Let’s not punish our kids for our mistakes

Angry? No... tired!

Angry? No… tired! (Photo credit: Sébastien Barillot)

Nika had her second ever ice-cream parlour (soy) ice-cream today. She loved it, of course… Unfortunately the combination of sugar, over-stimulation (mostly from hanging out with a well-meaning and super-fun uncle and auntie) and staying up past her bedtime proved too much for her. After a good, long cry, she fell asleep on my lap in the bathroom – before brushing her teeth!! Bless her…

I really felt for her, though. Those last 30 mins or so before sleep were really tough. She was obviously stressed and wound-up beyond belief.

— — —

Often, I reflect on how many tantrums kids get punished or shamed for that were really caused by us, adults – stuff we did or failed to do to safeguard their basic wellbeing. It is natural and predictable that kids will get stressed and overwhelmed when they are in very noisy, busy environments, when they eat stimulating foods (including sugar and artificial colourings), when they fall out of their routine (or have none to begin with), when they are exposed to lots of new people or transitions or things that stress them personally. If we put them in those situations (which, lets face it, sometimes is inevitable) is it fair if we then turn around and punish them for being over-tired and stressed and expressing that through off-track behaviour, tantrums or crying? Do we adults not get more ratty and impatient and ‘moody’ when we have had a stressful, tiring day?

If we really can’t prevent these over-stimulating factors to crowd their day on occasion, we have at least a duty, imo, to see the tantrum (or the off behaviour) coming and meet it with empathy and compassion rather than surprise, shock and anger.

And, hey, I think limits are important. All feelings are acceptable but not all behaviours are. I think ‘teaching’ kids how to deal with their big emotions in appropriate ways is vital… but we do not do this best through punishment – quite the opposite. Punishing a kid who is already stressed out of their brain only compounds the problem and makes them feel shame for their natural reaction to an unnatural situation they were put in, in this case.

Furthermore, I believe (drawing from research in this area) that kids learn to control their impulses and to express their emotions in socially ‘appropriate’ ways, primarily through observing and living with our example of how we deal with our emotions. the calmer we are, the calmer they can learn to become, essentially (assuming their brains are wired  along ‘neurotypical’ lines). Kids also internalise how we treat them when they have big emotions. If we listen and show compassion for our children when the big waves of feeling are arising, they in time will learn to connect with and express their own feelings, knowing they are valid and accepting them as they come up. They also learn to become naturally caring and empathic towards others, as their first response.

So, yes, supporting kids to behave in socially acceptable ways even when they are angry or tired is very important to me. But the first step to that is empathy, always empathy, not punishment or shame.

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10 thoughts on “Let’s not punish our kids for our mistakes

  1. My just turned 16 month old has begun having tantrums when we stop doing what he wants, and I nearly lose it with him because I find it so exhausting and unfathomable. The hint is, I need to find positive ways to deal with it, because my twin brother was a massive tantrum thrower, and I couldn’t stand it, even as a child. He has never learned to deal with his emotions, and we are both only 6 months off turning 40.

    • This may sound crazy, but I think working on forgiving your brother in your heart will have a big impact on how you view your child. I hear you. My brother was and is violent and it has affected me. I don’t have kids, but have been a nanny for years. It made me very vigilant when caring for twins, where one was the boy and he would hit and bite his sister. Working on my feelings about my brother has helped me tremendously!

    • To Dani: Here’s a great something to know: little kiddos have a hard time around their half-birthday, and even-out around their full-year birthday. Your unrecognizable 16-month-old will be precious & adorable again, I promise. In the mean time, ignore the tantrums. So long as he’s safe, calmly withdraw your presence. He might follow you for the attention but, if you don’t give it to him, he has no audience, Every kid has at least one full-out tantrum, and every witness who is a parent knows it. Just smile and know the sympathy is with you. –Mom of four

    • Dear Dani,

      Your commitment to be the best parent you can be for your child shines through. You are clearly working hard to find ways to respond to him that also sit well in your heart. That is great! And I can see you are leaving no stone unturned in the search for ways to bring yourself to a place where you can respond ever more gracefully to the challenges he brings you – not easy, I know!!

      And, yes, your 16 month old is doing his job – finding and expression his own, separate will and emotions. That is absolutely what he is suppose to be doing at this age (although all kids do it slightly differently, for sure).

      In Hand and Hand Parenting (which I LOVE and from which I learn a lot) we do something called listening partnerships or exchanges for adults. We essentially meet up with other like-minded parents and agree to take turns listening with unconditional respect and empathy to what is coming up for the other person. It sounds to me like you may benefit from something like this, in that you are self-searching and aware enough to see how your son’s behaviour is triggering some past hurt of yours (with your brother). That is a HUGE insight – well done you for coming to it (rather than simply, unconsciously blaming your son for the anger that rises in you when he tantrums and thus feeling justified, perhaps, in punishing him, for example). I believe this is the true work of parenting – to continue to go deeper into ourselves and heal within ourselves (much of) what we see reflected in our kids words or actions.

      There are some great books that go into this, too, including ‘Parening from he Inside Out’ by Dan Siegal (which I have read) and ‘Our Children, Ourselves’ by Naomi Aldort which I have not yet read but have had heartfully recommende dby several people I trust – and intend to get round to reading. :)

      But in essence it sounds like perhaps what you need is a good listening to. :D

      Glad you came by this page. It is a pleasure to ‘meet’ you. Hugs,
      Gauri

  2. While watching a 3 1/2 year old this summer, I got her moods down to a science. On days where I could tell she didn’t have any energy from having a long week at school already, I told her she wasn’t required to do anything that day. Some of those days, I needed to do some shopping so I brought her along, but I told her upfront that she had to come along with me and that I knew she wasn’t feeling great, but that her job was to make good choices even though it would be tough. She liked the idea of having a job, only one job and that I talked to her about being tired and cranky, but needing to still make good choices and that I would help her. She did display crabbiness, but since we had talked about it beforehand, I’d just remind her of our discussion and restate that I knew it was hard, but that she was doing a great job. This boosted her self-esteem and when we got home, I just let her rest and relax and take a non-stimulated day!

  3. Oh sure, let’s find more ways to make well-meaning hard working parents feel bad, since there aren’t enough already. Yes, let’s blame ourselves for our children’s tantrums after we do something nice like give them a yummy treat, too.

    • Hi Elyse and thank you for commenting.

      I hear you… but for me this is NOT about guilt. I do not feel guilty about giving my child an ice-cream that day. It was yummy! I also do not feel ‘guilty’ for her having fun with her doting uncle and auntie. For me the emphasis is on not making your child feel wrong or guilty or bad for having a normal physiological reaction to these foods which are known to be stimulating to the nervous system, for example. I am just saying the more conscious we are, the more we can HELP our kids through it rather than punish them for it, right? :)

      But again, I welcome your view point and your first reaction to reading this. Always good to know how people are hearing this, in their hearts. Cheers,
      Gauri

  4. Ohhhh you’ve sOOOOOOO got it! Yes – connect first. FIRST FIRST FIRST! More and more I am seeing parents doing just this — getting themselves grounded and able to then see beneath the behavior and connect with their kiddos. Beautifully written. Love, Lisa McCrohan

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