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Punishment: why do we use it and what can we do instead?

July 31, 2023
By: Dr. Vanessa Kurdi, Clinical Psychologist

Imagine your 2-year-old refusing to hold your hand and starting to run towards a busy street.

Imagine your 5-year-old playing with Legos and shoving his little sister off his Lego tower.

Imagine learning your 12-year-old stole money from your wallet.

What’s your first reaction? If you’re human, you may be fuming! These situations are all very different, but as a parent or caregiver, you may think: How do I get my child to do what I want them to do or to stop them from doing what I don’t want them to do? Most will turn to punishment in an effort to teach children, sometimes thinking that children who feel bad or guilty about what they did will feel more pressure to change their behaviour. Since most of us come from an upbringing where punishments were common, in addition to living in a society that punishes misbehaviours (with fines, removal of privileges, imprisonment), we have been taught that using punishments is the main way to discipline a child or correct behaviour. But I want us to reconsider what we know and think more deeply about why we reach for punishment and why it may not be our best tool to discipline children.

Why punishment may not be the best tool

First, reaching for punishment speaks more about the loss of control we feel as adults and less about what we want children to learn. When these situations happen, we often feel at a loss and overwhelmed with emotions. We don’t know what to say or do to make it stop or improve the situation, and we are trying to regain control with punishment.

Second, punishment seeks compliance from children. Compliance means that they do what they are told to do to please us instead of doing what they think is best. Therefore, punishment doesn’t support children’s autonomy, meaning that they aren’t encouraged to develop their ability to think by themselves. This is at odds with what we usually want children to learn. We want them to understand and internalize the rules and see them as useful and important. For example, you don’t want to have to threaten your children with punishment for them to brush their teeth every day. Perhaps, your goal is that they learn the importance of brushing their teeth for oral health and eventually find the internal motivation to do it by themselves.

Finally, punishments also only work as long as our methods of control work. This method can work when children are young and parents have physical control over them. However, the punishment may need to be constantly changed to apply more pressure to comply as children grow. You can cancel your young child’s playdate, but what will you do when your adolescent can leave the house by themselves?

So, what can we do instead? Let’s get curious about what happens in the situations when we reach for punishment so we can understand how to change. Our understanding will help us consider ways to discipline our children that help them learn the necessary social and emotional skills to regulate themselves.

Questions to ask ourselves for considerate discipline

1) What do I feel?

I put this question first as a reminder that parents and caregivers have emotions too! And we need to take care of them first. When you feel overwhelmed and taken over by anger, disappointment, or sadness, you may have a hard time thinking clearly and being solid and responsive to your child’s needs. So, identify first how you feel and acknowledge it to yourself: “I’m really angry/ stressed/ afraid!”. In the example with our 5-year-old, maybe you felt angry that your child shoved their sister.

Then, ask yourself: Is this situation an emergency? If safety is compromised and it is an emergency, act now for the safety of your child. For example, if your child is not listening to you and running in the street – it’s time to act and pick up your child, not to reflect and talk! However, if it is not a reel emergency, you can take care of your emotions. Do you need to take a short break and let your child know you’ll come back in a minute? Do you need to just take a few deep breaths before you respond? Do you need to remind yourself that you are a good parent with a good child going through a tough moment?

When you have more time, you can also reflect on why you felt those emotions when faced with the situation. For example, is your anxiety taking over and convincing you that your child will never learn to stop hitting and that you are a bad parent? Or is your child expressing their anger out loud scaring or annoying you? Many adults were not allowed to express anger when they were young and can have difficulty knowing how to receive that anger and support children to express it in socially acceptable ways.

2) What does my child feel and need?

Why did my child react the way they did? Every behaviour communicates something. When we get curious about their emotions and needs, we take the position of being on their team. It will be you and your child against a problem and not you against your child. This helps avoid power struggles.

Trying to understand your child’s feelings or behaviours doesn’t mean that you have to approve or agree with them. It just means that you are trying to connect with them and to get to the cause of their behaviours to help them change or learn more efficiently.

Going back to our second example: Was your child frustrated by a younger sibling who destroys everything and doesn’t listen? Was he scared and just wanted to protect his Lego tower? You can acknowledge that verbally to your child.

3) What does my child need to learn?

This is the step that will help us understand what skills we should encourage in our children. Do they need to learn how to express their emotions and needs? Do they need help problem-solving? Do they need our support to apologize?

Basically, how can you be a coach for your child to develop their ability to regulate their emotions and behaviour? When we think this way, we aim for cooperation and we support our child’s autonomy. There likely won’t be a need for punishment.

For example, you could say to your 5-year-old: “I won’t allow anyone to shove anyone” and then separate the two children (safety first!). You could then acknowledge each child’s feelings: “Maybe you were scared your sister would destroy your tower when she came close. // You really wanted to play with your brother.” You could then work on calming his body. Once calmed, two things can be discussed: how to repair his relationship with his sister and how to prevent this situation from happening again. This might mean brainstorming with your 5-year-old. For example, he could apologize and give a hug or make a tower for his sister to destroy. Next time he could call for an adult, redirect his sister, make his precious constructions on a higher table, or give his sister blocs to play alongside. This resolution is more likely to help him learn how to solve problems and conflicts than a punishment that would have made him feel even more angry at his sister or ashamed of himself.

On a last note, sometimes we may have to review our expectations depending on children’s age and developmental stage. Are they even able to do what we’re asking of them? Sometimes, we expect children to behave in ways even adults can’t consistently do! For example, a young child will express their emotions with their body before they can verbalize them, so we can’t expect them to be able to name their emotions every time.


Parenting is difficult and can make parents feel a whole array of emotions! Understandably, parents reach for the tools they know or grew up with when they need to discipline their children. However, punishment may not be the most optimal tool to help your children learn how to manage their emotions and their behaviour. Learning to acknowledge your own emotion, validate your children’s emotions and needs, and center your interventions on the skills your children need to learn may actually help you reach your goals. Importantly, this type of discipline will also encourage your children to develop their autonomy and help you build a trusting parent-child relationship. In the long run, your relationship will help your children continue to come to you when they face problems and listen to you when you talk to them.

The clinic will start a 7-week workshop group on considerate parenting in the fall. Contact us for more information and signal your interest!


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About the author

Vanessa Kurdi completed her doctorate in psychology at the Université de Montréal in the Child and Adolescent division, worked as a research fellow at the University of Reading (UK) and Doshisha University (Japan) and is a psychologist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.