Parenting and the Use of Physical Force

Better to talk out than physically act out to try and get the parental way

Posted Sep 29, 2014

In response to some excellent questions from a reader to the previous blog about engaging in “corrective violence,” this blog continues that discussion.

Basically, the questions were three. 1) Should all use of physical force by parents be avoided; or are there cases where they might feel it is appropriate? 2) When a strong-willed or willful child is contesting the parental will, is use of physical force wise? 3) What alternatives to physical force does a parent have when faced with defiant opposition?

It’s important to be mindful that few parenting guidelines are absolute because every family situation is in some ways unique, and of course parenting values vary widely from home to home. In addition, on the field of daily action every parent must make many decisions on the fly, sometimes applying physical force as a thoughtful act, but more often spontaneously reacting so in the emotional moment.

WHEN MIGHT PARENTS FEEL THE USE OF PHYSICAL FORCE IS JUSTIFIED? Start with the example of physically grabbing a child, and consider 10 possible causes that might motivate such a forceful response.

Grabbing an impulsive child to pull them back from possible or certain danger: Force for Physical Protection.

Grabbing an enraged child until they can emotionally recover and refrain from doing harm: Force for Safe Self-Control.

Grabbing a child to cope in a crisis situation: Force for Emergency Direction.

Grabbing a distracted child so they listen to what you are saying: Force for Commanding Attention.

Grabbing the child to back up firm words with convincing action: Force for Showing Serious Intent.

Grabbing the child to show who is the boss: Force for Asserting Authority.

Grabbing the child to express frustration with opposition: Force to Signal Emotional Arousal.

Grabbing the child to punish wrong doing: Force to Correct Misbehavior.

Grabbing the child to win a battle of wills: Force to Overcome a Challenge.

Grabbing the child to pay back for injury received: Force for Reprisal.

The parental use of physical force is always risky. When it inflicts emotional or bodily injury "to teach a lesson,", as in “corrective violence” (see previous blog), I believe damage to the parent/child relationship can be done if basic trust in safety with the parent is lost. Important to understand, however, is that such a loss of trust in the parent does not neccessarily mean loss of love for or from the parent. 

Every parent has to decide how much, if at all, to resort to physical force. Check your beliefs by checking which if any of the ten causes above meet with your permission to see how force-free or force-dependent your parenting might be. The choice of using your physical superiority on the child in a forceful way is up to you.

IS THE USE OF PHYSICAL FORCE WISE WITH A STRONG-WILLED CHILD?

A strong-willed child is somewhat different from a child who is not so temperamentally inclined. Deny gratification to a non-willful child and that young person may be disappointed or otherwise unhappy, but accepts the denial and moves on. Not so the strong-willed child who can react quite differently by making what I call “a conditional shift.” When it comes to wanting, getting what one wants, or opposing what she or he doesn’t want, this child’s thinking seems to run like this: “If I want it, I want it a lot; if I want it a lot, then I must have it; if I must have it, then I SHOULD get it (the conditional shift); if I should get it, then I am entitled; if I don’t get that to which I am entitled, I will get angry and use anger to try and get my way.”

I believe it is generally unwise to get in a power struggle with strong-willed child or adolescent when a want has been denied, or when a parental request has been refused. The consequences can be isometric. That is, the harder you push, the harder the willful child pushes back against your resistance, the stronger the child becomes from the exertion. In addition, for a strong-willed child, adult example can encourage adolescent imitation, the young person resorting to more forceful tactics in response to parental force. “I pushed my son and he pushed me back!” Finally, “I win or you win” is a losing proposition with a strong-willed child because both winning and losing only strengthen her resolve. My advice: Do NOT use physical force in disagreement with a stubborn, tenacious, resistant, outspoken strong-willed child. You may "win" the battle with superior force; but you will also "win" a more determined opponent in the process. 

What to do? Calmly hold to your position of denial or insistence. When asked “Why?” don’t say, “Because I said so, that’s why!” (This statement of arbitrary, unquestionable authority can be inflammatory.) Better to explain your decision, prepare to be embattled, but do not fight back. Give the willful child a full explanation and a full hearing, then restate what you denied or requested, declaring how there is no more you can say, but you are willing to hear the young person out. Then state that as a parent you will be firm where you have to and flexible where you can. This is a time when you need to be firm. Now repeat your stand for as often and long as it takes to get consent. Use your power of steadfast persistence to wear adolescent resistance down to show you mean what you say.

And if willful disobedience occurs, simply state this reality. “You are in charge of your own choices; not me. However, we are in this relationship together, and it needs to be a two-way street. If you cannot work with what I want, I am going to have a harder time giving the provision and permission that you will want, and that I would like you to have.”

WHAT ARE THE PARENTAL ALTERNATIVES TO PHYSICAL FORCE?

The parental goal of resorting to physical force is usually to get their way with the child. The question to consider is: “Is this the only or the best way to get their way?” Since physical force is ‘acting out,’ it’s generally worth exploring other ‘talking out’ options first. Why? Because, in addition to power of verbal communication being less risky than of power of physical force, the choice of parental treatment is formative.

The approach they use with the child now can influence the young person’s behavior when in frustration, disagreement, or conflict in subsequent relationships. Now is the training ground for later. Thus in counseling a parent explains his use of verbal and physical force: “Sure I sometimes yell at and shake my kids, why not? I was yelled at and shaken growing up. That’s what parents do.” So this is always a connection to consider: as a parent, how you treat your child or adolescent with physical force can can teach that young person how to treat others as a parent, and perhaps even partner, in the future.

Obviously, in saying all this I am professionally biased. When parent and adolescent come in for counseling because they are in a hard (hurt or frustrated or angry) place with each other, I do not encourage them to act out and resolve their differences by resorting to a contest of who has the superior physical force. I help them talk out their differences and make decisions to better get along. I believe the spoken exchange or words to create understanding and arrangements works best.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at ww.carlpickhardt.com

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Expressive Inhibition