Bad When They Feel Bad

Think about something you did that you wish you hadn’t of done. Come on, we all do things we regret from time to time, after all we’re human. It could have been the tone of voice you used, what you said, did or didn’t do. Now remember what was going on at the time. Did you need to eat, drink or use the bathroom? Did you get much sleep the night before (or for a while)? Were you in a rush or running late? Was there too much to do and too little time? Was someone being unhelpful, rude or annoying? Most importantly, focus on how you were feeling at that moment. Were you overwhelmed or stressed? Did you have any worries or fears in the front or back of your mind? Were you feeling angry, impatient or helpless? I would be very surprised if you honestly felt truly happy, completely peaceful and totally supported the moment you did something you now regret.

Children have many reasons they act in undesirable ways too. Our adult minds would like children to hurry up and act in socially acceptable ways now. Obviously, no child is going to behave perfectly all the time, because neither do adults. We have bad days and so do children. It’s easier said than done, but invoking as much compassion as we can for children who are failing to meet our expectations, can do wonders.


Are We Missing the Key to Opening Learning Opportunities?

Girl crying in armsWhen children are acting in a naughty way they need our help. They need us to teach them the huge amount of unwritten codes of conduct we live by and often repeatedly, because there’s so many exceptions. What’s often misunderstood is that self-control and self-regulation take many years to develop… even a lifetime.  Children and teens not only need to be taught morals, but also how to find their way back to a calm state while have mighty intense feelings. The truth is children are not in the optimal state to learn anything while feeling emotional. 

Remember how stressed we feel when we make a mistake, find ourselves in a fight with someone or when things are going wrong? We all know children tend to be more expressive about how they feel. Ever wondered why? Scientists have discovered the stress hormone cortisol in the tears that come with emotional crying. This shows that crying releases stress. (6) Considering that children are constantly learning how to find their way in the fast paced, highly pressured and violent world we live in, they have lots of reasons to feel stressed. Stress has been shown to negatively impact health. (7)

Releasing negative emotions is the most misunderstood need of all humans, especially in children. (8) With the very best intentions, most of us try to stop children from crying, having a tantrum, whining or complaining via soothing, distractions, rewards or threats. After all, that’s the training most of us received as children. We were taught to stuff down our ‘ugly’ feelings because nobody wanted to hear our upset. So we are carrying around all our emotional baggage from childhood that we were unable to process and release at the time. (8) Simply the sound of a baby’s or child’s cry can trigger our deep pain (that we may not realise we have). (6) Of course we want to help children feel better, but stopping the crying does not stop their pain. (10) The crying and screaming children naturally do actually releases their pain most effectively. (8) When they have expressed their emotions as much as they need to they are able to cope with stresses and problems much more effectively. (6)

Many popular so-called ‘parenting experts’ tell us to ignore children when they cry and tantrum, but as I mentioned above, being ignored has been proven to cause the same chemical reaction in the brain as experiencing physical violence (3). Young children may also feel separation anxiety when we emotionally or physically withdraw. Babies and children know they need us to survive and little one’s don’t understand that the withdrawal is temporary. (9) When we allow children to cry and tantrum while we stay calm, compassionate and available we show that we can deal with their scary feelings and they can too (11). Many children seek physical closeness when they are upset for good reason, because hugs are emotionally healing. Some children need space when they are upset or angry, but staying physically and emotionally available is still valuable for them. I’ve found sitting silently a few feet away has been enough support for some children I’ve cared for, while they expressed their strong feelings fully. When they felt ready, each child often came to me for a hug. Just afterwards were perfect opportunities to discuss anything they did that needed correction because the children were calm, focused and trusted that I was there to support them.


Children Need Boundaries And Compassion

We may feel tempted to punish (or threaten it) when children are acting out of control, but that doesn’t actually help in being able to obey. Of course, our first responsibility is ensuring the children’s safety.  Physically preventing or stopping violence might be needed. “I won’t let you…” is a very helpful phrase while gently yet firmly helping a child and those around them stay safe. (12) Considering what the upset child needs at the time often stops the situation from getting worse. Sometimes it’s as obvious as freeing a trapped child, giving them a hug, applying first aid, leaving an over simulating place together or offering food and drink. Many times it’s perplexing to figure out how to best handle each unique challenging situation.

We naturally want to fix a child’s problem as quickly as possible. We often try to help the child gain the perspective that it’s not so bad and that it’s not worth crying over. Often phrase such “there’s nothing to be afraid of”, “now, now, that’s enough” and “you’re OK” often cause children to cry louder or a tantrum to become more intense. These statements are telling the children to do the opposite of what they feel. That leads to feelings of being misunderstood, confused, isolated, overwhelmed and unsupported. (2) As that’s not our intention, we can let children know we understand and we are here to support them by validating their experience. (11) Consider how it may look from the child’s perspective by talking to them about what they seem to be feeling. (13) If you find yourself saying “it’s OK” to an upset child out of habit, quickly add the words “to cry”, so you’re saying “it’s OK to cry”. Changing the way we’ve always done things is hard work, but it’s gets easier and is worth the effort.

For example, two-year-old ‘Charlotte’ was particularly angry that I wouldn’t give her the chocolate she asked for right before her dinner. First I explained that she couldn’t because she’d had enough chocolate that day and dinner was nearly ready, but she could have a banana now. During that sentence Charlotte’s protest escalated quickly. I was new to using validation at the time and I suddenly remembered this technique, so I calmly crouched down next to her. In between Charlotte’s sobs, screams and shouts of wanting “a little, tiny spot” (her word for a candy covered chocolate button) I responded with “I hear you really want a spot”, “all you want is a little tiny spot”, “Wow Charlotte! You seem angry about not getting a spot”, “You’re whole body seems upset about this”, “you feel so strongly”, “I know, you wish you had a spot”, “I understand, I bet you’re hungry”, “now you sound sad, are you missing spots Charlotte?” and “I know, you love spots”. There were a few seconds to a few minutes between my validations because I was waiting for gaps in Charlotte’s intense emotional expression. She did get louder and jump around more near the middle and then gradually calmed down at her own pace. When Charlotte stopped, her spirits seemed brighter and her eyes looked more aware. She contently refused my offer of a hug, ran into the living room and played co-operatively with her twin and there was no more mention of spots that evening.

It’s normal for children to display anger first, before they feel emotionally safe enough cry. Tantrums are desperate calls for help to deal with scary emotions they can’t cope with. (1) It’s easier said than done, but try to see past any of the mean things an upset child says to you, and understand that they are crying out for help the best way they can manage at the time. Remember, in heated moments children learn the least, so they’d take in a lesson about how name calling hurts better later in a neutral moment. (1) Remember that ‘back talk’ is valid communication in which we can learn the tot’s/child’s or teen’s prospective.

Protect yourself, others and them from physical attacks. If you feel close to spanking your child, leave them in a safe place and go calm yourself (read to the bottom to find calming tips). Parents and child therapists have found that holding a child who is acting out of sorts, firmly yet gently, can help the child quickly progress to releasing healing tears via crying and calms them effectively. (10)

Holding firm boundaries can also give children the opportunity to cry if they need to. (11) Often children cry or tantrum about issues  we think are small or silly, like not being able to use a certain bowl or about a broken cookie. Please remember they are trying to relieve stress and emotionally process something that feels important to them. (10) When children are allowed to cry, they often take the opportunity to unload any emotional backlog they have. If their sobs get louder and cry for a long time it means your child is probably processing some deep hurts that may have their roots in the past. (6) Hang in there, use all your strength to stay calm and present while allowing your child to cry. Remind yourself that this too shall pass. When children cry for a long time they often fall asleep and wake up refreshed and in a wonderful mood. (10)

Our calm, caring presence can be all that’s needed for children to process and release the negative feelings, which enables emotional regulation to occur. When calm, children remember what we explain to them much better than when they are feeling afraid, angry or upset. When children are given the chance to regularly cry with the supportive presence of a trusted adult, they can feel happier, think clearly, co-operate more, act confidently, keep calmer and develop emotional and social intelligence.

During this No Spank Challenge there are many other alternatives to punishment being shared for different kinds of situations. Here I focused on dealing with heated moments where emotions are intense. When we can be the calm rock for children’s outbursts of emotions, we support the releasing of their pain so they don’t carry it around anymore. The less pain we hold on to, the kinder we are able act. When children feel better, they act better.

Now, seeing anger in children can cause our brains to launch in the fight, flight or freeze mode. Allowing your child to cry and scream while staying calmly present can be extremely stressful, I know. Maybe it’s sounds impossible. I have only been able to do this with the many calming techniques I use regularly. Register for your Become a Calm Parent free e-course to learn these practical tips.

Do you have any experience in supporting children cry or have a tantrum?
Tell us about what happened in the comments below.



(1) Martha Heineman Pieper PhD & William Pieper MD, The Love Smart Parent, Innova Publishing, New York, 1999

(2) Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting, Atria Books, New York, 2005

(3) Eric Jaffe, Why Love Literally Hurts Association For Psychological Science in Observer Vol.26, No.2 February 2013.

(4) Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, Persistent Fear and Anxiety Can Affect Young Children’s Learning and Development, Working Paper No.9, www.developingchild.net, February 2010

(5) A.K. The Economist, Charlemagne, European politics, http://www.economist.com/blogs/charlemagne/2013/07/spanking-and-crime-rates July 2013, accessed: March 14, 2014

(6) Aletha Solter PhD, Helping Young Children Flourish, Shining Star Press, Goleta, California, 1989

(7) Andreas Moritz, Timeless Secrets of Health & Rejuvenation, Lighting Source, Inc, 2009

(8) Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, Bloomsbury, London, UK, 1995

(9) Sue Gerhardt, Why Love Matters, Routledge, New York, 2004

(10) Aletha Solter, Tears and Tantrums, Shining Star Press, Goleta, Califirnia, 1998

(11) Naomi Aldort, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves. Book Publishers Network, Bothell, WA, 2005

(12) Magda Gerber & Allison Johnson, Your Self-Confident Baby, John Williams and Son, Inc, New York, 1998

(13) Dr Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training, Three Rivers Press, New York , 2000



Claire Battersby has always loved caring for young children. She’s on a compelling journey as a childcare provider from reactive and controlling towards respectful and calm. Learning about how children develop and react to the way we treat them really fascinates her. Claire is truly grateful for how much children have taught her about themselves, herself and life in general. Claire is the co-owner of EmpoweringChildhood.co.uk, which inspires compassion, communication, co-operation and connection. Join Empowering Childhood on Facebook,  Google+, and Twitter.

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