Why Punishment Doesn’t Work and 3 Essential Things To Do Instead

When our kids are disrespectful, don’t listen to us, or break rules and make poor decisions, it’s easy to get angry and threaten or punish them right out of the gate.

We might think to ourselves, “If I don’t punish them they will become spoiled brats or continue to be disrespectful or break the rules, etc.”

Many of us were punished by our own parents and it seemed to work, or so we thought, so it makes sense to think punishment will work with our kids. 

And when we see temporary compliance, we assume punishment works. That compliance, however, is often short lived and as parents, we can feel disappointed – even devastated – to learn our kids are sneaking around, lying, and growing increasingly hostile and resentful toward us. We wonder why what worked with our parents doesn’t seem to work with us and our own kids.

Extensive behavioral studies have shown that while punishment can result in an increase in obedience, it does not actually help them to make lasting changes in their behavior over the long haul.

Here is why punishing our kids doesn’t work:

  • Punishment doesn’t motivate them to change their behavior. It actually encourages them to lie and avoid punishment.
  • Punishment doesn’t teach them the skills required to have healthy relationships. 
  • Punishment doesn’t show them what to do differently the next time, or how poor choices impact them and those around them.
  • Punishment doesn’t rebuild trust.
  • Punishment can be seen as uncaring, unfair, and often creates resistance, resentment, and a wedge in our relationship with our kids. 
  • When we punish our kids, they focus on what we are doing “to them” rather than what they did that was wrong in the first place. This can result in becoming more selfish and get in the way of them developing empathy for others. 

So if punishment doesn’t work, what does?

The good news is that there is a better way! Setting boundaries and consequences that make sense can create the lasting changes we are looking for and improve our relationships with our tweens and teens. And isn’t this what we desire as parents? 

Addressing problems together can actually make our relationships stronger when we focus on the issues that need to be addressed and teach problem-solving skills.

If you are ready to try a different approach, to shift the way you are parenting, here are 3 essential things you need to know when setting boundaries:

  1. Make LOVE your aim. 

We all want to love our kids well. But there can be differing opinions about what this really means. It sounds good in theory, but what does loving our kids well look like when it comes to setting boundaries? 

As you might imagine, setting boundaries can create conflict. 

Seeking to stay calm and caring in times of conflict, though not easy, is key.

If you want to build strong relationships, help your kids mature, and teach them how to develop healthy communication skills in the midst of conflict, they need to know without a doubt that you are on their side and you care about them. They need to know you love them unconditionally.

The message needs to be…

“I am on your side. I am not doing this because I want to punish you. I am doing this because I care about you and I want your best. I love you.”

If you find that many of your interactions with your kids aren’t working, it’s good to ask yourself, “Do they know I am for them and not against them? Am I making that clear?”

You see, punishment can send the message, “I have power over you. You will do what I say.”

With healthy boundaries and consequences, you can communicate, “I love you. I am for you. I am on your team. I’m walking alongside you, wanting your very best.”

  1. Affirm the good.

As parents, It can be easy to get stuck if we are focusing on the negative – what our kids aren’t doing, or what they are doing that’s irritating. The tougher the kid, the harder it can be to see the good stuff. 

As we communicate in positive, healthy ways, we can affirm our tweens and teens and share what we want for them. 

This can sound like:

“You are a good kid. I know that. And I know how much you care about your relationships. I know your friends/family mean a lot to you. But you need to work through the way you react when you get angry. It is hurting your relationships. It’s pushing people away, and I want something better for you. I’m not interested in trying to control you, punish you, or take stuff away for no reason. This is about helping you grow and be successful in life.”

This doesn’t mean that we won’t be angry or that we won’t feel like handing out punishments, because sometimes we will. 

But we can be intentional to check our attitudes and make sure we convey to our kids that we care about them, see the good in them, and want the best for them. 

  1. Relationship comes first: Invest time building a strong relationship.

When was the last time you laughed with your kid?

One day I asked my daughter, Sarah,  “What do I do that means the most to you?”

“When you laugh at my jokes,” she replied.

Her answer surprised me. At the time my relationship with her was strained (honestly that’s an understatement). We were constantly fighting about homework. She was struggling in school and not handing in assignments. I was at my wit’s end. She was angry at my constant nagging and was showing it by being disrespectful. 

It was easy to get caught up in the negative behaviors. I realized most of the time I was spending with her I was nagging, checking her grades, and focusing on the things she wasn’t doing versus all the wonderful things about her. I was trying to hold her accountable. But it didn’t work. In fact, it made matters worse.

It’s easy to focus so much on our kids’ problematic behavior that we forget what it’s like to just enjoy and appreciate our kids for who they are. We need to remind ourselves that behind the problematic behavior is a human we love more than we can even put into words. My daughter needed to know that I still saw her as the person she is – that funny, witty, and lovable daughter who I enjoyed being with. 

If you have a kid that you are constantly butting heads with, you may want to focus on investing in your relationship with them before trying to “fix” them.

So look for ways to build the relationship:

  • If they aren’t talking, hang with them without saying anything. Just be there.
  • Find creative ways and opportune times to connect. When are they prone to talk? 
  • If something doesn’t work, keep at it. Try again. Don’t give up!

Shifting from punishment to boundaries with consequences can take some practice, but the more you do it the more natural it will become. And as you consistently communicate in loving ways, look for ways to affirm your child, and build into the relationship, hopefully, you will see real improvements, both in the choices your child makes and the quality of relationship you both enjoy.

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