Behavioral scientists use the term “punishment” narrowly to describe actions that decrease the likelihood that a specific behavior is repeated. And in that academic discipline, “negative” indicates removal. So from a parenting perspective, a negative punishment entails taking something your kids enjoy away from them to get them to discontinue a behavior. Do your kids keep bickering? You take away their screen time. Does your teenager continue to exude sass after numerous warnings? They don’t get to hang out with their friends on Friday night.
But can parents use negative punishment effectively? And if it’s part of their parenting toolkit, just how should it be used?
What Is Negative Punishment?
Negative punishment is an essential concept in behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner’s “theory of operant conditioning,” which he studied extensively in the 1930s. But importantly, his experiments used rats and pigeons as subjects — it’s not the best idea to extrapolate his findings into the emotional dynamics of a parent-child relationship. Still, from a raw behavioral standpoint, he understood that addition, subtraction, pleasure, and pain were all variables that could be strategically implemented to change behavior.
Skinner’s work is partly why punishment carries unhelpful overtones as parents think about modifying their child’s behavior. “I generally try not to label consequences as punishments as it attaches a negative connotation and offsets the learning objective you are trying to teach the child,” explains Rashmi Parmar, M.D., a psychiatrist with MindPath Care Centers. In other words, negative consequences may be a better way to frame the tactic.
There’s a difference between taking something away from your kid in an attempt to change their behavior and taking something away from them because you want to get back at them on some level. So keep the tool of negative consequences in your box, but use it with thoughtfulness and precision.
Negative Punishment Examples Parents Should Avoid
Parents must choose consequence carefully. Restricting a privilege, for instance, requires kids don’t access it through other means, otherwise, the original consequence will lose its meaning. Further, all the family members must be on the same page of limit setting. Try to identify and remove the trigger that leads to a child’s negative behavior. Empathize with the child and provide support even while trying to apply a consequence.
The consequence should also be related to the behavior. If you are trying to get your kid to adhere to screen time limits, taking away their cell phone or tablet makes a lot more sense than taking away a random non-screen item or grounding them from social activities.
“I generally recommend parents to avoid taking away things that will help kids manage their emotions positively during the consequence, such as stress toys, coloring, or drawing,” advises Parmar. “And I don’t recommend holding kids back from attending rare or special occasions like a graduation party or a birthday celebration that they can’t re-experience.”
She warns that the danger is that levying such a consequence can cause your child to harbor hard feelings toward you. And if you, as the parent, have to miss out on the event to supervise your child, you may be sowing seeds of resentment toward your child.
As a matter of practicality, it’s seldom a good idea to take away constructive things that contribute to the overall learning and development. “Parents should avoid taking away hobbies or extracurricular activities like sports or drama. And misbehavior may call for increased monitoring, don’t rush to take away tools that the child needs for their daily routine, such as a school-issued laptop,” Parmar says.
How to Effectively Use Negative Consequences
It’s best to avoid jumping straight to the nuclear option. When determining an appropriate consequence, the first challenge is to approach the decision from a place of poise and rationality. “The consequence needs to be realistic, logical and defined to a specific period that matches up to the gravity of the negative behavior you are trying to correct,” Parmar says.
Grounding your teenager for a month the first time they break curfew is overkill. That kind of overreach can feel retributive and adversarial, not putting them in a great place to learn from their mistakes.
“Consequences that are loo long in length also introduce the danger of the child getting distracted from the goal and eventually not caring about the consequence at all,” explains Parmar. “If the child feels like the target is too impossible to achieve and there is nothing else to motivate them on a short term basis, they will most likely refuse to participate or follow directions.”
Admittedly, effective discipline requires a clarity of thought that can be difficult to grasp in the heat of the moment. There’s no shame in giving yourself a time-out when things get intense. It’s better to give yourself the time and space to make a wise decision than it is to allow impulsivity to guide your discipline.
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