When I left an inner city publicly funded psychiatric hospital to work in a suburban private outpatient practice, the frequency with which I had to address corporal punishment declined dramatically. Still, the use of spanking does come up in the course of family therapy on occasion.
A while back, I worked with the parents of a challenging 10-year-old girl. She suffered from the unfortunate combination of very poor impulse control and extreme mood swings. During her rages, she would sometimes attack her younger brother or one of her parents. Mom and Dad, who were not big believers in spanking, had resorted to corporal punishment when nothing else seemed to be working.
As is true of virtually all parents that come in for therapy, Mom and Dad were kind, well-meaning individuals who were working really hard to parent both of their children well. Eight year old Logan made this very easy (see The Good Child); he was even-tempered, well-behaved, and eager to please. Saria, in contrast, was frequently grouchy, exhibited poor self-control, could argue with a fence post, and always needed the last word. Mom and Dad had tried everything they knew to try – time outs, sticker charts, and withdrawal of privileges. When those didn’t work, they tried screaming, threatening, and finally, spanking.
Alone with me in my office, Saria was on her best behavior. She was wary but cooperative. She answered my questions but offered nothing else. When I asked how she felt about spankings, she replied
I hate them. They’re stupid and besides, they don’t even work.
When I asked her to explain what she meant by “they don’t even work,” her response was
You can’t make someone stop hitting by hitting them. It just makes me want to hit them more. – Saria, age 10
When Saria’s parents joined us again, I asked Saria the same questions and she gave very similar answers. Mom and Dad were not surprised; they knew spanking Saria was doing no good.
There are three equally important reasons why I strongly advise against corporal punishment. In no particular order:
- Spanking as a consequence is purely punitive and as a threat is purely coercive. It does not do what effective discipline is intended to do; corporal punishment does not teach important lessons about self-control and consequences. Instead, it simply teaches children, through modeling, that if you are bigger and stronger and willing to hurt someone, then you might be able to get them to do what you want.
- Spanking does nothing to strengthen the parent-child relationship. The most powerful tool that parents have in their effort to raise a good, solid citizen is the relationship with their child. If the relationship is characterized by punishment, coercion, and aggression, then it will not foster good behavior.
- Spanking most often happens when parents are highest in anger and lowest in self-control. These conditions create scenarios in which someone is likely to be hurt emotionally and may be injured physically. Very little learning can take place in such emotionally charged situations.
Saria’s parents were not a hard sell. Instinctively, they knew that spanking was not effective. Mom and Dad both felt awful when they hit their daughter, and they could see that spanking intensified Saria’s anger. Most compelling was the reality that Saria was not hitting any less frequently since Mom and Dad resorted to spankings and threats of spanking.
For this family, the therapeutic hold, also known as the basket hold, worked much better than spanking. This is a holding technique that allows parents to insure the safety of everyone present, themselves included, when a child behaves aggressively. It is best done by two parents, but with proper training, one parent can use the basket hold to keep everyone safe. For Saria, this technique worked well because, instead of escalating anger and impulsivity, it helped her to feel safer and in greater control. When her parents responded to aggressive behavior by holding her from behind and immobilizing her arms, Saria would struggle momentarily. Very quickly, though, she would begin to calm down and lean into her Mom or Dad. Once they could feel her body start to relax, they would quietly repeat soothing comments such as “You’re doing great, Saria. Let’s take 5 deep breaths together. <deep breath> One. <deep breath> Two. <deep breath> Three. <deep breath> Four. <deep breath> Five. Great, Saria. Feel the tension leaving your body? Let it go. When you feel you are in good control, say ‘ready’ and I will let you go.”
Within several weeks of giving up spanking and threatening in favor of the basket hold, Saria’s hitting behavior was dramatically reduced. In therapy sessions, I taught Saria several techniques for self-soothing and distraction. She found guided imagery and guided meditation strategies most useful. She especially loved the meditation CD, Still Quiet Place, by Dr. Amy Saltzman. Mom and Dad found the book, Parenting a Child Who Has Intense Emotions by Harvey and Penzo, very helpful.
Every child with intense emotions is different; therefore, there is no single intervention that will be effective for all children with this particular problem. Some children, like Saria, respond well to the therapeutic hold. For other children, especially those with histories of trauma, this technique may feel threatening instead of soothing.
If a child is behaving aggressively, it is prudent to seek professional help. Start with your child’s pediatrician and/or school counselor. These professionals can help you find a child psychologist or psychiatrist who can evaluate your child and discuss treatment options that are specifically tailored to meet the needs of your child.
In more than 20 years as a child psychologist, I have never met a child who responded well to spanking. I doubt I ever will. Remember, Mom and Dad, hitting by any other name is still just hitting.
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]