Why Doesn't the Punishment Work?

We have three children, almost 7, just four and just 2. Our six year old is always getting into trouble. It is not “against rules” trouble, just in general. Calling names, cutting up a boy’s eraser. Little stuff. But it happens ALL the time. We have spanked her to no end, taken away any and all privileges, and made her sit in time out. This has gone to extremes. It has gotten old and it is obvious that it is not working. What do you think?

Sometimes a child’s behavior can be so frustrating to a parent that they immediately rush to impose consequences before understanding what’s making the behavior happen in the first place. If the behavior is happening for a reason, it will continue. If the consequences are severe, the child may stop doing the behavior in front of parents, but it will still happen behind their back, because an important emotional need is driving the behavior.

Kids don’t do things for no reason. What could be going on with your six-year-old?

– She has probably just started full-time school, which is really stressful, in terms of having to sit still for hours, having new work to do, having a new teacher, and having to deal with many other children;

– She has two younger siblings who probably take up much of mom and dad’s time and attention, and they get the privileges of being younger while being too small to make good playmates for her;

– She may have discovered that she gets attention for misbehaving, and gets ignored by busy parents or teachers when she’s quiet. She needs to matter to people, and negative attention is better than no attention.

– She may feel she’s always in trouble no matter what she does, so she may be developing a self-concept of being a trouble maker rather than a valued family member. If people are angry at her a lot, she may be feeling angry too, and taking her anger out on other kids.

So what does she need? She needs some positive attention and 1:1 time with a caring parent, away from her younger siblings. She needs some things, like dinner with the family and a bedtime story and some 1:1 attention to be just given so that she feels she’s a loved member of the family, not privileges that are removed for misbehavior. It’s really hard for busy parents to find the time for all these things, but it’s essential. Punishments only make the problem worse, because your little girl’s need for love and understanding is not being met.

Your daughter also needs a loving parent to ask her how her day went, and listen to her talk about what’s going on in her life, not judging her but just caring, so that she feels free to talk about her problems without being afraid of criticism or punishment. What could those problems be?

– Maybe she’s having trouble with her teacher. Two of my children had first grade teachers who really damaged their self-esteem, my daughter because she couldn’t sit still for six hours, and my son because he was too shy to speak up in class.

– Maybe she’s having trouble with other kids. Both examples you’ve given of misbehavior are both with other children. Is your daughter angry at the kids she’s called names or done things to? If so, why? What have they done to her? Does she also get called names or bullied? Or is she just trying to get attention from them or from adults? She may need some coaching in how to handle conflict with other kids. She doesn’t automatically know this just because she’s six. Social skills need to be taught just like any other skills.

– Maybe she’s having trouble with the school work, either because she can’t pay attention well enough yet or she can’t do some of the required tasks. Learning disabilities can show up in first grade.

– Maybe she just feels left out at home because there are two babies and no one has much time for her.

She needs a chance to talk to a loving adult at least once a day. Don’t interrogate her, just spend time with her so that she has the opportunity to talk if she needs to, and don’t jump in with advice, just listen.

But you ask “ What do we do about all the misbehavior? Believe it or not, positive attention and appreciation for positive behavior is much more effective in producing behavior change than punishment for misbehavior. First of all, ignore the negative! Giving her attention for misbehaviors may make them more likely to occur.

Then ask yourself “ What would I like her to do instead of misbehave? Play cooperatively with other children? Treat her siblings with kindness? Whenever you catch her doing these positive things, give her attention and verbal appreciation. Enlist the teacher in doing this too. It’s amazing how quickly behavior can change when basic needs are met, and positive behavior is noticed and appreciated. The negative behavior just drops away when attention is given to the positive instead of to the negative.

In summary, meet your daughter’s basic needs, give her time to talk about her life, ignore the misbehavior, and show appreciation for positive behavior. In return your little girl will begin to behave in ways that you can enjoy again.