“How many times do I have to tell you?! You are absolutely mediocre! I wish I could give you a good thrashing, and you’d learn right away!” Many of us have often heard this phrase as children, have vowed to ever say it to our children, and yet from time to time we still say it. And raise their hands to their children because “there is no strength”.
But is it the right parenting method to yell at children? Neuropsychologist and psychophysiologist talk about how a child’s body reacts to punishment, how it affects school performance and what alternative parenting measures may be.
The Word Punch
On a physical level, violence is the experience of pain, and pain signals danger and triggers the “hit or run” mechanism. The adult is stronger, so it is rare for a child to be physically aggressive toward him or her.
However, emotions need an outlet, so aggression is often directed at those who cannot defend themselves. This can be other children and some adults. That is why sudden aggression can be a symptom of violence being applied to the child.
Violence is not only the use of physical force, but also any action whose conscious purpose is to control or subdue another person through fear, humiliation, intimidation, accusation, coercion, manipulation.
When we yell at a child, call him names, deprive him of meaningful things or communication with friends, from a physiological point of view we cause him almost as much harm as when we hit him with a belt.
Implications for child brain development
Here’s a neuropsychologist’s opinion:
Those who regularly experienced abuse as children have reduced size of brain structures that process emotional information and are responsible for memory.
They have impaired metabolism of some neurotransmitters (in particular, oxytocin, which is associated with the formation of attachments) and substances associated with the regulation of stress states.
In addition, the so-called “brain reinforcement system” does not work properly: positive experience does not serve as a guide for them, they become less sensitive to those signals from the external environment which can show them the way to success.
At the same time, sensitivity to danger remains at a high level, which makes these people less determined and motivated to self-development.
Here is the opinion of a psychophysiologist:
It is not only physical pain that leads to stress, but above all the humiliation to which a child is subjected. This stress arises as a reaction to the inability to satisfy one’s needs for acceptance, respect and love.
The satisfaction of these needs affects the maturation of all brain structures – above all those that are important for the formation of attention, speech, motivational and emotional regulation. From a physiological point of view, the following happens.
Nerve cells of the hypothalamus, the structure that reacts to important human events (including the satisfaction of needs), have to secrete special substances, neurohormones.
If a child’s relationship with his or her loved ones causes stress instead of positive emotions, the synthesis of these substances in the hypothalamus is disrupted. There is a disruption: the normal maturation of the brain mechanisms responsible for emotional-motivational regulation and cognitive activity is disturbed.
A vicious circle arises – punishments, the purpose of which is to correct the behavior of the child, actually reduce the possibilities for learning and self-control, and consequently, give new reasons for punishment.
Mental health consequences
The child has a fear of punishment. Fear is a strong motivator, but it stimulates only one activity – avoidance of that which frightens. Corporal punishment does not add to intelligence and assiduity, but children begin to actively lie, because it is the only chance to avoid punishment. They hide and spoil their notebooks and diaries, doing everything so that their parents do not find out about their bad grades. They make up that they did not get an assignment, and that the test was postponed. This happens because the adult is intemperate, impatient, impulsive and aggressive.
If punishments are particularly harsh, some children run away from home or even take their own lives. And they take their own lives impulsively, so children’s suicides are the least predictable. If punishments are “tolerated,” some children learn to “switch off”: the moment they are punished, they stop feeling, hearing and seeing anything. The habit to react in this way to any negative influences is retained for many years.
Fear is a strong stimulus that kills other kinds of motivation. A child accustomed to working under the threat of punishment stops loving what he or she is taught, and sees learning as the cause of all his or her troubles.
Moreover, the child finds himself in an almost hopeless situation. He cannot “quit”: stop communicating with his parents, change his place of residence or teacher, or go “to another job”.
Violence comes from loved ones, which means that the world at large and one’s own home are no longer a safe place. Relationships with loved ones no longer provide support, and one’s own personality all the more so, since it is she who makes the very mistakes for which she is then punished.
On the interpersonal level, all this leads to a loss of trust, psychological closeness, reluctance to show oneself (any manifestation is dangerous, as it can be followed by punishment). On the internal psychological level, it is devaluation of oneself – the child does not yet have a healthy internal core and is guided in his or her assessment by authoritative adults.
In any situation threatening failure, the child easily falls into panic. This, in turn, leads to a loss of the ability to think logically. Self-doubt prevents a child from leaning on available experience and knowledge: it seems to him or her that he or she is doing everything wrong. Violence actually suppresses initiative and creativity in the child, he/she ceases to feel joy of life.
The most common effects of childhood abuse seen in adults are chronic fatigue syndrome, anhedonia (inability to enjoy life), depression, and attachment disorders. It is known that women who experienced regular abuse as children are much less likely to establish partner relationships and experience fewer warm feelings towards their children.
Could there be a benefit to this kind of parenting?
There are no “winners” who come out of situations of domestic violence unscathed. However, there are variants of relatively favorable development of events for the child.
Those who found the strength to protest succeed in preserving themselves. This gives the child the sensation that he or she is capable of something, strengthens his or her self-esteem. At the same time, it is a way of affect, fierce resistance and often extreme selfishness. It does not imply respect for others. Most often it happens when a parent punishes impulsively and then repents.
The second scenario is the “Stockholm syndrome” when the child joins the aggressor in the hope that he will love him for his loyalty and will stop hitting. In this case, he tries to imitate the abuser in everything and adopts his system of values. He does not create anything of his own, but pedantically tries to repeat the “way of power. It seems to him that only strict adherence to the system will save him from further punishment. He accepts the fact that the punishments were deserved by him.
This option breeds fanatics. Becoming an adult, this person is also likely to beat children, and he or she will do it deliberately and cruelly. Such people, as a rule, have no pity. This variant occurs more often in situations where parents punish deliberately, “according to the system”.
The third option is liars, people who have learned to avoid punishment by deceiving. They play by the rules and seem very interested in the rules until they find that they fail or do not meet expectations. At that point, the lying begins. This happens automatically: the defense mechanisms of avoiding responsibility and “saving face” are triggered. In this case, others always turn out to be guilty.
Despite the obvious “side effects,” these three scenarios are the most constructive and positive – they allow the child to survive and maintain relative mental health. In other cases, as children grow up, they develop addictions and develop the idea that hitting is normal, that it is possible to solve problems with physical violence.
It is naive and dangerous to hope that corporal punishment can raise a mentally healthy, intelligent, emotionally mature person who respects himself and others.
Is it possible to raise children differently. And how?
The first thing that the adult should do is to understand what it is that sets him or her off, to determine his or her “triggers”. They can be rudeness, rudeness, the child’s refusal to obey demands.
All this evokes certain physical sensations in the adult: muscular tension, a rush of blood to the head. The body is preparing to fight back, to suppress, to stop.
When this happens to you, it’s a reason to stop, without bringing the situation to physical action. It is much harder for a child to stop: he does not yet have the same level of arbitrary regulation as an adult. One of the necessary steps is to “leave the situation”, to increase the distance.
For example, it is possible to say, “I am not ready to talk to you like that. Now I am very angry, and I need to calm down. When we both calm down, we’ll come back to this conversation”. Time out allows us to start thinking more constructively.
It is important to identify your “triggers” in advance, so that you can learn to quickly recognize what is happening and tell yourself to “stop”.
Various relaxation techniques and a simple count from one to one hundred also help to relieve nervous tension and to distance oneself psychologically from what is going on.
It is important to identify in advance your “triggers” in order to learn to quickly become aware of what is happening and to tell yourself to “stop. To stop does not mean to lose, to surrender one’s position. Nor does it mean a ban on expression of negative emotions in response to the child’s behavior.
Nobody argues that negative feedback in education and training is necessary. It can be a calm negative assessment (not of the child himself/herself, but of his/her actions) with an explanation of what exactly the mistake or wrong behavior is, why it is bad for the child or others and how it is possible to correct or not to allow such a mistake in the future.
It is necessary to understand that the reasons for difficulties in learning may be different: both neurophysiological (“weak” or “immature” links of the brain systems that provide cognitive functions) and social. Conflict situations can also be a result of inadequate or unprofessional behavior of adults.
Therefore, alternatives to corporal or humiliating punishments for the child can be completely different – from work with a family psychologist to treatment by a neurologist or psychiatrist for medical aid.
Since situations causing outbursts of aggression are usually repeated, it is important to prevent their repetition if possible. It is not necessary to take the child to crowded, noisy places if every such trip ends in a tantrum. If the child is inattentive and regularly forgets his or her daily duties, it is necessary to think over an effective system of reminders.
It is important to agree in advance with your child what you want him to do, explain why it is important and together think about how to succeed. You need to focus on the requirements that really matter. If you demand too much, it overloads the child and he tries to escape from the overload by ceasing to obey.
Allow the child to make his or her own decisions, at least in situations that are not particularly important, or if you are unable to control the requirements anyway.
If you feel you did something wrong, unfair, don’t hesitate to apologize.
This will teach the child to see, acknowledge and correct the mistakes made.
For a parent who is prone to breakdowns, it is extremely important to have the support of someone who will be able to listen, understand, not to impose their “only correct” view of parenting. It is equally important to keep a distance from those who are ready to teach and criticize. If there is no one in the family to support you, you can go to a psychologist.
Finally, it is extremely important to treat yourself more positively, in a kind manner, to learn to forgive yourself for your mistakes, to see in each of them an opportunity to change for the better.