Are you part of that group who believes that the problem with our kids is that we are too easy on them? I think I have been one of those at some point. I remember my grandmother's life, how hard she had it growing up and how resilient she was as an adult. Not only that: she also had impeccable ethics and, despite having had three open heart surgeries, she had unbeatable energy until the day she died.
On the other hand, we have our children these days, whom we try to protect from anything that can make their lives harder. We make sure they don't feel the financial difficulties we go through. We work divorce agreements that keep their routines as unaltered as possible. We try to make sure their trajectory is smooth. But, to our surprise, they seem less and less capable of handling much simpler life situations than our parents and grandparents had to face. What is wrong? Is excessive protection making them more fragile?
That is our first thought. Maybe, we think, we should give them a handful of difficulties by default just to make sure they can handle challenges. Or perhaps we shouldn't be as easy on them when they make mistakes. Remember how our parents and grandparents were physically punished (at home and school) for every mistake they made? Remember how discipline was valued back then? And look how well they turned out! Maybe that's where we are failing, we think. We should perhaps get stricter or more physical, or maybe we should ground them more/more often. What are we doing wrong?
Well, if you think that harsh parental discipline can aid in building stronger and more resilient adults, think again. A study published last year showed that harsh parental discipline doesn't help manage problem behavior and hyperactivity. Instead of improving these problems, it worsens them.
The study used a sample of about 17,000 children. The researchers evaluated conduct, hyperactivity and emotional problems at ages 3, 5 and 7. They also measured the frequency that parents used physical and verbal discipline tactics of smacking, shouting and telling the child off at these same ages. As expected, they observed that children whose families were facing financial difficulties, the loss of a loved one, relocation, terminal illness, etc. had significantly higher levels of emotional and behavioral problems. These were called "high-risk families." On the other hand, families that weren't facing socioeconomic difficulties nor were going through adverse life events were considered "low-risk."
In both cases, the use of physical or verbal punishment increased emotional symptoms and behavioral problems over time (to a lesser extent on low-risk families). Researchers also noted that even though parents use harsh parental discipline as a result of behavior problems, its very use also creates them.
But if this doesn't work, what does?
I have raised a challenging kid. As such, I know how hard it can be not to resort to physical or verbal discipline when we are at our wit's end. It is not easy. Life comes with challenges, and not everyone is ready to deal with the many curve balls that are thrown at us. I, for one, divorced my first daughter's dad when she was 2, which affected her tremendously. On top of that, I was young and inexperienced, and she had a challenging personality. Put it all together, and we have the perfect storm. As I mentioned in another post, I did use physical punishment with her a few times, and I am not proud of that. But, most importantly, I don't think it has ever worked.
I remember once going to my therapist and telling her about how difficult it was for me to manage her. She then said that some kids don't need a "time out." Instead, they need a "time in," when we sit with them and stay close. We can talk, hug, or just stay together, to eliminate spaces and create closeness. She said that especially kids with an insecure-avoidant attachment style* need the "harsh parental discipline" to be in reverse. In other words, they need an overload of love, because they already have an overload of self-loathing and rejection.
Is it easy? Not at all? Will it work every time for everyone? Surely not. But if being harsh is not working, why not give it a try?
* Are you confused about what this term means? Check out my page of Psych Terms here.