Should I Use Punishment In My Parenting? Answers from ABA Therapy

Should I Use Punishment in My Parenting? Answers from ABA Therapy

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Do you ever get so frustrated when you are trying your best to be a calm and patient mom, but it just seems like the gentle parenting method isn’t getting through to your kids?

We are responsible to teach our kids to behave in a way that will help them live a successful and happy life…  But kids aren’t always receptive to our best teaching attempts. 

When positive parenting isn’t working, it’s very tempting to try some form of punishment to scare the child straight.

I struggle with the desire to use punishment. It’s an inner battle- Would punishment be effective? Or cause problems in the future? 

This is a letter to myself to remind me of the facts about punishment. I hope this information will help me keep my parenting on track, and hopefully help other moms out there too!

Let’s examine punishment. We’ll get to the bottom of why, how, and when.

woman between two childrens sitting on brown wooden bench during daytime

Definition of “Punishment”

In order to have a cohesive and cooperative conversation about punishment, we need to begin by defining the word.

When I talk about punishment, I’m not talking about child abuse. Things like withholding nutrition or water, solitary confinement, physical abuse, etc. are NEVER appropriate ways to teach children.

In ABA Therapy, punishment is defined as anything that “decreases the future probability of the behavior occurring.” 

That makes punishment sound a lot less EVIL. After all, aren’t we as parents responsible to help our kids curve those bad habits and replace them with good ones?

A parent can decrease the likelihood of a behavior happening again in the future in two ways:

  •  Positive Punishment (Type I): A stimulus is added  that decrease the behavior in the future.
    • Example: When a child touches a candle on his birthday cake, he feels pain from the heat of the flame. It is less likely that he will do that again.
  • Negative Punishment (Type II): A stimulus is taken away in order to decrease the behavior in the future. 
    • Example: A teenager is grounded from her cell phone for breaking the family rules.

Need more info about ABA definitions of Punishment? Check out these resources:

Punishment in ABA

ABA Tool Box 

Good, Bad, Ugly Punishment 

Obviously, punishment doesn’t have to be physical. It’s much more broad and includes a lot of appropriate parenting techniques, such as:

  • Limiting or removing privileges
    • Example: A teenager that engages in risky online behavior might lose access to the internet at home.
    • Example: A six year old who tantrums when leaving McDonald’s play place might not get to play there again for a designated time period.
  • Taking a time out 
    • Example: An eight year old is asked to take a break from a game if he is struggling to follow the rules of the game. After being reminded of the rules, he is allowed to try again.
  • Making amends for your mistakes if they affected another person
    • Example: A teenager that smashed a person’s mailbox might be asked to purchase a new one for that person.
  • Asking a child to wait for something he wants due to inappropriate behavior
    • Example: “I can’t give you a cookie when you speak to me like that. You can have the cookie after you are able to ask nicely.”
  • Natural consequences of the child’s actions
    • Example: A 6 year old has a problem with taking toys from his friends during play time. Eventually, the child starts to notice that the other children don’t want to play with him. A parent can point out the cause and effect in this situation and help him think of a better way to play cooperatively.

Of course, there are inappropriate methods of punishment, such as yelling or hitting a child.

How can a parent monitor themselves when called upon to implement negative consequences for a child’s behavior (in other words, to “punish”)?

How can I identify if my punishment is appropriate? 

baby sleeping on black surface

1) Understand the Effects of Punishment

Parents must understand that punishment has LOTS of negative side effects when used improperly.

  • Punishment causes temporary change ONLY. 

This is so VITAL! If you want long-term change, follow the rules of behavior (see below).

Punishment is a temporary fix, used for the most dire of parenting circumstances. If used by itself, it will only result in a limited and short-lived change in behavior. 

For example, when my toddler runs into the street, I will yell to get her attention quickly in order to keep her safe. She hurries out of the road because I yelled. But, she didn’t learn anything. She will probably get in the road again in the future unless I implement additional teaching. 

  • Punishment increases the tendency to hide behavior. 

Punishment doesn’t teach. It doesn’t help the child know what to do better- only what not to do.

Children who do not know why a behavior is “bad” won’t stop the behavior- they’ll only hide the behavior from you. 

  • Punishment makes a child want to change for another person, instead of changing because they want to improve themselves. 

Punishment doesn’t help a child see your point of view. It doesn’t help them think through the good and bad reasons to continue or discontinue acting a certain way.

The child will change what they’re doing to avoid the punishment, and that’s the ONLY reason. As soon as the punishing agent is gone (often YOU- the parent) they are prone to misbehave again. There’s no internal change or understanding. 

  • Punishment can cause rebellion. 

Nobody likes to be punished. If a parent’s side of the story isn’t adequately explained, it seems to the child like the parent is being mean or insensitive.

Children who don’t understand why the parent acted the way they did are prone to kick against the pricks. They might feel a righteous anger- the need to fight back against the tyranny of your parenting. 

After all, children learn from our behavior. They are just treating you the way they were treated. 

  • Punishment gets less effective over time. 

Even with a child who isn’t openly rebellious, punishment loses its efficacy over time because it loses the novelty. You can remedy this by using punishment LESS often, not MORE often.

Let’s compare this to the example earlier about yelling for a child who is in the road. If the parent had a habit of yelling often, the child wouldn’t respond as quickly to the parent’s calls to get out of the road. 

  • Punishment can escalate quickly. 

Let’s say a parent tried positive, gentle parenting. It didn’t seem to work. After a lot of frustration, they decide to try implementing punishment.

Instead of motivating real change, the child responds negatively to this too.

A common mistake is to increase the punishment. More severe punishment should equal faster change, right? Unfortunately not.

This spirals quickly into chaos. The child resents the parent’s punishment, and the parent tries to respond by increasing the stakes, and the child is more upset by that. Every time the parent increases the punishment, the child feels less loved and more cause to fight back. 

The result is a gridlock of power struggles. 

I’ve heard parents compare this to the fighting robot on The Incredibles. You know, Mr. Incredible is asked to go to the island to stop the robot? The one that gets smarter as you fight it?

“Every second you spend fighting it only increases its knowledge of how to beat you!”

-Mirage, The Incredibles

  • Punishment can harm relationships. 

Obviously, a parent-child relationship can’t stand much of this vicious spiral of one-upping each other.

The parent finds a new way to punish, the child finds a new way to rebel. There’s no love in that. There’s no fostering open parent-child communication. There’s no teaching.

  • Punishment is not always in the child’s best interest. 

Punishment isn’t a cure all.

There are VERY, VERY few occasions to use punishment, and LOTS of occasions to avoid it. 

But I don’t pretend that punishment should be completely avoided. There are some rare circumstances to use punishment, carefully and appropriately.

But WHEN should punishment be used? And HOW can I avoid these negative side effects? 

woman standing on bridge

2) Follow the Laws of Behavior

Let’s go back to ABA Therapy. ABA stands for Applied Behavior Analysis- basically, the study of how people act and how to use patterns of behavior to positively affect the people around us. 

You can remember the basics of human behavior with a simple acronym: ABC- Antecedent (the trigger that causes a behavior), Behavior, and Consequences. 

The results of our actions (consequences) determine if:

  1. we choose to continue our behavior in the future (we call these positive consequences “reinforcement”)
  2. or if we discontinue our behavior in the future (you know this one already! We call this “punishment”).

Reinforcement is BY FAR more effective than punishment. Positive consequences cause long-term positive behavior and inner change. 

If your child acts out, avoid punishment.

Remember that there are valid reasons that children misbehave. They are just trying to get their needs met!

The first line of defense is to teach your child a more appropriate way to get his needs met.

Rather than saying, “Don’t hit” try saying “Let’s use gentle hands.” Show the child what that looks like, talk about it, and practice it in real life situations. Then reward, reward, reward when the child successfully uses gentle hands instead of hitting! 

Rewards can be anything that motivates the child to continue the behavior in the future, like:

  • Verbal praise
  • Hugs and kisses
  • Being proud of the child
  • Natural Consequences 
    • Example: If the child uses gentle hands, he will have more friends and more fun as he enjoys cooperative play.
  • Getting to enjoy extra privileges
    • Example: Getting to enjoy a fun activity that the child loves, like playing video games or getting to stay up after bedtime to spend one-on-one time with mom.

Punishment is effective when saved for the absolute worst case scenarios (especially dangerous situations)…. and, even then, ONLY when combined with reinforcement. 

Let’s use the example of a child who walked into the street.

  1. The parent’s initial response is to yell (punishment) to get the child out of harm’s way quickly. Because the parent doesn’t yell often, the child responds right away. But the child feels terrible about her mistake. She is crying and doesn’t understand what she did wrong. 
  2. The mom patiently hugs her until she is calm again. This reiterates to the child that the parent loves her even though she made a mistake. This keeps the parent-child relationship strong even though the child was punished. 
  3. The parent doesn’t stop there! The next step is to teach the child what to do instead. They walk around the yard together and mom points out the safe places and the dangerous places, taking time to explain why the yard is safe and the road is dangerous. 
  4. Then the parent ends with reinforcement! As the child plays, the parent notices and praises the child for staying in the safe parts of the yard. This results in long-term learning and behavioral change. 

two person holding hands

3) What is Your Mindset?

If you’re asking yourself if you’re in an appropriate situation to use punishment, first consider your own mindset.

Punishment is not a good way to release your own frustrations.

Before you act, ask yourself: Are you looking out for the child’s best interest?  

three children sitting on grass

4) Consider your Child’s Development

If you’re asking yourself if you’re in an appropriate situation to use punishment, think about the child’s developmental strengths and limitations.

Children’s misbehavior often isn’t misbehavior at all. You can’t break a rule that you don’t understand.

Here’s some basic guidelines for children’s development:

  • Babies: Absolutely never punish a baby. Babies cannot misbehave. They only cry when they need something. Crying is an effective means of communication. Parents should respond quickly.
  • Toddlers (2-3): Toddlers have very limited understanding of rules, consequences, and logic. Patient teaching is the best response to toddlers. Keep it simple!
  • Young Children (4-7): Young children understand rules and simple cause and effect. Most children want to follow the rules. They want to be good. However, they are still impulsive and can forget about consequences in the moment. Guide them in their efforts to make good choices using lots of reinforcement.
  • Older Children (8-12): Older children are able to account for their mistakes. They have the recollection and understanding to predict consequences based on their previous experiences. They are receptive to loving guidance, especially when the parent takes the time to explain why the child should act a certain way!
  • Teenagers:  Teenagers are capable of complex thinking, including morality, situational changes rather than rigid rules, and hidden consequences. Teenagers are heavily influenced by friends, so parents can lose some influence. If parents want to maintain a strong impact in their child’s life, it’s best to have a good relationship with the child prior to the teenage years. Even if you feel that your relationship is strained, you can show love for your teen by setting appropriate boundaries and sticking to them using positive and loving methods.

person holding pen with coffee on table

5) Think of All the Possible Solutions

There’s always a positive solution to every problem. 

If you’re stuck, get creative!

Sit down and write down 50 potential responses to the child’s behavior. It takes a TON of work and thought to list that many realistic solutions. You’ll find yourself getting more in depth ideas.

You’re less likely to have a “blow up” out of frustration because you have so many predetermined ideas to turn to when the behavior comes up!

silhouette of road signage during golden hour

6) Take Advantage of Natural Consequences

Natural consequences are amazing. 

They are life’s responses to how we act.

  • If I go out in the snow without a coat, I  will be cold.
  • If I stay home from work, I won’t get money to buy the things I want.
  • If I yell at my boss, relationships are damaged and I could get fired.
  • If I buy one item, I can’t afford another thing that I might have wanted.

Parents can point out life’s consequences without implementing punishment of their own. 

This is a great way to maintain a loving relationship with your child, help them avoid mistakes, and develop strong character. 

woman in white dress shirt holding her daughter in tutu dress beside of asphalt road during daytime

7) Behavior is Only Behavior

Remember that your child is who matters most.

Behavior is not everything. It’s ok for children to mess up here and there.

Love your child through all their good times and in their bad times. That will show an ever-lasting love that will help both you and your child respond positively when things get tough.


What are your opinions on punishment? I want to hear them! Comment below!


Mrs. S


Who is Mrs. S… and why do people call you that? 

It’s my favorite nickname! That’s what all my students call me!

I’ve been around the block a time or two. I’ve worked with children from ages 0-18, some with mental illness, some with disabilities, some with Autism, and many with behavioral problems.

I also worked as a parent educator!

All that doesn’t hold a candle to my best experience with children- being a mom. Want to learn more about me? Click here! 


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2 thoughts on “Should I Use Punishment in My Parenting? Answers from ABA Therapy

  1. A very thorough article! I love finding the natural consequences in situations for my children and teaching them rather than placing my own punishments or consequences on them. A coach-style of parenting definitely feels better than punishing your kids all the time!

    • Absolutely! And it’s much more effective to let them learn through natural consequences than contrived consequences!! Thank you so much for your comment!

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