The problem with punishment

A generation or so ago, parents still held a very clear idea of how children “should” behave. Tides are changing and as we’re becoming more aware of how a child develops and what’s going on in their brain we’re starting to understand more about why they act the way they do; why children can seem so unreasonable sometimes, can demand independence one day and cling to you the next, have tantrums and meltdowns, find it hard to listen when you need them to and keep their emotions in check. 

And as a result, we’re becoming more aware of how children “should” actually behave and what is completely and wholly (and often frustratingly) developmentally normal. 

I was working with a client recently who had been feeling down. She was starting a new business and the extra burden was causing her to feel stressed and completely burnt out. She was snapping at her husband, but felt like she couldn’t help it and would feel excruciatingly guilty and ashamed as a result. The feelings were so painful, they became all-consuming and it was stopping her from being able to focus on what she neeeded to do. She had become completely stuck in her pain with no idea of how she could help herself to feel better. 

I spent some time with her understanding what was keeping her stuck. And she realised that somewhere along the line she had developed beliefs like “I don’t deserve to feel good when I’ve done something bad” and “I shouldn’t be kind to myself when I’ve done something wrong” and that’s why she was trapped in these feelings of guilt and shame. She didn’t realise that you can mess up, get things wrong, make horrible decisions in the spur of the moment and that you can still be kind to yourself. Making mistakes doesn’t mean you’re “bad” and you don’t have to be punished.

This is the problem with punishment. 

Growing up, many of us experienced punishment in the form of shouting, being smacked, being given a “telling off” or time-out, given the cold shoulder or having our toys taken away. Often for things that we had no control over, accidents, mistakes, mis-judgments or even just bad decisions in that moment.

Did this form of punishment mean that you were less likely to repeat the behaviour again in the future? Possibly. But there are other ways to achieve the same outcome that don’t also give the message that if “you do something bad, you have to pay for it”.

Because what often happens over time is this idea of “doing something bad” generalises. So that you feel “bad” if you’ve become emotional or overwhelmed, or felt out of control, or snapped, or had an off day, or made a bad decision or let yourself down in some way. And this perpetuates feelings of low self-worth, of feeling embarrassed, guilty, that awful, icky overwhelming feeling that robs joy from life, and not understanding why you are stuck. 

So what’s the alternative? 

Compassion. Understanding that we’re all just human. And as such, we are all flawed. And will all have times that we don’t live up to our own standards, when we make mistakes, say things we don’t mean, act in ways that we’d rather not, feel overwhelmed and more. That this is a normal part of life and doesn’t mean we need to be punished in order to pay for it or learn for next time.

In fact, when we show ourselves compassion, we feel calmer and are more likely to be able think clearly about what caught us out and how we’d like to behave the next time a difficult situation crops up.

And it’s the same for our kids. If we can show them compassion when they mess up – which means understanding what was going on for them and supporting them to learn the lessons we want them to learn, without causing them to feel guilty or embarrased at the same time – then they are more likely to feel calm enough to take these messages in. And perhaps more importantly, they will understand compassion – so that when they’re older and feel like they’ve let themselves down, or mess up, or a relationship ends, or they get made redundant or the house is a mess or any other of the challenging situations in life that they’re bound to experience – instead of beating themselves up and feeling awful, they will hear your voice and be able to gently guide themselves back, show themselves kindness and support. So that, instead of getting stuck, they can move on and grow from everything that life throws their way.

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