More evidence that spanking is counterproductive

Many are talking about the latest research that shows that children who are spanked are more likely to behave aggressively and act mean. Although causality hasn’t been proven, that is, we don’t know that spanking causes aggression and mean behavior, a established link is very concerning. As parents, we need to get curious and ask ourselves, what is the message of spanking? Does a spanking communicate what the parent THINKS he or she is communicating? Maybe not!

Kids with an altered sense of pain and who overreact and underreact to touch may be interpreting a “little swat on the butt” quite differently than a neurotypical child might. I remember one parent in a support group reporting that she came to realize that her toddler was actually misbehaving in order to get the calming, focusing input of a spank. By finding a different discipline method, and reserving firm pressure touch to be used only when the child requests it (massage, firm pats, and so on), you can avoid this problem. A child who is oversensitive to touch may be very frightened and confused by a spanking and go into a panic mode. And if we’re trying to teach our kids to be aware of and modulate their touch, and not hit when they’re angry or anxious, that’s a difficult lesson to impart if we hit them because we’re angry or fed up with their behavior in the moment.

What worked for me at the worst times, the terrible threes? (Yes, we were delayed on the terrible twos behavior!). Becoming “the Buddha,” quiet and still, observing and then asking, “What is going on with him?” My calmness supported him in his struggle to gain control again, and it allowed me to think straight and strategize.

Parents of sensory kids have shared with me many insights into sensory smart discipline and I’m especially grateful to those who allowed me to interview them for the book. I have learned so much about time out and variations on it, calming touch and holding, and reward systems that motivate kids with a “just right” challenge and focus on encouraging better behavior AND teaching self-control, social skills, and communication skills. Sometimes, you have to “dial it back” and lower the bar so that they can feel a sense of “I can do this” before raising the bar again, and it’s important to break down skills like developing self-awareness and impulse control and teach them incrementally.

What have you learned about effective discipline for your sensory smart child or children? What works and what definitely does not? Did you modify time outs? If you don’t use time outs, what do you use?



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4 responses to “More evidence that spanking is counterproductive

  1. This is a great subject to discuss. What is also difficult is when one parent disciplines with a ‘hard hand’ and the other is more ‘sensory smart’ and watches to understand before reacting. (That’s how it was in our house for a long time—I was the ‘watcher’.)

    And it’s interesting that you brought up children actually seeking the spank because they needed/wanted that stimulation. My Jaimie was like that for awhile. Spanks, hand-swats, standing in the corner, etc. don’t work with the sensory kids in our house. We have ‘instant time-outs’ for hitting, throwing things, hurting and things like that. But even then we give ‘calm down time’ rather than punishments where they have to go to their ‘calm place’ with a lap cozy (we have different weights depending on the need at the time), headphones and favorite calming toy or stuffy. Then we TALK it through, beginning with discussing feelings.

    We’ve noticed that when dad used to spank and yell, our son did the same things to the rest of us. NOT good. Plus, it’s much easier to give into high emotions than to ‘zen’ and talk it through. Jaimie feeds off of my emotions so if I can stay calm, she’ll come down enough to talk to me then we can discuss what needs to be done. (We usually take away an activity or have her do a ‘chore’ instead of punishing, unless she’s really hurt someone.) And there’s ALWAYS an apology.

  2. Thanks for sharing that, Chynna. I know your daughter was very intense in terms of both sensory issues and anxiety/mood, so I imagine it was very challenging!

    I do think kids pick up on our energy. If they’re upset and you get angry, that doesn’t cue them to start trying to self-calm. It’s easier to get calm around someone who is calm and in control than around someone with steam coming out of her ears. Plus, if you’re stressed, you can’t strategize, and with sensory kids, you need to. It may work in the moment to do something simple like spank a child, or buy them the candy to calm them in the grocery store line, but what does it teach overall? My feeling is, do you really want to establish a form a discipline that causes all sorts of problems?

    Spanking, to me, is similar to putting something irritating (like vinegar) in the child’s mouth to stop him from biting which I once heard one parent recommend to another. I can’t imagine trying to try to introduce new foods after forcing a distressing substance into a child’s mouth!

    It’s so important to take the time and say, “Hmm, how is that particular technique working for me and my child, overall? Is it moving her gradually from relying on me to set limits to her taking responsibility for her needs and desires and meeting them in a socially acceptable way?” It’s amazing what you realize when you ask that!

    I think often parents have different approaches and that can work but you have to have a lot of communication and know what’s nonnegotiable for you. For instance, is it okay for the other parent to spank, raise his or her voice, use words like “stupid,” use food as a reward or punishment? I think it’s important to talk these things through and come to a common ground even if you and the other parent don’t totally agree on everything.

  3. Megan

    We use positive discipline, a la Jane Nelson’s books. With this discipline, you don’t use traditional time outs (which don’t really work for a lot of kids)…instead, you might do a “time in”. In our case, if our 4y.o. needs to stop what he’s doing, I’ll go to his room with him, sit down and do some play therapy where his stuffed animals try and figure out what’s wrong and what we need to do next. Sometimes he takes himself to his room to be alone, and if he does that, I respect it and just remind him that I’m here whenever he’s ready to talk.

    I recently bought a game of sorts where he turns different blocks over to find the emotion he’s having and matches it up to a block which has different needs (needs a hug, needs to be left alone, etc.).

    While my DS needs discipline, he has never needed punishment. We also do a lot of “catching him being good”…ignoring the smaller issues and really noticing when he’s using his manners, for example. This works very well.

  4. I think “time out” often has to be adjusted for sensory kids. For mine, time out had to be in a dimly lit room with low stimulation. It was really time out to regroup, not a punishment.
    Punishment is counterproductive when the behavior is stemming from the child’s inability to meet social demands. That’s what’s so hard for some people to get. Who wants to be a social pariah? Kids WANT to get along and be liked, but when their biological issues are throwing them off, they just can’t pull it together without help.
    I love that you’re catching your son being good. I think our culture doesn’t emphasize this enough. We are SO focused on fixing problems that we forget to celebrate all the good things about ourselves and the people we love. We can change that with how we raise our kids.

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