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Caregivers' Skills Program


In parenting our children many of us rely more on punishment than reinforcement. Often we are not aware that we do this.

In this section we will review why the reliance on punishment with children can have negative and defeating effects. Punishing IA or HM (ADD or ADHD) children can actually contribute to their behavioural and cognitive patterns. We will explore the reasons we must no longer rely on punishment if we are to get IA and HM children off Ritalin and why the development of alternate methods of discipline in the CSP has been so essential.


Because parents are often so eager to learn punishment techniques, they must be reminded that the key for changing children's behaviour successfully is reinforcement. Positive social reinforcement in the form of praise and hugs is far more powerful than punishment for the child's mental, emotional, and behavioural development.

Unfortunately, many of us rely almost exclusively on punishment when dealing with our children. Ask yourself if you are a consistent reinforcer with your child. Or do you rely on screaming, yelling, and hitting to control your child's behaviour? If yours is an IA or HM child, the invitation to frequently punish can be considerable. For sure, this is hard to face, but try to be objective. Punishing is such an easy trap to fall into.

Consider the question, "Has it worked?" Over time, has your IA or HM child improved or has her behaviour either stayed the same or perhaps even gotten worse? Have you noticed that you've been punishing more frequently and more intensely?

Not only does punishment not work very well but if the primary method of dealing with children is negative, don't be surprised when, as adolescents, they discover their power, rebel, and want to stay away from you.

Punishment damages relationships and does little to make your child warm and loving. In fact, frequent punishment is instrumental in developing severe alienation between parent and child.


Before we look at the effects and characteristics of punishment, let's define the term more precisely: 

"Punishment is the application of an aversive (painful) stimulus, such as yelling and hitting, to decrease a behaviour."

Now let's see how punishment affects children:

Brief, Temporary Results

Mild-to-moderate punishment suppresses behaviour only temporarily. When the punishment stops, the behaviour returns - perhaps not immediately but it returns. Parents often say, "I yell at him. I scream at him. I hit him. I turn around and he's doing it again. What is wrong with him?"

Punishment is a suppressing tool. It does not teach new behaviours. Remove it and up pops the old behaviour day after day. Reinforcement does teach new behaviours. It is the key for motivating and shaping improved behaviours.

Habitual Use by the Punisher

Punishment suppresses misbehaviour quickly. These instantaneous results are reinforcing to adults. When we yell, "Keep quiet!" and our child instantly obeys, we are training ourselves to rely on yelling. Why? This is because it immediately reinforces us. The child's being temporarily quiet is more powerful for us than delayed but more lasting results. Recall that we discussed this principle of immediacy in the last section. We are not discouraged by the fact that the misbehaviours we punish keep coming back; the instantaneous results cause us to develop the habit of punishing. Over time, punishing our child begins to feel comfortable and natural.

Reinforcing our child's good behaviour works more slowly but the change is permanent. Offering reinforcement can feel abnormal, unnatural, and uncomfortable to us simply because we are not used to doing it.

Bad Side Effects

Severe punishment, consistently applied, may permanently suppress some target behaviours. The major side effects of severe punishment, however, actually make matters worse.

Anxiety and Nervousness

One of the side effects of severe and consistent punishment is anxiety. A child's feeling nervous and tense counteracts our goals. We want our children to learn new and appropriate behaviours. The nervous child does not learn well; tension interferes with new learning, which means it becomes increasingly difficult to teach the IA or HM child new behaviours. Then, in turn, parents become even more upset with their child because he is not learning well, which means they punish even more. This is not a very good cycle to get into. The nervous child also makes more mistakes than a calm one, which in time leads to more parental frustration and often to still more punishment. Furthermore, the nervous child tends to be agitated and hyper - the very pattern we're trying to eliminate.

One of the key features of children who don't pay attention is that they are nervous; they have trouble sitting still and paying attention. So we call them hyperactive or highly misbehaving. Parents who punish help cause this pattern in the first place. This is a terribly negative cycle that must be stopped.

If you yell at and hit your child, stop it right now. Otherwise, nothing in this program will work for you. Learn to talk without yelling. Talk in a natural tone.

Emotional Problems

Severely punished children can become emotionally and socially withdrawn because they believe that interacting with people is a painful experience. Seeking to escape and avoid their cruel environment, they may hide in their room or roam the streets. Such an isolated, withdrawn child can get into serious trouble, commit serious misdeeds such as vandalism and become prone to suicide attempts. He is also vulnerable to involvement with drugs or alcohol, which deadens the pain deep inside.

If severe and consistent punishment is coupled with neglect, the odds are slim that an emotionally healthy child will emerge from the household. A child from this environment will most likely be highly anxious and very lonely-in other words, an emotional wreck.


What we model is what our children learn. Parents who hit, yell, or shake their child are modelling aggression. The child learns to use aggressive responses to handle his frustrations. In addition, severely punished children are likely to become aggressive because they are filled with anger and hostility. The likelihood exists that they will lash out at anyone in their way. If they try to suppress their deep anger, they may someday explode inside, lose control, and hurt someone.

On many occasions parents either spank or hit their children across the face while saying, "Where have you learned such behaviour? We don't teach you to hit someone!"

The modelling of aggression does not have to be directed toward the child in order for it to be learned. It can be directed to other family members or even to inanimate objects, e.g. a father’s road rage while driving the car. An occasional flare-up is normal, and parents need not feel guilty for occasionally overreacting to stress. Frequent flare-ups, however, are inappropriate modelling. Simply stated, aggressive children come from aggressive families.

Adaptation to Pain

Over time, children can adapt to intense levels of pain. In order to control a child over the years, parents are forced to yell ever louder and hit harder. Eventually the child no longer responds to the pain, as tolerance levels escalate. Even though the youngster is adapting to pain, all the previously mentioned side effects will still occur, and feelings will be locked inside. Youngsters will not communicate with highly punitive parents.

When a child has learned to tune out, as the highly punished child has, he may appear empty-headed, obtuse, oblivious, and non-responsive. He may miss environmental cues, hide in a fantasy world, or shut off his brain and hardly think at all. This is another important way to contribute to the development and evolution of an IA or HM child. In other words, this adds up to children who don't pay attention or think. If withdrawal is due to a punitive home environment, a psychotherapist will have to work with the parents to help them understand how detrimental their frequent tirades are to their child.

Bad Effects on the Punisher

Yelling and hitting are inappropriate ways to express angry feelings. Some authors advocate catharsis-acting out one's feelings as a means of expressing and venting pent-up emotions. But research has repeatedly shown that expressions of anger and aggression lead to more expressions of anger and aggression and, if continued over a long period of time, angry expression becomes a habit.

A parent may experience a temporary release of emotional pressure, but in the long run it is not emotionally healthy and can ruin relationships. Did you know that people prone to anger are also prone to heart attacks? Your anger is hurting you. One of the most frequent problems that leads to broken marriages is when one partner has frequent outbursts of anger.

Try having a tirade in front of your boss. Unlikely you will do it, will you? Most of the time we express our anger in a setting we perceive as safe - usually at home. We do this, falsely believing we can get away with it when targeting our children or our spouse. But you may be surprised when they turn on you.

A healthier alternative is to express feelings assertively. Teach your child to say, "Mummy (Daddy), I'm mad at you because you're not listening to me!" instead of having temper tantrums. Assertiveness vents the child's feelings constructively. You can find programs on assertiveness. It is recommended that if you, as a parent, become angry often, then you need to follow one.

Reinforcement of Undesired Behaviours

Punishment may have the effect of maintaining or increasing undesirable behaviours. When parents yell at or hit their child, remember the list on social reinforcement you were asked to mark, and note the following:

Social Element Reinforcement   



Are they showing a response?   


Are the parents paying attention?   


Are they spending time with the child?   


Are they talking to the child?   


Are they looking at the child?   


Are they listening to the child?   



Are they touching the child?   


Are they praising the child?   



Note that for yelling and hitting, six out of eight elements provide social reinforcement. When we examine this list, we realize that what seems like punishment to us may actually be reinforcing to the child!

Recall parents who say, "I yell at him, I hit him, and he does it again! What's wrong with that kid?" What's wrong is that the parents are reinforcing the very behaviours they don't want. Many IA and HM behaviours are inadvertently reinforced in this way.

Remember that any behaviour being maintained or increased is being reinforced. In other words, we are reinforcing the very behaviours we are trying to get rid of. As a matter of fact, children learn to misbehave just to get attention, even if it is negative and punitive attention. Children are not aware of doing this. Now do you see why target behaviours keep coming back?

Punishment Becomes Reinforcing

We can look at social stimulation three ways:

(1) as positive stimulation (+),

(2) as no stimulation (0 or zero), or

(3) as negative stimulation (-).

Research shows that children (and adults) hate zero stimulation. Zero stimulation means conditions in which the child receives neither positive stimulation (reinforcement), that is, no hugs, kisses, or praises, nor negative stimulation (punishment) such as yelling or hitting. Oddly, if positive stimulation (reinforcement) is absent, children will seek unpleasant stimulation (punishment) rather than no stimulation. Zero stimulation is a condition that children seek to avoid the most. If the parent is not positively reinforcing the child, then he or she turns for stimulation to the negative forms of attention, i.e. punishment. Much of the IA or HM child's behaviour is to seek some form of attention. If reinforcement is lacking, they will actually seek punishment to get attention.

In the next sections you will learn effective methods of discipline - methods that really work. Notice the last item, that children mostly dislike art absence of stimulation. Therefore, psychologists have developed discipline methods based on zero stimulation: ignoring, sending to time out and removing reinforcement. These methods not only work extremely well but they have none of the drawbacks we just reviewed. Now let's learn exactly what these methods of discipline are.















Acknowledgement: The content of this program is based on Ritalin Is Not The Answer: A Drug-Free, Practical Program for Children Diagnosed with ADD or ADHD by David B. Stein, PhD (Jossey-Bass, 1999 paperback)