Don’t punish your child for expressing how they feel.

Don’t punish your child for expressing how they feel.

“Is that your angry face? I better not see that next time I look at you!”; “Don’t be angry with me, I won’t have that!”; “Don’t look so sad, cheer up, it’s not that bad”, “Stop crying, there’s nothing to be upset about!”

Children have feelings too, don’t punish your child because you’re uncomfortable with negative feelings, because the ramifications (for you and them) are far too significant.  Too often parents punish children simply for having an emotion such as anger (or dismiss and deny their child’s more negative passive emotions such as sadness). They don’t like what the child is expressing or feeling, so they crack down hard on the emotion (but oh boy, is this a mistake that will come back to bite them, particularly if it’s done insidiously).

Discipline your children for their problematic behaviour only and NOT for their emotions (e.g., not for voicing their opinions, being grumpy, having an ‘unpleasant’ emotional outburst, or even stomping their feet and saying “I hate you”). Cracking down with harsh disapproval is an easy, knee-jerk reaction which will only get you in hot water down the track. Of course, if you respond this way routinely, your child will (sadly) learn to hold things back and internalise how they feel. This will ‘look’ like good, compliant behaviour on the surface, but it’s not, it’s simply a coping strategy that they learn in order to please you and avoid your disapproval (Yes, that’s right, parental disapproval is something that the majority of children will do almost anything to avoid).
So when parents ‘shut children down’ by punishing their child’s emotion, they are not actually creating a well-mannered, compliant little person, they are actually creating a shame-ridden and emotionally stifled child (who BTW is more likely to develop future emotional & relational problems). Let’s be straight, this is not permissive or Laissez-faire parenting where anything goes and you encourage primal screaming just because the shop ran out of their favourite ice-cream. This is simply about knowing the difference between being an emotionally dismissive or disapproving parent and one who chooses to help their child work through and cope with their emotional experiences (even with emotions you are uncomfortable with because of your own upbringing).

Emotion Coaching (John & Julie Gottman), is one way to respond to these issues. Emotion coaching is a parenting style which has been proven to greatly assist children is developing emotional regulation skills necessary for successfully navigating the ups and downs of life. The steps in Emotions Coaching will actually get you closer to your child rather than further away (which is right where punishing kids for their emotions will get you). It’s also worth noting here that there is no stock-standard ‘way’ to respond to a child’s misbehaviour. A parent’s response needs to be mindful and intentional, not simply a blanket response – to all misbehaviour, in all settings.

If you punish (i.e., with punitive, dismissing or rejecting behaviours) your child for having or expressing an emotion that you don’t like (especially with any regularity), then your child will develop a strong emotional inhibition schema – as well as other early maladaptive schemas. Such a child will learn that some emotions are ‘unacceptable’ or bad and destructive and they will gradually learn to suppress those emotions, firstly when around you and then later with others.

They will also learn that certain parts of themselves are to be ‘hidden’ and unacceptable to you and other people. All this will lead to poor emotional regulation and the belief that they cannot tolerate strong or difficult emotions (this is a very problematic outcome indeed, as these factors often play a role in adolescent suicidal and self-harming behaviours). These kids will eventually learn to fear their emotions and to respond to difficult emotions with faulty or even dangerous coping strategies. Apart from all this, they will also begin to harbour resentments towards you and they will become more selective in what they reveal to you and share with you.

So, like you (and all of us), kids have bad days and they often have ‘negative’ emotions and express them in ways we don’t like. The way to deal with this is to teach them that emotions (in themselves and in their pure form) are real and acceptable and cannot harm them. There is no such thing as a ‘bad’ emotion. All emotions are temporary – they come and go. All emotions also have a function (or purpose) to them and an accompanying ‘action urge’ (a desire to act out a behaviour, whether that be positive or negative). The action of course is different from the actual emotion, it is not part of the emotion. The urge is part of the emotion, but the action (behaviour) comes afterwards. It’s the action or behaviour that we can learn to resist, control and alter (children learn this gradually between the ages of 3 – 7 usually). The actual feelings/emotions themselves, are less in our control.

‘Emotion Coaching’ is definitely the way to go in conjunction with intentional (tailored) responses to misbehaviour and limit setting when necessary. You have to know and understand your child’s unique temperament to appropriately discipline them. This is what’s missing in many parent’s approaches to discipline. Using one, single standard response to misbehaviour is often not the way to go. The interaction between a child’s temperament and a parent’s response is paramount. That’s the tricky part, as it can be a delicate interplay of responses not observable to an onlooker.

When we emotion coach our children, we work with whatever emotion is there, in order to teach important self-awareness and emotion-regulation skills. So called ‘negative’ emotions (e.g., sadness, anger, fear, frustration) are not things to be scared of, shut down or dismissed by parents. Rather, they can be great opportunities to ‘connect’ with your child and help them grow. There are 5 basic steps to emotion coaching (discussed in different blogs). Used appropriately, emotion coaching can bring you emotionally closer to your child and provide the essential building blocks for an on-going enriching relationship with them.

For help with these issues and for training in Emotion Coaching (the Gold Standard in Parenting) contact me for advice or to speak with one of our helpful psychologists.

Changing Lives with Schema Therapy