Dear David Coleman: I worry that my 7-year-old seems to want to punish himself if he has misbehaved
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. My 7-year-old son is a very bright, kind, sensitive and caring child who, for the most part, is extremely well behaved. But I worry about how he reacts when he gets corrected about some aspect of his behaviour. He seems really hard on himself and has, for example, squeezed or twisted his wrist or slapped himself on his head or broken up a Lego toy he loves. He is such a great child, I just want him to understand that good and bad days won't change how much we love him and he doesn't need to punish himself if he makes mistakes.
David replies: Children who seem to punish themselves for some wrongdoing are surprisingly more common than we might expect.
Several theories have been put forward to explain the dynamic of why children do this. One explanation is that children understand there is a predictable cycle of misbehaviour, punishment by a parent, followed by reconciliation with that parent.
Consequently, a child rushing to punish themselves may be trying to fast-forward the process to reach reconciliation with you, to get back that feeling of being securely within your sphere of approval, rather than your apparent disapproval. In other words, if they have done the "punishment phase", then you don't need to do it and so you can go straight to reconciliation with them.
Another theory proposes that children's own guilt leads them to try to make amends for their misbehaviour. If they have misbehaved to the extent that it requires adult correction then their overwhelming feeling may be that they are "bad". Consequently, they may unconsciously feel that punishing themselves is a way to "erase" the "bad" and so allow themselves to return to their "good" self.
Other theorists suggest that the self-injurious, or self-punishing behaviour may be more simply to try to draw attention away from their misbehaviour and to elicit a nurturing or sympathetic response from the parent instead of a cross, angry or disapproving response.
A final theory suggests that children might use the self-injurious behaviours, like head-banging or twisting their skin, at times of real stress or distress, to trigger the release of serotonin-based neurotransmitters. When released, those neurotransmitters actually function to soothe the child.
Your son's self-punishing behaviour may have just one, or elements of all these complex explanations.
Simply telling him that you love him and that you and he are "good" again after an incident of misbehaviour that you had to correct him for, may not be enough to soothe him, or prevent the self-punishment.
While it will help to do this, it is also really useful to help him explore his part in whatever incident occurred, and help him take responsibility for his actions. Then he needs to make it right with the other person, not just be punished.
This is the notion of "restorative justice", and certainly might move you and him away from the idea that misbehaviour must always lead to some kind of punishment or negative consequence. Ideally, we want him to learn from mistakes, like misbehaviour, and avoid repeating them. Restorative justice may help him achieve this more than punishment.
Things you might want to try with him include: getting him to draw or write an apology note. This is less about encouraging remorse but is more about helping children to identify specifically what behaviour they did that was wrong. Discovering that we can occasionally do "bad" things while still remaining "good" is important.
Doing a good deed for a person that they wronged is another way to make amends in a very positive way. Making a gift for another person is a similarly positive way to atone for doing wrong.
Helping your child to brainstorm a range of creative ways of making amends for any misbehaviour allows him to move away from the negative energy that could lead to self-punishment, towards a more positive use of that energy.
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