Last Updated on August 26, 2021.
I hate when it happens, but occasionally I reach my limit and yell: “That’s it! Get to your room NOW!”. I always feel bad because my mom rage has taken over, and my patience is just gone. But sometimes it feels like a negative punishment, or consequence, is the only way to get your point across. So we occasionally use this tool in our house. But it’s definitely best to use this tool in a measured, carefully thought out way rather than blurting out punishments when you’re at the end of your rope. So here’s a complete guide to when and how to use negative punishment.
What is Negative Punishment?
Negative punishment is a form of operant condition. When used as a parenting strategy, negative punishments, or unpleasant consequences, are implemented when children misbehave.
The Science Behind Negative Punishment
Operant conditioning is a theory developed by an American psychologist named B.F. Skinner in the 1940s. It’s based on the law of effect, developed by Thorndike in 1898. Operant conditioning is a reinforcement strategy where behavior is either rewarded or punished. Negative punishments are used when you want to deter behavior. In other words, a behavior that is followed by an unpleasant consequence is less likely to be repeated.
Is Negative Punishment Good?
Negative punishment is not inherently good or bad. It’s a tool you can use within your parenting strategy. When used appropriately, negative punishment can be very effective. If you’re not careful, however, it can cause unintended side effects.
A word of caution: As with all parenting tools, it’s best if you carefully consider how you use negative punishments. So it’s not wise to use this one in the heat of the moment. Instead, take a few breaths, calm yourself, and then move forward. A negative punishment might still be the right answer, but do it with purpose.
When is Negative Punishment Effective?
There are two major factors that influence the effectiveness of negative punishments: continuity and consistency.
The negative punishment should occur immediately after the misbehavior for the best result. If the punishment is delayed, it loses effectiveness.
The punishment must happen consistently, regardless of other circumstances, for it to be effective. The behavior must always result in the consequence. It cannot occur only when the offense is caught by an adult. For example, if your child misbehaves when no one is around to witness the misbehavior, the consequence needs to still occur.
This is a huge challenge for parents implementing negative consequences because they are not around their children every waking moment. In fact, trying to monitor your children 24/7 can cause even more problems (no one wants to be a helicopter parent).
Examples of Negative Punishment
Here are common examples of negative punishment
- I will take your toys if you throw them.
- You will sit in time-out for 10 minutes if you hit your sister.
- Go to your room! We don’t use swear words.
- I will keep your cell phone for a week if you fail your math test.
- We will lock up your video games if you don’t do your chores.
- I will take your toys if you don’t share.
Many of these common negative consequences lack consistency, because you can only implement the punishment if you find out about the misbehavior.
Side Effects of Negative Punishment
Implementing negative punishments can cause some unintended side effects. Here are a few of the major issues with using negative punishments.
Lack of coping skills and emotional regulation
Negative punishment will likely suppress unwanted behavior, but it does not address the big feelings children experience. Emotional regulation and coping skills are learned behaviors, and using a deterrent style of parenting will limit the opportunities for kids to work on these skills.
Lack of confidence
Negative punishment can damage children’s self-esteem. You don’t want the negativity to become their inner voice! Choose your words carefully when discussing negative punishments.
When the threat of punishment is removed, the behavior returns
If you remove the punishment, the misbehavior will return. The children have not learned to behave better, they’ve simply suppressed their behavior until it’s safe. Ideally you want your kids to be intrinsically motivated to behave well, so other parenting tools will need to be used in conjunction!
Children become more resourceful and hide behavior
You may notice your children become sneakier when implementing negative punishment. They may find ways to hide their misbehavior, like stealing their report card from the mailbox, or shoving laundry under their bed instead of actually doing chores.
It can damage the parent/child relationship
You may find that punishments create tension and lead to distrust within your parent/child relationship. It can erode existing connections and create distance among family members. This is another reason it’s good to limit the use of negative punishments and focus on bond building with your family instead!
How to Use Negative Punishment Effectively
Negative punishments work best when the misbehavior is always revealed to the parent. Time based negative punishments work well.
For example, if the children’s toys are not cleaned up by bedtime, the toys will be placed in toy jail for 24 hours. This works well because it’s time based, and occurs daily. It’s much easier to be consistent with a time-based punishment because you can simply set an alarm.
Here are other examples that are easier to implement consistently.
- I will take your Xbox for two weeks if your report card arrives and you have any Ds or Fs.
- You will lose car privileges for a week if your car isn’t washed on Sundays.
- You will not get dessert if you don’t clear your plate at dinner.
- I will put the Nintendo away for the day if you don’t complete your chore chart by lunch.
Tips for Crafting Negative Punishments
As with any kind of consequence, there are a few basic rules you can follow to increase their effectiveness.
- Define the negative punishment in advance, not in the heat of the moment after the misbehavior has occurred.
- The punishment works best if it’s related to the misbehavior (i.e. if you don’t eat dinner, no dessert)
- Get your kid’s to repeat back the negative punishment to make sure there’s a common understanding
When NOT to Use Negative Punishment
It’s really difficult to not make threats of negative punishments when you’re feeling emotional. Some parenting philosophies discourage the use of negative punishments all together. Others feel there is a time and place for these types of consequences. There are two times you should absolutely not use negative punishments, based on B.F. Skinner’s research:
- When you cannot be sure if or when the misbehavior occurs.
- If the misbehavior occurred far in the past
Alternatives to Punishment
There are a number of strategies you could use instead of negative punishment.
- Try a “Time-In”, where you connect with your child.
- Practice claiming strategies your child may use in place of misbehaving.
- Use Positive Affirmations to improve bad attitudes.
- Utilize Positive Parenting techniques to influence your child’s behavior.
- Take a FREE COURSE from Positive Parenting Solutions.
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