If I Can’t Punish. Then How Do I Get My Kids To Listen?

It makes sense why we so quickly resort to punishment. We all have grown up with punishment as a child. And now we are parents and we practice what we have learned. 

We often have this mentality that punishing, spanking, and yelling is the type of discipline that works when necessary. 

When I was little my parents would say, “this hurts me more than it hurts you”. As a child, I hated when my parents said that, I would think then why are you doing it then? And I’m sure it doesn’t because this really hurts!

I do now as a parent, understand what was behind that remark. We get so upset and out of control, the only way we know how to get our kids to just listen to us is through punishing, especially spanking or some kind of hitting, and we often end up yelling out of anger and frustration.

Frustration from our kids not listening and frustration from possibly not wanting to go down this route, “but they need to learn somehow… we tell ourselves.”

How punishing and yelling affect your child

So let’s take a look at how yelling and punishment affect children. I’m aware this can be a controversial topic, but there have been more and more studies and research that show how this affects our kids, how it affects us when we were kids.

I know so many parents out there trying so hard not to spank or yell but we still end up repeating the same things our parents did to us after swearing that we wouldn’t follow in their footsteps.

Why can’t we seem to stop repeating the same things that we hated as a chid? Any trauma that we have experienced as a child actually changes our biology. The book written by Bessel Van dar Kolk “The Body Keeps The Score”, talks about how trauma reshapes our body, mind, and brain.

I am not saying this to scare you or intend to make you feel like it’s a lost hope, you’re doomed and unable to shift from this, you absolutely can. And no you have not broken your child. There are so many opportunities that you can repair with your child.

Is parenting going to be perfect? No. Are there going to be times where you might still get angry and lose your cool? Yes, it’s impossible to be perfect. It’s a muscle that needs growing. It takes practice and awareness of your triggers, and the effects our actions have on our children. 

Spanking increases child aggression, antisocial behavior, lower intellectual achievement, poorer quality of parent-child relationships, mental health problems (such as depression), and diminished moral internalization. ( source)

Punishment and yelling create their nervous system to be in constant fight or flight mode. They are sensing danger not knowing when it’s going to come, resulting in not feeling safe.

As parents, I know you want to be their safe place and you don’t mean to or intend to make them be afraid of you. 

Why punishments and yelling don’t work long term

Time after time we have told our kids what to do, what not to do, and just be “good” kids. We punish and it gets us even more worked up because why won’t they just change. We have this anger built up inside of us because we don’t want to be the mean guy but we also know what is best for them, and it’s frustrating because they don’t seem to care and ignore us.

So let’s take a look back to when you were a kid and your parent was telling you what to do, what not to do, and got upset when you didn’t listen. Two things might have happened, you either resisted more or you got scared and obeyed to avoid getting punished again.

There are some factors that go into why punishments don’t work long term. Kids are complex little creatures. They are going through so much learning so much at such a rapid pace. Their brains are constantly going and trying to remember things, grasp new things, and just make sense of the whole world.

When kids are misbehaving, not listening, being disrespectful there is one thing that is in common with each of these scenarios- they are trying to get a need met. This is their best way to communicate their needs, get their needs met, and communicate their feelings.

When we are punishing them and yelling at them, we are pushing their needs further down or dismissing them which starts to build and can cause anger, hurt, possibly resentment and actually makes their behavior worse. (source)

I punish but I’m not abusing them. Just a little spank on the bottom or the hand…

I get that. I would say the same thing when I would smack my child’s hand, at least I’m not using a belt or hitting them hard, just startling them so they get my attention.

It seems so innocent but the thing is, their nervous system doesn’t know the difference between a small hit or a big hit or yelling. 

Or you may be thinking, gosh I am not doing it to abuse them, it’s a place of love, I’m just trying to teach them. 

I hear you. And no judgment at all here. Like we talked a second ago, a child doesn’t know the difference between abuse or hitting “out of love”. This is still affecting their nervous system and this is called disorganized attachment where Dr. Daniel Seigel talks about here. (video)

I got spanked and I turned out fine…

I hear this a lot, I also used to think this myself. I got hit, but I knew I didn’t want to hit the way I got hit. I thought it was too harsh just a pat on the bottom to scare them to listen and get my attention is ok. It will teach them and some will say it’ll toughen them up for the cruel world.

But you see, it’s confusing for a kid to feel safe and protected by the same person who scares and hurts them, this is called insecure attachment (source), And sometimes in extreme trauma cases, the child can develop a trauma bond, (source).

You might think back and remember how scared you felt, and possibly confused you felt as a child when you were punished or yelled at.

It also taught us as kids that those who love us are justified to hurt us, and that we can also harm those that we love. So, it having “worked” in the past, it’s fear-based parenting, which I don’t think anyone wants a relationship based on fear. 

Is physical punishment worse than yelling to your kid?

I’m going, to be honest. When I first became a parent I did spank, I pinched my son’s cheek and even left a bruise from doing it on accident. I spank their butts. Then it dawned on me, what am I don’t I’m turning into my parents and seeing their look on their face- the look of fear. I promised myself and my kids that I wouldn’t do that anymore.

But, I still got really triggered. I would get really angry, start yelling a lot, most of the time at the top of my lungs over silly things that didn’t even matter, but at the moment it really set me off.

I would feel bad, but at the same time, I would think, “well, at least I’m not physically hurting them.” I’m just angry it’s perfectly ok to express anger especially since I’m not touching them.”

Sure I still didn’t feel good about it, but it was justified in my head. I’m overwhelmed, they aren’t listening, and my yelling got their attention.

Little did I know how much yelling was actually affecting them. 

In studies, it has shown that yelling has the same negative impact on kids as if the child was punished through spanking.

When a child is frequently yelled at it changes their body, mind, and brain in numerous ways. It increases the stress hormones, it increases the activity of the amygdala which is the emotional part of the brain, it increases muscle tension, makes them angrier, and aggressive. Not knowing how to handle their emotions and more. (source)

And to be aware, this goes with your overall body language, facial expressions, tone of voice everything. They can sense the fight or flight or anger and frustration no matter if you’re using “nice” words, it shows up in other ways. 

When a child is yelled frequently it has an impact on how they feel and what they think of themselves even throughout their adulthood. This can create limiting beliefs about themselves and how they think about themselves.  

Other types of punishments and how each affect your child

These are other punishments that are very common and no they aren’t physically harmful, they are less aggressive. But, I want to talk about these and how these do affect the child and also why these don’t seem to work either. They may work for the time being but they don’t “teach” the lesson that you’re intending.

  • Grounding/taking away privilages- These are common one, and I’ know everyone has done this. No this isn’t harmful to do with your child, I get why many resort to this because it’s not aggressive or hurtful. But, you may have noticed that this doesn’t seem to work either. If anything they may become more resistant, or keep doing the same behavior. Often it can become something they don’t care about anymore, because they may find another way to get what they want. They may end up being sneaky or lying to get what they want. And often the consequence doesn’t make sense to the behavior so it’s confusing for them and doesn’t really teach them anything, and only gets everyone more frustrated.  
  • Timeouts– these are also very common. We may have good intentions for timeouts “think about what you have done”. Usually it’s a younger child that is getting time outs, sometimes older kids too. The younger kids again don’t understand the point, they aren’t going to go and think about what they did. What they are going to do is think about what they are going to do next when they are out of time out, or that mommy and daddy don’t love me anymore. They may feel lonely, and that they will only be shown love and mom and dad want them around only if they are good boys and girls. This also isn’t teaching them what we are intending to teach them. So this punishment doesn’t really work either.

You may have heard about time-ins. These are good for kids if they are needing a place to calm down, and if this is what they like to do to calm down. Note this might not work for every child, because each child is unique and has their own way of calming down. This might feel like they are in time out if they are forced there not willing- they might need a different way to calm down. 

How punishments and yelling actually creates more misbehavior from your child

This makes so much sense if we think about it. So, let’s say you were at work and your boss comes to you and starts whaling on you about your job, starts yelling at you, and for punishment, he suspends you from your job.

Most likely you’re not going to think, “Oh, wow, he’s right, I deserved what I got. I have learned from my mistakes and I will do everything the way he wants me to and be perfect at it as well.”

No. You will probably be pissed off. Get defensive, or shut down because you’re completely shocked or lost at what just happened. You might start calling in more because you’re too upset. You might slack off work because you felt disrespected and like you don’t need to listen to him. Why show him respect if he doesn’t care about me or my feelings?

The exact same thing goes for our kids. This can be subconscious or this can actually be going through their heads (the older kids). 

When kids are feeling threaten and scared it’s pretty much an automatic thing that they will defend themselves to make themselves feel safe or shut down.

Even though consciously we aren’t trying to control our kids, we are trying to control the situation, we are indeed controlling them. We resort to punishment and yelling because we feel like we don’t have control over the situation and we just need them to do what we say and move on with their lives.

Humans are creatures that need autonomy. The more control we show the more resistance they will show which inevitably just cycles around.

What to do with your child instead of punishing and yelling

When we feel this rage, and anger, and frustration, our body’s fight or flight mode is going crazy. When you’re already at that moment where you have reached the boiling point it’s really hard to stop yourself and think before you react, your brain is checked out. It happens to all of us.

It’s important to build the skill to be able to notice what is going on before you even get to that point. Yes, this can happen in milli-second, but it’s doable, it’s a muscle that needs to be trained. 

The reason is, because when our nervous system is in fight or flight mode our kids feel it ten-fold. They get scared, they panic, they may either shut down or they may even fight back because it’s their way of protecting themselves and their body’s warning them of danger.

Knowing your cues when you’re triggered, knowing a pattern within yourself when you’re triggered, so you can then be aware of what is going on inside your body and mind, and you can then cool yourself before even reaching the hot zone on your thermometer. I have created a guide for you so you can start building this muscle and learn how to self-regulate so you can attune to your child and co-regulate with them. 

Like mentioned before they live in their emotional part of the brain. So we need to learn how to regulate ourselves so we can meet them where they are in their emotions. Turn off the logical part for a moment and engage in our emotional part but by using empathy.

So what does this look like? 

In no way am I saying you can’t get upset, by all means, it’s ok to be upset, everyone needs to feel their feelings, just not direct or blame them for your feelings.

Acknowledge how you’re feeling in the moment but don’t act on them. When you do this, it’s making sense to your brain and alerting your brain I’m fine, I’m just feeling…. Angry. I’m fine and I’m safe. That will help our nervous system kind of remain calm.

Then we can go and attune to our kids. “He just told me to shut up when I told him to take the trash out.”

Your body: “Holy shit! What did you just say to me?”

Yes, we automatically feel like we want to beat him for being disrespectful. But, try to refrain from yelling, judging, shaming etc.

Yeah, tell yourself, “that pisses me off. I feel disrespected and that really hurt and made me angry.”

Why did that make me angry? Get curious with this.

“Because I need to be respected. I just asked him to take the trash out and he snapped at me.”

Validating all your thoughts and feelings.

Then ask yourself. “I wonder what is going on with him right now. He seemed upset for some reason.” 

Remember to not take it personally, it almost never has anything to do with you. Just like when we have bad days we might snap at people too, even though it wasn’t anything they did.

Approach them calmly, and get curious about what might be going on. If they don’t want to talk then let it be that. Let them know that when they are ready that you’re there. Try to approach it again.

“ You seemed really upset earlier, do mind letting me know what’s going on?”

Don’t bring up the behavior or the fact that the trash still needs to be taken out.

Simply be present, listen and empathize and don’t talk.

When they have said what they needed to say. Show your understanding.

You can calmly show your concern, and bring up how being told to shut up made you feel. “I understand you’re upset. And I know that you didn’t mean to tell me to shut up, but when I hear that it does hurt.”

Notice you’re not blaming him for your hurt you didn’t say “you hurt me”, just in general I don’t like hearing that.

Problem solve. Be open-minded here, and problem-solve together. “ It is your turn to take the trash out today. Are you willing to do that?” Let them answer. If you’re open to it maybe you can offer to do it today since he’s having a rough day.

This will not lead them to manipulate you later. This will build trust and when there’s trust they are more willing to cooperate. You can learn more about that here.

So, the point here is, get into your child’s world. Acknowledge your needs and feelings. And work as a team to get things done, and problem-solve together. Communication, empathy and team work is so important in gentle parenting. It’s not about having the power, being controlling, or even giving in because it’s too hard. It’s about working together, showing love and respect for each other. It’s about correction through connection. 

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