Punishment vs Discipline – Part 1

Catch me making good choices

Raising a child with ADHD is hard. There is no doubt about it. It is well documented that parents, particularly mothers, of children with ADHD live with considerably higher stress levels than parents with neurotypical children, and this stress level more than doubles with every child with ADHD within the family (Barkley).

ADHD has a significant impact on adult-child relationships, and this is not just limited to the parent-child relationship, but even teacher-child relationships as well. It often happens in a cycle where both the parent/teacher and child contribute to a sequence of behaviour which often gets worse over time.

Parents of children with ADHD often are caught in this cycle and believe that to get their child to do anything they have to punish them or inflict a significant consequence on them. But the bottom line is, that punishing a child and threatening them with consequences to get them to behave, doesn’t make them behave better. It actually makes them, over time, behave worse.

Before you continuing reading, download the workbook that goes along with this post (and the following post), so you can really think about, and act on what you read here!

I want you to take time here and really think about punishment? How do you punish your child? And does it really work? I used to believe that the only way to get my son and daughter with ADHD to do anything was to threaten them with a consequence or out of sheer frustration, yell, and still, that never worked.

The Oxford Dictionary says punishment is “the infliction or imposition of a penalty for an offence” or “rough treatment and handling”. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary says it is “suffering, pain or loss that serves as retribution” or “severe, rough or disastrous treatment.”

Punishment actually changes the way a child thinks about themselves. Children often feel humiliated by punishment and believe that they are “naughty” rather than the behaviour they are doing is undesirable. Punishment often causes children to dwell angrily on the person inflicting the punishment, rather than dealing with the issue that they were being punished for.

Punishment also doesn’t TEACH the child how to behave. It often does the opposite. It shows children that they are not in control of themselves. They end up relying on their parents to manage their behaviour because they have no skills to control their own. Often, the only thing children learn is not to get caught when they break the rules or lie to get out of trouble.

Some common punishments you hear about are:

  • Smacking or rough handling (e.g. pinching, grabbing, hitting with an implement, like a belt)
  • Yelling (e.g. scolding, name-calling, demanding)
  • Making the child eat something (e.g. soap for swearing)

The evidence of the long term effects of punishment is overwhelming. Smacking, yelling or forcing something into your child’s mouth as punishment has a long-lasting psychological impact. Although it may appear to be effective in the short-term, it does not change a child’s behaviour in the long term. It is linked to:

  • increased child aggression
  • delinquency / antisocial behaviour
  • mental health issues including depression, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, use of drugs and alcohol and general psychosocial maladjustment.
  • breakdown in parent-child relationships
  • family violence in adulthood (spousal assault in later life)
  • slower cognitive development adversely affects academic achievement.

The above outcomes are for children who have experienced normativepunishment (i.e. non-abusive punishment by definition – however, there is the argument, that all punishment is abusive). But despite these outcomes, up to 43% of Australians report that they still smack their children.

Research also suggests, that yelling at a child is just as harmful than physical punishment. As soon as you begin to raise your voice, you activate a child’s limbic system. This is the part of the brain responsible for the fight-flight-or-freeze response. So, when we start yelling at a child, they might freeze or shutdown, run away or even fight back. A recent study shows that up to 70% of Australians use yelling as a form of discipline.

If all the evidence states that children should not be punished, then why are we still doing it? Researchers from Monash University investigated Australian case law where the punishment of a child had been discussed in detail. They found that the three main reasons that punishment is still used are: emotional anger or stress related to a child’s behaviour (88% of respondents), teaching the child a lesson (75%) and emotional anger or stress related to the adult’s situation (74%). It is all about the parent, not what is best for the child.

I relate to this. Although I never smack my children, make them eat something as a punishment or call them names, I definitely get to the point where I yell, or inflict illogical consequences that I end up regretting later (e.g. You can’t have screens for a month).  This is not because I actually want to, or I think this is an appropriate way to punish my children. It is because I am so stressed, tired or angry, and I have lost my own behavioural and emotional control.  And of course, it doesn’t work, the majority of the time it only escalates the situation, and then I end up feeling like a failure as a parent to my children with ADHD.

Can you relate to this? I am not blaming parents here, I’m walking this with you. Children with ADHD are tough to raise, and this is backed up by decades of research. The brilliant thing is here, however, that if we can understand what is happening and how it is working in our relationship with our child, we can stop the cycle.

Many years ago, after our first intervention appointment with my son’s psychologist, my husband and I were given homework: We weren’t allowed to punish our son, at all, for two weeks. What? Not punish our son with ADHD and Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) for two weeks? How can I just let him get away with his bad behaviours for two weeks? Our house would be WILD without punishment – well, even more wild!

After I left the psychologist’s office and began reflecting on my behaviour management, I began to identify how I was punishing my son for his undesirable behaviours. I really encourage you to do this. It can be tough to do, but it is really worth it. Without knowing where we are, it is hard to make a change and move forward. I found out three things about my punishment style.

  1. I imposed a LOT of significant consequences. I would even try to be proactive with this and plan my consequences ahead of time for his rule-breaking, so I was ready.
  2. I went into situations expecting a fight (which was my lived experience), so I often entered with a commanding demeanour.
  3. And when nothing else seemed to work, I would end up yelling.

So, I took the homework seriously. The psychologist had told me how to respond to my son’s poor behaviours, and none of it was through punishment. So, no consequences, yelling or demands of my child for two whole weeks. This was going to be tough! However, I couldn’t believe, that even after a couple of days, we noticed a massive improvement in my son’s compliance, a significant reduction in meltdowns, which also meant less aggressive behaviour and overall a calmer, more peaceful family life.

Yeah right, I can hear you saying. Now look closely here. I didn’t say we weren’t allowed to discipline him. So, what’s the difference?

People often think that punishment and discipline are synonymous, but there’s a distinct difference. Discipline is about changing behaviour, not punishing the child. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “to train or develop by instruction and exercise, especially in self-control.”

Discipline is often talked about as positive parenting. It is not that the child isn’t learning right from wrong, or not learning that there are consequences for their actions, but they are not being punished for their mistakes. I want you to really understand the difference here. Punishment brings shame and payback, whereas discipline brings training and teaching from a place of support and love. And this is so important when we are talking about a child with ADHD. 

ADHD is a disorder of self-regulation. It is a neurodevelopmental disability that predisposes the children who have it, to rule-breaking. If we punish a child for a disorder that is out of their control, they are going to believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. Children with ADHD don’t need to be punished for their lack of self-regulation and behavioural control. They need to be taught strategies and skills of self-control.

So, how can we shift into providing positive discipline for our children instead of punishing them? I believe it is a mindset shift, from “They need to be punished” to “What skills does my child need to make a better choice next time?” I have learned so much since that first appointment with my son’s psychologist, through my own study and experiences, and I promise I don’t always get this right. But these next four strategies have completely changed our family and eliminated the cycle of conflict – most days.

Make sure you persevere with these. Doing them once is not going to work!

Always discipline from a place of calm.

Children with ADHD are challenging to live with. They have a disorder of self-control! They are going to make many more poor choices than a neurotypical child. If I come in and attempt to discipline out of a place of anger or frustration, I am going to end up, more often than not, punishing my children, and my discipline is not going to be effective. If I can take a step back and enter the situation from a place of calm, I am going to not punish but train my children to act more appropriately, and they are more likely to listen to me.

What brings you back to a place of calm?

For me, it is listening to a podcast on my way to work, drinking a cup of tea and watching the kids bounce on the trampoline or patting my dog. Sometimes, it’s stepping out onto my back deck, looking at the beautiful sky and taking a few breaths, praying, having a shower and singing my heart out, or sometimes it is even just having a good cry.

Settle yourself, calm your own emotions then step into discipline with the mindset of “what does my child need to learn here?”

Don’t play tennis!

We often get caught in this tennis match with our children. Our child serves a negative emotion or comments at us, and we return it with another. It can go on and on, depending on how good at tennis we all are.  

But here is the excellent news. You are actually in control of the ball. You can’t control what comes out of anyone else’s mouth, but you are in full control of what comes out of yours. Just like a tennis match, you can stop the ball at any time.

I have found the best way to do this is to emotion coach the child through their feelings. Check out our previous blog about how to emotion coach. It is incredible how quickly it can defuse a situation when we just coach our children through the emotion of the situation, rather than being combative. Despite popular parenting opinion, we do not have to win every argument or every exchange. It is not a tennis match; it is not a competition. This is about teaching our children how to appropriately behave. If we do it well, it’s a win: win. What does this look like?

“It’s time to turn off the screens.”

“No! I’m just getting to the good bit.”

“Yep, but time is up. Turn it off.”

“No! You always do this! Turn it off when it gets to the good bit”

“That’s because you always re-start the movie. You know you only have 45 mins.”

“You are so stupid!”

And so on.

But what about if it goes this way instead.

“It’s time to turn off the screens.”

“No! I’m just getting to the good bit.”

“Oh! That sucks. I hate when I have to interrupt something in the good part.”

“I’m not turning it off”.

“I can tell you are angry at me for turning it off now. But your screen time is over. Would you like me to write down where it’s up to, and we can start from this point tomorrow?”

Now I am not naive; I have been involved in many a conversation like this. It doesn’t always end ideally. But if we are firm, kind and stay in control while providing emotion coaching through the situation, our child learns to sit with some of those negative emotions without always having to meltdown or be punished for expressing them. And, we don’t end up escalating and moving into punishment.

Catch them being good

I remember when my son was first diagnosed, I felt he went from one wrong choice to another and I really struggled some days to catch him making any positive choices. But when I really looked, there were so many things that he was doing right; I just had to look a bit harder for them. They just don’t always stand out as much as negative behaviours.

Discipline is as much about positively reinforcing the right choices our kids make than correcting their poor decisions or inappropriate behaviours.

You might have to start small and look hard. Did your son say “Good morning” to you? Tell him “I love it when you say good morning to me! I’m so glad you are my son.” Is your daughter playing nicely with her sister? Tell her! “Wow, I’m so impressed with the way you are sharing with your sister!”

I love the saying “What you focus on grows!” What do you want to grow in your child? Focus on that. I had been so focused on the negative behaviours my son was exhibiting, that when I began to give him praise for the little things, I just couldn’t stop! It is all about how we frame behaviours in our mind.

My son would go out of his way to make the choices I praised him for again. I remember once he picked me a dandelion flower. I said “Oh, what a lovely thing to do! That made me feel very loved.” From then on, every single chance he got, he would pick me a flower. I treasured every single one. Our kids want to please us. Tell them when you appreciate them.

Catch them being good then show and tell them. Click the button below to download a FREE printable – “Catch me making good choices.” Keep them with you and on the fridge if you need any reminders of what to say or how to show you appreciate it when your children act positively.

I found it extremely helpful here also to choose something to focus on to catch them being good, and this changes all the time. Currently, my son with ADHD, always blames other people for his poor choices (e.g. He broke a window because he threw a pear at his sister. It was, of course, his sister’s fault for moving out of the way of the flying pear!) So, at the moment, I am working on catching him taking responsibility and telling him e.g., “Wow, mate. It took guts to tell me you were responsible for that. I am so proud of you.” Now, it doesn’t take away the consequence of the behaviour. Still, it certainly makes the discussion about consequences much calmer.

My daughter with ADHD really struggles to share. So, I make a focussed effort to praise her when I’m seeing her share! “Wow! You shared your chocolate with your sister! What a kind sister!” or “What a champion. You just shared your doll!” Rather than always punishing or focusing on the negative, find the positive and catch them doing it!

I want to challenge you to implement some of these tools if you are not already. I am always adding tools to my toolkit. Some work, some don’t. But I speak from experience. This is a much happier and healthier way to live than in a cycle of anger and frustration.

Now, of course, children with ADHD still need consequences for their behaviours; otherwise, they would never learn from their mistakes. The research shows that children with ADHD need more immediate and powerful consequences than children without ADHD. So, in the next blog, we will continue delving into how to discipline, not punish, your children for the poor choices or negative behaviour.

Let’s get ADHD Done Differently.

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