Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Consequences of Punishing for Feeling

A common aspect of punitive parenting includes wanting to mold or control the child's feelings.

Take a moment to think about scenarios where the child is punished for feeling an emotion. She might be shamed, attacked, physically hurt (spankings, slappings, pinchings, etc) or verbally hurt (teased, mocked, degraded, etc).

"Stop crying. You're okay. That clown isn't scary."

"Shut up. I don't care if you're angry. My house, my rules."

"Give Aunt Mary a kiss. She's family."

"Don't you dare growl at that man! He was just being nice."

Oh, knock off the tears. It was just a little tumble. Stop being a baby."

"What do you mean, you aren't hungry? Do you know how hard your dad works to put food on the table?"

"Get back into your bed right this second. There is nothing to be scared about."

In all of these examples, the child feels an emotion and is acting on that emotion. The parents might not want the child to express an emotion a certain way, but through accident or on purpose, the parent ends up punishing the child for feeling the emotion. The child learns that some emotions are welcome and some are prohibited. Notice that guidance on how to process, express or relieve the "offending" emotion is rarely present. The child is left with few options...repress, dismiss or detach. None of these are healthy, in addition to losing out on learning opportunities.

What are examples of unconditional parenting, where the child is guided without being punished for the underlying emotion (or want/need)?

"I hear you crying. Are you scared of the clown? Let's step into the other room to talk about this."

"You're feeling angry about my decision. Do you want to share your thoughts?" (Notice that the decision is concrete. It's not up for debate, although per your decision, it can be open for discussion. This is especially helpful w/ older children, who can learn valuable resolution and team skills that will help them in their careers and relationships).

"Aunt Mary wants to give you a kiss. No? Okay, Aunt Mary, I'm sure she'll warm up to you over time. Thank you for respecting her boundaries."

"That man looked like he was being nice to you, but you growled at him. Did something feel wrong to you? It's okay to feel worried about someone, but we don't growl at people. Next time squeeze my hand when you feel worried about someone."

"Ouch! That tumble looked painful. Want a hug?"

"If your tummy is saying it's not hungry, then I will put your veggies in the fridge for later."

"Why are you out of bed? You say you feel scared. Let's double check the room and make sure we turned on the nightlight."

Here is an excerpt from "Awakening Intuition" by Mona Lisa Schulz that does a good job summarizing how a punitive paradigm can set the stage for a life of detachment and repression. These harsh scripts are given to us in childhood and become the story of our life unless we work very hard to replace them. As parents, we can work hard to never give them to our own children:

"All too often, however, we don't recognize our own feelings. We walk around feeling sad without really even knowing that sadness is the name of what we feel and without knowing why we feel the way we do.

Say you're a child and you're walking down the street with your mother when you run into an uncle on your father's side of the family whom you don't like because once, when you were alone with him, he touched you in a way you knew wasn't good. "Oh, honey, here's Uncle Ned," your mother says. "Shake hands with Uncle Ned." Instead of shaking his hand, of course, you shake your head, pull back, and try to hide behind your mother.

You're full of fear of this person who you know instinctively has violated you in some way, and you're also angry at being forced to greet him now as though nothing ever happened. But you can't put a name to your feeling, because you are a child and the language of your emotions isn't yet fully developed. "I hate him!" you cry. Your mother, embarrassed, scolds you. "Of course you don't hate Uncle Ned! He's a wonderful man," she says. "Now, you be good and shake his hand right now!"

The emotions you're feeling are being invalidated on the spot. So you begin at that moment to comprehend a particular language of emotions. You know that every time you see this man, your flesh crawls, your heart skips a beat, and you go cold all over. And then you begin to unplug from your emotional intuition network. Your emotions are there to protect you, but you're being taught not to hear or heed them.

This happens repeatedly in our lives. You have no right to be angry, we're told as children, because look at what you have--you have food, you have clothing, think of all the starving children in Africa. You shouldn't be angry, you should be grateful. So you quickly learn to bottle up your anger or to turn it aside. Instead you hang out with some other emotion, such as shame."

Want to learn more about parenting without shame, without fear, without punishment? Check out these resources. All links open to a new window.

Gavin's book gives concrete advice on how to get back in touch with OUR intuition for our children's sake:

Tricky people, not strangers, are the ones to worry about:

Can I have a hug? [This article might have some small pieces that are not entirely acceptable, but overall provides examples on other things to do during awkward greetings instead of outright coerce your child.]

Obedience, at what cost?

When children feel bad:

And my blog post here is a list of even more parenting resources:

Copyright Eva L.

When we acknowledge and affirm our children and their emotions, including the bad emotions, we can then guide them to healthy, effective expressions. This will give our children the skills they need to be authentic in their relationships. So ask yourself: do you want forced obedience from your child? Do you want your child to hug someone while feeling shaky inside? Do you want your child to smile outside while crying inside? What is the goal in your parenting?


  1. When my daughter is upset/hurt/etc. I do say "it's okay", but more in a "it's going to be okay, Mummy's with you now and we'll make it better together" kind of way. I always try my hardest not to invalidate her, but maybe this is something I have to work on...

  2. Thank you much for linking to my blog. It's been a great journey figuring out who our children are and how to give them the tools necessary to navigate through life.

  3. I completely agree with this. One thing I need to work on is my habt of saying 'It's OK'. Obviously it's not OK or my child wouldn't be upset.

  4. Thinking that best way for me to get over the "It's OK" that pops to my mouth is to focus on asking a question first. When I start things with a question, always seems to go better. :) Maybe it gives my brain time to catch up and validates feelings..

  5. While i fully understand what you are trying to show here...gentle parenting, i also think that children need more structure than you might be offering. Supper time is supper time, period. I work all day, I come home, snuggle my boys and make dinner. If dinner time is at the same time everyday, they will be hungry for it. Why on earth would I let them decide when to eat? I think a lot of the suggestions above are giving children adult responsibilities, and children arent capable nor should they be asked to make adult responsible choices. Children are born with a fresh mind, teachable if you will. If they were born with the knowledge of how to make choices on their own, then this wouldnt be a debate. However, they are not, it is up to us the parents to make these choices. Teaching my child to eat at dinner time is not only good manners, but prepares them for school, and even WORK habits down the road, and yes even college. It teaches them a regimen, that certain things are a certain way. If you teach your child at such a young age that they can do what they darn well feel like, then you are going to have serious issues down the road... Im not saying Im a drill sergeant. Im saying, we dont need to let our children make the rules just because we dont want to raise our children with the whip like our mothers did.I am only using the dinner time as an example of course of the fact that WE as parents need to focus more on raising our children, and teaching them right from wrong...and building character. I disagree and agree with some of the other examples I suppose.

    1. No. The point is forcing a child to eat when they're not hungry.. You need to be logical you obviously understand children need to be taught. They learn nothing but shitty eating habits when you force feed. If they don't eat at dinner when they're hungry. Don't give them a snack at night when they are hungry. Save the dinner and tell them "you weren't hungry at dinner so I saved this for now, since I knew you would be hungry later." If your child refuses and wants a snack still instead.. Still don't feed them it. "No snack, I saved your dinner since you didn't eat with us when it was time for supper. If you are so hungry then you can eat your leftovers. If you only want a snack you mustn't be as hungry.."

  6. @nicole forcing children to eat when they are not hungry is why the majority of americans are overweight and obese. Forcing feelings, emotions, and when someone is hungry or thirsty is impossible because the child (nor do adults) have anycontrol over those things. How would you feel if you felt sick to your stomach or weren't hungry and there was someone yelling/hitting/punishing you or forcing you to eat just bc that's what is convientant for them. There is parenting and teaching manners then there is a control issue and telling a child when they should or shouldn't be sad,hurt,scared, or hungry is a control issue NOT a parenting right.

  7. Yeah. I've pretty much learned that, while it's ok for my parents to be angry, upset, irritated, or frustrated, if I feel the same emotions, it's considered an attitude and that it will be punished.