The blog

Why Not Punish?

One of the most challenging concepts for parents and youth workers to effectively implement is PUNISHMENT.

Punishment is used to suppress behavior by responding to it with an unpleasant consequence. It usually results in a temporary suppression of a behavior. While punishment can feel very satisfying, it also carries some downsides when used excessively:

  • Punishment is often delivered when adults are emotionally activated and models using force and negative emotions to solve a problem. Young people learn from and imitate those in charge.
  • Punishment is often met with increased anger and aggression which interferes with the relationship and can, at times, lead to an escalation of harsher, more painful, and increasingly hard to enforce punishments.
  • Punishment often results in young people hiding behaviors from or avoiding the punishing adult altogether. This interferes with ability to do what we know really works to bring about change – reward positive behaviors.
  • Punishment communicates very clearly what behavior you don’t want. It does not teach new behavior.
  • Impact of punishment is usually short term. Think about getting a speeding camera ticket. Does it make you slow down altogether or just when you are passing a known camera?

We do need to suppress behaviors using punishment at times. Therapists typically recommend reserving it for times when behaviors are acutely dangerous or physically destructive.

The magic of changing behaviors is not based on punishment; instead, it is rewarding behaviors we want to see more of. We’ll tackle using reward effectively in a future post, so for now, make an effort to catch the urge to punish, and instead tell the teen that you are unhappy with the behavior, and that you will reflect on an appropriate response. Not only does this acknowledge the problematic behavior and give you time to reflect on an effective response that will have a good likelihood of success, it also models thoughtful and skillful managing of emotions. Give it a try!

~Britt Rathbone