Understanding Punishment and Oppositional Behavior

Parenting Strategies for Kids with Oppositional/Aggressive Behaviors

Upset young boy sitting next to his father
One problem with punishment is that it doesn’t teach a child new skills to replace the inappropriate ones. JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Oppositional behavior from children is frustrating and repeated defiance over an extended time can be infuriating to parents. Most parents will automatically respond to oppositional behavior by using punishment to stop it, but this isn’t always the most effective approach—especially for a child with combined attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and oppositionality. One problem is that punishment alone never teaches a new behavior. It teaches what not to do, but it doesn’t teach your child what to do.

Michael Manos, Ph.D. is head of the Center for Pediatric Behavioral Health at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital for Rehabilitation and founding clinical and program director of the pediatric and adult ADHD Center for Evaluation and Treatment at the Cleveland Clinic. He has worked for more than 25 years in pediatric psychology, special education, and child and adolescent psychology. Dr. Manos shares his insight about punishment and suggests more effective ways to help your child reduce oppositional behaviors.

Techniques Parents Use for Punishment

“There are six techniques that parents tend to use as punishment in the household,” says Dr. Manos. “Ask any parent, ‘Tell me how you discipline your child at home,’ and they’ll most likely mention one of the following six strategies,” including:

  1. Yell or verbally reprimand
  2. Lecture or discuss
  3. Use corporal punishment (spank)
  4. Use response cost (take things away)
  5. Use time-out
  6. Overcorrect (give extra work such as additional chores)

Punishment May Lead to Counter-Aggression

Unfortunately, defiant behavior tends to attract excessive use of aversive techniques, that is, using punishing consequences too often to stop the behavior. Dr. Manos explains that spanking, yelling, and other aversive methods may seem to work in the short term but they don’t prevent oppositional behavior, in the long run, often resulting in increased problems. This is because one side effect of the continual use of punishment is counter-aggression. “So if you use punishment on a child, guess what the child’s going to do? Counter-aggress. They’ll be oppositional in return,” explains Dr. Manos. “And excessive punishment can actually train oppositional and even aggressive behavior. It teaches a child how to punish back.”

Punishment May Lead to Avoidance

What can also happen with punishment is your child may begin to engage in escape or avoidance behavior. “Just think of someone you don’t like. When you know they’re going to be at a specific place, you might avoid that place,” says Dr. Manos. “You see them walking down the hall, you turn the other way to escape from confronting them. Or if you are in conversation with them, you attempt to get out of the conversation as soon as you can.”

Punishment May Lead to Emotional Dysregulation

Punishment has other side effects in addition to avoidance and counter-aggression. One of these is emotional dysregulation. In other words, punishment can result in both parties becoming upset, angry, unhappy, and even emotionally distant or alienated from each other.

Punishment May Lead to Self-Doubt

An additional negative side effect of continued punishment is that it may actually reduce what you might call self-efficacy. It reduces your child's ability to continue to act effectively. “Some people call that self-esteem,” explains Dr. Manos. “But it is actually far more than self-esteem, as it is not only making a person feel bad about him or herself but essentially what you are really talking about is it makes a person not want to do or engage in other more successful behaviors. Chronic use of punishment makes a person doubt their own ability to make a difference.”

Several of the other strategies listed, such as taking things away/loss of privileges, time-out, and extra work, won’t be effective either if they're used when you're angry. And if they're used inconsistently, they won’t be effective.

Effective Strategies

Given that punishment never teaches new behavior and only teaches what not to do, one of the most obvious strategies for parents to use is to teach a child what TO do. When you tell your child to stop doing something, also coach your child on what to do instead, giving an alternative behavior to the punished behaviors. This may be done by using the 4 WHATS technique, which involves asking your child four questions about his or her behavior, including:

  1. What did you do?
  2. What happened when you did that?
  3. What could you have done instead?
  4. What would have happened if you'd done that?
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  • Michael Manos, PhD. Phone interview/email correspondence. December 8, 2009 and January 18, 2010

By Keath Low
 Keath Low, MA, is a therapist and clinical scientist with the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina. She specializes in treatment of ADD/ADHD.