By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
Children often engage in mischief. They do what they're not supposed to, they don't do what they are supposed to, and sometimes they don't listen at all. Over time this child discipline situation can make us as parents feel very frustrated and angry.
Parents want to discourage the repetition of mischief, so they often respond with reprimands, scolding, rebukes or disapproval. Sometimes they lose their patience and verbally vent their frustrations at their children. The supposed benefit we get from reprimanding a child is that the child will learn his lesson and will refrain from behaving that way in the future. The logic is that the child will think, “Last time I did something like this I got a very unpleasant reprimand. I don't want to experience that again, so I’d better not engage in that behavior.” The problem is that very often the child has forgotten his previous reprimand by the time the next opportunity to misbehave comes around, so the benefit is only speculative.
More importantly, even if a child remembers his previous scolding, the temptation to misbehave is often too great, and overcomes the deterrent effect. Furthermore, a reprimand often shocks and scares the child and he represses the memory of the whole experience, thus preventing that memory from ever serving as a deterrent. And in the event he does remember and restrain himself, the benefit is outweighed by the damage the reprimand does to his self-esteem! The bottom line is there's only a relatively small possibility of gaining much through reprimands.
On the other hand, what are the risks involved in scolding a child? The truth is, children are emotionally extremely fragile and sensitive, especially to their parents’ attitudes. Reprimands and rebukes generate a stormy emotional reaction in them, including hurt, fear, anger, humiliation, but most of all shame. Scolding, especially harsh scolding, causes a child to feel intense shame. Shame, if experienced in more than small doses is the king of unhealthy emotions. Chronic shame experienced in childhood creates many forms of emotional disorders, mental illness and addictive behavior later in life. Children shudder in fear, humiliation and shame before a scolding adult. They blame themselves for the misbehavior and think, "I'm bad." Think back to when you were a child and got in trouble in school or with your parents. How do you remember feeling? Is it worth feeling that way over some cookies the child was asked not to eat? The truth is most reprimands are emotionally devastating to children. The risks far outweigh the benefits.
So what is the alternative to reprimands? How do we correct our children’s behavior without causing emotional damage? The answer is we need to call attention to their mistakes in a subtle and gentle fashion. Messages from parents to children are greatly magnified in the children's ears, so a slight subtle message, even a hint is all that's really called for, for them to get the idea. In addition the focus of the communication needs to be away from the child personally. However, saying, “You did this,” “You did that,” “What's wrong with you,” causes an intense shame reaction. Instead use ‘I’ statements and express your feelings, values and expectations. This will help the child understand the effects of his actions on others indirectly and without feeling attacked, criticized, put down or shamed. For example, express your feelings saying, “It makes me upset when the cookies are all eaten. I am angry.” Express your values, “In our house we are considerate of others and we follow the rules. We listen to our parents.” See my post: Anger management for parents, here.
Tolerating and reframing
Many times when a child misbehaves parents respond with reprimands because they feel that the situation is going to get out of control and become intolerable or even lead to delinquency. This is called catastrophizing. However once we understand that most minor mischief is well within the range of normal healthy behavior for children and no cause for alarm, these fears subside. This is called reframing, that is we reframe the behavior as not so bad and not calling for a harsh reprimand. Most parents could raise the threshold a little with respect to the amount of mischief they can calmly tolerate.
In addition children are often scolded for behaviors that are very natural and normal for them and that should be very much expected on a regular basis. This makes children feel ashamed simply for their very existence as a child. We don't want them to feel this way. Therefore we need to tolerate many of their misdeeds with love and patience. We need to learn to laugh at their mischievous escapades, to sigh and say, “That’s kids.”
Kindly peruse the rest of the material contained throughout this blog as it will help greatly in dealing with and preventing misbehavior and thus reduce the need to reprimand. We must remember that the parent-child relationship is the single most important element in any child’s life. It is a precious gem that must be guarded at all costs. Unfortunately too many reprimands damage that crucial relationship.
Please be advised that the above represents a parenting ideal, and no one should expect to fulfill it perfectly. So have patience with yourself and try to implement new ideas gradually.
Feel free to peruse the rest of my interesting blog, the specialties on my website, or download one of my informative free reports. If you are going through challenges with child discipline and would like guidance or treatment from a child psychotherapist in lower Manhattan, you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!