The American Academy of Pediatrics just released a new policy statement recommending against corporal punishment (define as “noninjurious, open-handed hitting with the intention of modifying child behavior”) and nonphysical forms of punishment “that are cruel and degrading and thus incompatible with the convention include, for example, punishment which belittles, humiliates, denigrates, scapegoats, threatens, scares, or ridicules the child.” The statement also includes things like forcing children to hold uncomfortable positions and forced ingestions (like washing a child’s mouth out with soap). What does this mean for parents?
Effective discipline is meant to teach children appropriate behavior and self-regulation, protect children from harm, and reinforce behavioral patterns taught by caregivers. This should be done in a way that is appropriate to a child’s age and development. Multiple studies have looked at corporal punishment and have found that it may help in the short-term but not in the long-term. Large, long-term studies have shown that spanking increases aggressiveness and acting-out behaviors in kids and decreases language learning. A history of corporal punishment and verbal abuse is even associated with changes in kids’ brains on MRI. Verbal abuse in adolescents is associated with mental health problems like depression and anxiety.
Many parents were spanked as kids and struggle with how to discipline their children without corporal punishment. There are lots of alternatives:
-Kids have short memories and don’t remember what you say, so set patterns of behavior and routine.
-For little kids, take them out of the situation and redirect them to something else.
-Say yes as much as possible, instead of saying no.
-Kids remember the last thing you said. Try “please walk” instead of “no running.”
-Give choices as much as possible, but make both of the options acceptable to you. “Do you want to eat carrots or broccoli.” They feel like they have a say but you are controlling the choices.
-Set children up for success. It’s hard to transition abruptly. Set a timer and set an expectation for what will happen. For older kids who struggle with morning routine, make a checklist (especially kids with attention problems). Laminate the checklist to reuse it. You might even need to put times. For older kids, use writing. For younger kids, use pictures.
-Emphasize “time ins” before misbehaving. When there is a new baby, spend extra time with the older kid to “bank” good behavior time before spending time with the baby.
-Catch good behavior and praise it. Don’t be excessive, or it loses meaning.
-Be consistent. If something isn’t allowed one day, it shouldn’t be allowed the next. Be consistent between siblings.
-Use teaching opportunities. If a child is running and falls, tell them, “this is why I don’t want to you run like that, so you don’t hurt yourself.”
-Be creative. For kids that want to brush their own teeth, give them a toothbrush for each hand and use a third when their hands are busy. Pretend they are a dragon and see how you would brush a dragon’s teeth. Race to clean up.
-Encourage kids to use words for feelings. Even for infants, you can narrate the day and name their feelings. Try to avoid letting kids get tired or hungry, because those tend to be the times when kids act up more. Sleep is huge! Pay attention to your own feelings. Parents get frustrated more easily when they are tired and hungry as well.
-Be a role model and try to stay calm. Don’t feed the tantrum. Take a time out for yourself if you need to. Give kids a time out to regroup. 1 minute per year of age starting at age 2, but not all 2 year olds can do 2 minutes at first.
Don’t expect yourself to be perfect if you are trying to change. Keep trying. If you need someone to talk to, Childhelp has a free phone line for parents to call in when they are feeling frustrated or angry with their child or just need to talk. Their number is 1-800-4A-CHILD (422-4453). And you can always talk to your pediatrician. We are here to help.