Effective Alternatives To Physical Punishment: The View From Psychoanalysis and Infant and Child Development

Alternatives to physical punishment

Posted Sep 02, 2009

Why do children—and adults—behave as they do? The answer always lies in the feelings. Feelings lead to behaviors. Feelings are the motivators of our actions.

The last several articles focused on setting up a foundation for understanding feelings. The best current model suggests human beings are born with nine feelings: interest, enjoyment, surprise, distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust (a reaction to toxic tastes), and dissmell (a reaction to toxic odors). These feelings combine with each other and with experience to form our more complex adult emotions.

The problem with physical punishment is twofold. First, physical punishment elicits precisely the negative feelings one does not want to generate in children, namely, distress, anger, fear, shame, and disgust. Second, physical punishment squashes precisely the feelings one wants to encourage in children, specifically interest and enjoyment.

For instance, what about the little boy or girl who is consistently hit for "getting into everything"? In such a case, distress, anger, fear, and shame become associated with the feeling of interest, which is exactly what one does not want, because interest drives our learning and exploratory activities.

Or how about so-called "bad words"? Try reaching for the dictionary, not the soap. The dictionary triggers interest (learning); the soap triggers anger, fear, and disgust (inhibiting learning).

Effective Alternatives to Physical Punishment

These alternatives provide parents and other caregivers with a focus on child development. They present strategies that can lead to less violent behavior in children and adults, and they can help decrease the frustration and helplessness in parents, which often lead to physical punishment.

1. One of the most useful ways to achieve healthy child development is to promote words instead of actions.

As Anny Katan eloquently summarized: "If a child would verbalize his feelings, he would learn to delay action." Increasing the child's capacity to put words to feelings and actions results in increased tension regulation, self-awareness, and thoughtful decision-making. This process is accomplished by:

a. Talking and using words instead of actions—talk rather than hit. Talk with the child about what behaviors are acceptable or not, what is safe or dangerous, and why.

b. Listening to the child—find out why they did or did not do something.

c. Explaining your reasons—this will enhance the child's decision-making capacities.

2. The word "discipline" comes from the Latin word for "teaching" or "learning." Children's behaviors have meaning, and behaviors are directly connected to inner feelings. Thus, discipline is a process that addresses behaviors and the feelings which cause them.

3. Help the child label his or her feelings with words as early as possible. The nine inborn feelings (interest, enjoyment, surprise, distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and dissmell) should be labeled with words. This will facilitate tension regulation and aid the transition to more mature ways of handling emotion.

4. Positive reinforcement—rewards and praise—will enhance the child's self-esteem when appropriate standards are met. Positive reinforcement is more effective in obtaining long-term behavioral compliance than frightening and shaming punishments.

5. Set a good example for the child. The child wants to be like the parents. Children identify with their parents, and they will put feelings and actions into words when they see their parents doing this. Who the parents are and how they behave will have a profound impact on the development of their children. Your child will follow your lead.


Suggested Readings:

American Academy of Pediatrics — Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health (1998). Guidance for Effective Discipline. Pediatrics 101: 723-728.

Darwin C (1872). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. (Third Edition, P. Ekman, Editor). Oxford University Press, 1998.

Gershoff ET (2008). Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children. Columbus OH: Center for Effective Discipline.

Gershoff ET (2002). Physical punishment by parents and associated child behaviors and experiences: A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin 128: 539-579.

Holinger PC (2003). What Babies Say Before They Can Talk: The Nine Signals Infants Use to Express Their Feelings. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Katan A (1961). Some thoughts about the role of verbalization in early childhood. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 16: 184-188.

Strauss MA (2001). Beating the Devil Out of Them: Physical Punishment in American Families (2nd Edition). Piscataway NJ: Transaction Publishers.