Sunday 22 April 2018

Could putting your child on the bold step actually be more harm than good?

A popular parenting punishment, the naughty step teaches children to suppress emotions and may do more harm than good

Upset and confused: Putting your child on the naughty step does not help to calm their 'big feelings'
Upset and confused: Putting your child on the naughty step does not help to calm their 'big feelings'
Gentle discipline advocate: Sarah Ockwell-Smith specialises in the psychology of parenting

Sarah Ockwell-Smith

We're all familiar with the naughty step, a perennially popular parenting method recommended by everyone from TV parenting experts to health professionals alike.

The idea is simple: if your child is doing something you don't like, then ignoring the behaviour and punishing the child by removing him or her to a step, stool, or spot, for a few minutes will ultimately extinguish the behaviour.

This is supposed to work for two reasons - one is that it is presumed children only 'act up' to get our attention, therefore if we ignore the behaviour we don't like they will stop acting that way and the other is it presumes that punishment makes children consider their wrongdoings and resolve to 'be better' next time. Only the idea is wrong.

Firstly, the assumption that children misbehave to get our attention is confused. Children don't deliberately 'do naughty things' to make us stop and give them our time. Children have a different brain structure to an adult and in almost all instances, they behave in a certain way, one that adults find undesirable, because they cannot stop themselves from doing so.

On the flip side, it is true that children need parental attention and unfortunately, in our busy modern society, they are often grossly lacking it. It is true therefore, that a child whose behaviour is regressing is probably a child who is crying out for more time and attention from their caregiver.

What they need however, is positive time and attention; hugs, conversation, somebody to listen to them, somebody to help calm the big feelings they are feeling, somebody to make them feel safe and secure.

The attention they get from the naughty step is anything of the sort. Instead of viewing 'attention-seeking behaviour' as negative and something to be punished, parents would do well to see it as the child's way of saying "I'm feeling overwhelmed right now, I can't stop doing this and I need your help to calm me and help me to control myself". Once again, excluding a child by placing them on the naughty step is exactly the opposite of the response they need.

Secondly, the assumption that punishing a child, by exclusion and withdrawal of attention, will result in them thinking about what they have done wrong and resolving to change their behaviour in the future is incredibly naïve, because it simply doesn't happen. Under the age of three years, the neocortex (the frontal section) of the brain is exceptionally immature, the neural connections are not yet fully formed and, as such, we may consider it underdeveloped. This segment of the brain is the most mature section: it differentiates adults from children and intelligent mammals - such as humans - from our less intelligent cousins in the animal world. The frontal cortex of the brain is the segment that is responsible for impulse control, emotional self-regulation and critical, analytical and hypothetical thought.

In layman's terms, if this section of the brain is not fully matured (as is the case with small children) we should not expect the child to be able to control their own behaviour, calm themselves down, really think about what they have done and the implications of their actions and/or motivate themselves to 'do better' next time.

Neuroscience proves, without doubt, the naughty step is an ineffective discipline method. It may appear to work, in that it provokes a superficial reaction of a more quiet and withdrawn child, but this response is produced because the child has been conditioned to internalise their emotions, or in other words keep them inside while maintaining an outward appearance of calm and quiet.

At first glance this might be a good thing - at least for the caregivers who now have a quieter child - however, for the child it is potentially highly damaging. Internalising emotions in early childhood can result in the child being unable to express their emotions in the tween and teen years, leaving them more prone to self-harm, eating disorders and depression.

They may also externalise these emotions at a later point, when they have reached an almost toxic level to keep inside - resulting in violent 'lashing out' behaviour such as bullying.

Of course, this may not happen, but both are a possibility when you 'teach' your child to not express their emotions at a very young age.

Most parents would be horrified at the idea of teaching their children to not talk to them about their concerns, worries or difficulties, for fear of repercussion if they do.

This is exactly what the naughty step promotes, however. A young child cannot talk in-depth about their feelings, they can only do this through their behaviour, but an older child, tween and teen can.

One of the best ways you can ensure a close and open relationship with your child as they grow, especially into the teen years, is to listen to them in their early years.

'Naughty behaviour' is just that - behaviour. You don't have a 'naughty toddler', you have a child who is unable to control their impulses because of their immature brain structure, a child who cannot calm themselves and a child who has not yet grasped the idea of empathy.

Empathy, or the understanding of other's feelings, is an advanced skill that really does not begin to emerge until after the child's seventh birthday.

When we consider all of this, we quickly understand that the naughty step misunderstands the needs of young children and, more saliently, the physical and psychological development of the child.

While these techniques may seem to work in the short term, they are not 'working' for the reasons the experts tell us, they are not bringing about an internally motivated and long-lasting change in the child and it is quite likely that usage will result in bigger, more concerning issues as the child ages.

The best way to discipline? Understand the child's true neurological capabilities, provide an environment where they feel able to share their feelings with you - and gently guide their behaviour by acting as a role model yourself.

The Gentle Discipline Book by Sarah Ockwell-Smith is out now (Piatkus, €20.99)

Irish Independent

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life