What if our parenting tactics are mirroring abuser tactics?

Parenting tactics that mirror abuse – a blog discussing common parenting tactics that mirror the tactics used in domestic and sexual violence.

Jessica Eaton

17/12/2018

Working in trauma and abuse often causes you to reflect on everyday, seemingly normal behaviours that replicate and reinforce abuse, control and violence. Sometimes you notice a behaviour in a family member, or you become intolerant to some forms of language. Sometimes you notice a behaviour or value you hold yourself, that you then have to confront and unpick.

This blog will be challenging for many. It was challenging for me to write. I’m a parent too, of two children who are growing up quickly. I’m not a perfect parent. I often joke that parenting is a lot like having a personal social experiment at home. A social experiment that you conduct for 18 years and see what you produce at the end of it.

When you become a parent, you have no idea what you’re doing. You go from being a single or couple of adults that can just about cook dinner and not poison yourselves, to being totally and utterly responsible for a tiny human life. At some point, that realisation hits us and we sit there thinking, ‘Oh shit. Can I do this?’

We all go at it from completely different angles. We all try lots of tactics. We read parenting books. We ask other parents. We copy our own parents. We ask google. We go on forums and ask for advice. We all find things that work and things that backfire. Parenting faux pas are common. Parenting mistakes are common. Parenting regrets are common.

Know what else is common?

Sexual and domestic abuse. Super common. As a human, you’re more likely to be abused and raped in a relationship than to have green eyes. Think of all the people you know (even yourself) who might have green eyes. Billions of people. Well, technically you are around 10 times more likely to be abused or raped in a relationship than have green eyes (Eaton and Paterson-Young, 2018) – and we see green eyes as pretty common, right? Yet we still think abuse is rare or something that people make up for attention. You don’t catch people saying ‘Woaaaah green eyes are so uncommon. You must be making it up. There’s no way you have green eyes.’

Anyway, abuse is common. Parenting is common. What have our parenting tactics got to do with abuse?

Well, I’ve been thinking and maybe it’s more related than we think.

I’m not talking about parents who actually abuse, rape or harm their children, I’m talking about the ones who don’t. Or the ones who think they don’t. The ones who are using accepted, socially normalised parenting styles that mirror abuse – without even knowing it. Loads of us. Maybe most of us.

What would that mean for us, as a population of parents, if we realised that some of our chosen tactics to bring our kids up, were actually mirroring sexual and domestic violence and abuse?

Are we normalising abusive relationships in our parenting?

Should we be surprised that children and young adults can’t identify abusers if we behave like them too?

Here are some behaviours and tactics commonly used by parents that mirror abuse.

Physical assault and violence

Okay well, let’s start with the obvious. Arguably some people will feel this is abuse anyway, and that’s justified. But what about the parents who tell you that kids just need a good smack to keep them in line? The parents who slap, pinch, grab, shove, smack and drag their children and adolescents are mimicking exactly what a violent abuser would do to them. How will these children know that they are in an abusive relationship when they are older, if we have always used these behaviours on them ourselves? If we have spent their whole childhoods hitting them every time we got angry and lost control, why would they ever leave an abusive partner who hit them when they got angry and lost control? How can we tell children that it’s not okay for their boyfriend or girlfriend to do that to them, but it’s okay for us to do it to them?

And how can we teach our children not to become violent abusers to their own children if we have role modelled that behaviour to them? How can we say to our children ‘do not hit that other child, that’s very naughty!’ if we hit our kids?

Shouting at children

Shouting at children is pretty accepted all over the world. Parents do it, carers do it, general public do it, teachers do it, police do it. Shouting at children is seen as some sort of right of an adult. Children are not allowed to shout at each other, or shout at adults, but we are allowed to shout at them.

Some people shout in childrens’ faces, shout in rage, shout in frustration – some even say they shout as some sort of ‘shock factor’ to ‘get through’ to children.

The reality is that we are teaching children and adolescents that if their partners or friends shout at them, that’s a sign that they are in an abusive relationship. However, why would they recognise shouting as abusive at all if they had spent years being shouted at by us? Would they think that people who love them shout at them? Would they think that shouting at their own children is normal? Would they think that shouting at someone is a good way to get their point across?

Name calling

With similar effect to physical violence and shouting – name calling is going to change the way the child understands themselves and their relationships. You might be wondering what I mean by name calling, as many parents would probably tell themselves they’ve never done it.

However, I’m talking about calling our kids ‘stupid’, ‘dumb’, ‘idiot’, ‘little shit’, ‘bad’, ‘a nuisance’, ‘waste of space’, ‘doing my head in’, ‘sick of the sight of you’, ‘thick’… and a lot more words and names that I know some people use about their kids and to their kids.

The issue here is that reading these terms in black and white will make you feel a bit sick. But how often do parents lose control of a situation and resort to name calling and shouting? Probably quite often. How many of us have said this or had this said to us? Loads of us.

And then how will those same children react when they find themselves in a relationship with a partner who tells them they’re stupid or a waste of space? What on earth makes us think that those same kids would identify and escape an abuser who mirrors the way their parents treat them?

But what about the more subtle things we do as parents? The threats, the grooming, the control? How might that mirror an abuser?

Threats: empty and real

Lots of abusive relationships contain threats. Some threats are empty and some are not. However, living under threat in a domestic or sexual violence situation is extremely stressful and traumatic. As an adolescent or adult, it might mean living with someone who constantly threatens to break your things, take your phone away, stop you from seeing your friends, telling your secrets, stop you from seeing your family or threatening to stop you from going out or doing something important to you.

It might even mean threatening to leave you, threatening to find someone else or threatening to report you for something. Some people know that the abuser is using empty threats to control – and some never really know if the threats are real or empty. Either way, they serve to control the victim and keep them in check. They utilise their favourite or most important things to threaten them with.

This got me thinking. We do a lot of this in parenting. How many parents threaten children with removing their favourite thing, stopping them from seeing their friends, stopping them from going to their clubs, taking away their most treasured possessions? How many parents threaten their kids with the police or a care home? How many parents threaten their teenagers with kicking them out or leaving them?

The reality is, parents are using empty and real threats against their children for control tactics. They are very common ways of parenting:

If you don’t do this, I’ll take away/ break/smash your xbox’

‘If you don’t behave at school, we will kick you out.’

‘If you don’t get better grades, we will stop you from seeing all of your friends.’

‘If you don’t eat all of those vegetables, I’ll tell your teacher how bad you are at home.’

People don’t realise how much these tactics mirror abuse. This is exactly what thousands of victims of domestic and sexual violence live through every day.

‘If you don’t do this for me, I’ll stop you from seeing your parents.’

‘If you don’t stop doing that, I will leave you.’

‘If you don’t do what I want, I’ll snap that phone in half.’

‘If you don’t do what I want, I will tell all your friends that you are a liar.’

It’s all the same tactic. It might be being used in a slightly different way, but it’s the same human mechanism being used. It’s the threat of something horrible to control another person. To keep them in fear of that horrible thing happening to them in order to make them do what we want them to do.

Obviously, the problem here is that we teach children to live in this context for years. And then for some strange reason, we expect children and adults to be able to recognise this an abusive behaviour when they are in a relationship. We tell them that anyone who threatens them to control them is abusing them… but it’s only what their parents and teachers have been doing to them for 18 years. So how come it’s okay for them to do it but not a new partner? Why would anyone see this behaviour as abnormal or abusive?

And how can we tell those same children NOT to use these tactics on each other in their relationships? Aren’t we supposed to role model healthy relationships?

Rewarding children when they do what you want

This final one is interesting, because it is seen as a positive parenting and professional technique to use with children and adolescents. However, we have to see the parallels between positive reinforcement using rewards and praise – and the grooming process in sexual and domestic abuse.

It doesn’t mean that positive reinforcement with our kids is wrong, but it does mean that years and years of controlling and raising our kids using rewards and praise primes them for relationships and grooming processes that use gifts, rewards and praise.

For example, if our kids don’t want to do something at all and we manipulate them by offering a gift or praise, that mirrors exactly what some abusers and offenders will do. Look:

Child of 8 years old who hates vegetables

‘If you eat all of these vegetables, I’ll give you a cookie. So you have to eat all of them. Then you will get a cookie for being so good.’

Child of 12 years old who is being groomed

‘If you try this vodka, I’ll buy you some new headphones. All you have to do is try this vodka. It’ll be fine. Then I’ll buy you those new headphones.’

Child of 14 years old who is being groomed

‘I’ll give you everything you want and need if you just touch me. All you gotta do is give me what I need and I’ll give you what you need.’

See how it’s exactly the same?

It’s identifying what the child or adolescent wants and then using it as an incentive to do things they don’t want to do. The agenda might be different (getting your kids to eat carrots versus trying to get a child drunk so you can abuse them) – but the tactic is the same.

And when the tactic is the same, and it’s been used every day for 18 years, why would we expect children to notice or identify this in the grooming process in child sexual abuse, domestic abuse or sexual violence as they get older?

Final thoughts

Millions of our children will be abused, raped or harmed in relationships. Millions of us already have been. There are charities, governments, experts, academics, activists and scientists trying to figure out why it’s so prevalent and why people cannot identify abuse. The same groups are still scratching their heads as to why children and adolescents can’t get themselves out of child abuse and child sexual exploitation.

One thing I always say when I’m teaching is that we need to stop seeing grooming and abuse as a monstrous, rare, sick thing that only a handful of humans do.

We have to start seeing grooming and abuse as a common extension of normal, every day tactics and mechanisms humans use to communicate and manipulate each other. The outcome might be different, but the tactics and approaches are all the same. And millions of people are abusing children using those normal, everyday tactics.

What if we are missing the point? What if we are expecting children (and therefore adults) to spot behaviours and tactics and approaches in abusers that are completely normal in parents and teachers?

What if we are laying the foundations for abuse and control from birth?

What if the way we talk to and manipulate our children in an effort to bring them up, is actually teaching them that abuse, control, threat and bribery is normal?

Aren’t abusers just using the exact same tactics as parents, carers and teachers that kids spend 24 hours a day with?

Isn’t it strange that we have such high expectations of children and adolescents to notice, recognise and act on behaviours and tactics that we tell them are abusive and manipulative – but have featured in their lives since birth?

Written by Jessica Eaton

Web: http://www.victimfocus.org.uk

Email: jessica@victimfocus.org.uk

Tweet: @JessicaE13Eaton

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/jessicaforenpsych

2018: My year in review video is here

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v_hyqrkfOcs

105 thoughts on “What if our parenting tactics are mirroring abuser tactics?

  1. Have been saying the exact same to parents I work with. Abuse can be sutle too. Harsh tones, the look, ignoring children and holding onto grudges, bad mouthing absent fathers or relatives. The list goes on. We as in everyone is perpetuating the cycle.

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  2. I strongly suggest you read “For your Own Good” by Alice Miller. She writes specifically about German pedagogy, but it is the most enlightening book I’ve read on how what we consider “normal parenting” is actually abuse, and how it prepares people to be victims of authoritarian abusers.

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  3. This is a really interesting take. I’ve been doing some research and hoping to extend it into a PhD about how normalized and accepted behaviors are pathways towards violence against women. This is a different context, one that I haven’t considered, probably like you said because it’s uncomfortable to address but it’s really interesting how obvious the connections are once you even just scratch the surface of “normal” behaviour. Thanks for writing!

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  4. Alice Miller makes many similar points in her books The Drama of the Gifted Child 1979
    For Your Own Good 1980
    Thou Shalt Not Be Aware 1981
    I remember these books exploding like atom bombs in the mind and understanding of myself and my brother when we read them in our late teens/early twenties. I think that what is meant by ‘good parenting’ has changed radically even since the 1980s. The points you are mentioning used to actually be considered correct parenting but now most parenting authorities would see them as basically wrong.

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  5. Related dynamics, although what you’re described here is probably mostly not thought of by the people doing it as the problem you have illustrated it as: some people have been drawing attention to a dynamic of youtube videos for children having troubling themes below the usual awareness level.

    One article looking at this at the vigilantcitizen dot com website,
    moviesandtv/something-is-terribly-wrong-with-many-kids-videos-on-youtube

    There’s also a reddit subgroup /elsagate exposing videos, many of which are being removed from youtube

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  6. My parents used abuse and coercion all the time against each other and me and my siblings. I was their favourite target and it set me up for domestic abuse in pretty much all my relationships. Took 12 years of therapy to learn better ways of relating. I try to use this learning in my parenting now but my ex still uses coercion against our child. I tell her to come home each time her father acts up.

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  7. I go to work, they pay me to go, they also offer incentives and bonuses for me to work for them – they have effectively groomed me to work for them. This is the way of the world. Generally nobody does anything for no reason – even a resulting feel good glow is an emotional reward for doing good.

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    1. It’s not the same. As an adult, you have the agency to change where you work and thereby pick your own rewards, whether pay or challenge or “good glow.” As a child, you can’t change how your parents are raising you, or trade them in for new ones.

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    2. I think that in most cases work is based on a consensual contract rather than manipulation and coercion. Or perhaps I am lucky with the work I choose.

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  8. I have 2 young children. What suggestions can be offered for alternatives to the reward/threat choice of behaviour modification in children? Any books offering better parenting solutions?

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    1. Seriously the sections on threats and rewards in this article have really niggled at me as a parent. I use both techniques to get the 3 and 8 year old to listen and behave. I never thought this could possibly be a bad thing as is being suggested here. How else do you get a 3 year old to eat broccoli if not by bribing them with the reward of peppa pig or threatening them that they won’t be allowed to watch it if the veg is not finished?

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      1. Read Dietician Ellyn Satter DOR method. It’s about healthy food relationships. Give you children healthy things and trust them to eat if hungry. We can make anyone eat, sleep or poop but set up the environment.

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      2. Just include it in your meals and trust they will eventually eat it. Our daughter is the same age and loves
        broccoli and cauliflower and brussels sprouts, and we’ve never made a big deal out of it. It helps to NOT serve mac and cheese at the same time, unless you mix it in 🙂

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      3. Did you wait until after the kid was around 3 to serve broccoli to the kid at all?

        From https://slate.com/human-interest/2012/12/picky-eater-kids-their-eating-habits-might-be-your-fault-but-theyll-survive.html:

        “…The technical term for this behavior, which peaks between the ages of 2 and 6, is food neophobia, and it may actually be a relic of an evolutionary survival tactic: Animals old enough to forage for food alone but too inexperienced to know what’s safe are less likely to accidentally poison themselves if they are cautious about trying new foods. (Young chimpanzees and rats behave this way, for instance.) And unless a fussy child’s weight-for-age percentile is quickly dropping, he or she is probably not in any health danger from eating only bagels for a few weeks, says Lucy Cooke, a psychologist and public-health scientist at University College London. Kids can get enough nutrients from just a handful of foods, and hey, there are always vitamin supplements…”

        Being less likely to accidentally poison themselves if they are cautious about trying new foods is good. It is not bad.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. First time reader of your blog (I follow you on Twitter, as I’ve done some work at a local authority relating to domestic abuse) and this is powerful stuff. I think all parents should read this.

    I think there’s also something here about parents modelling behaviours with each other. For example, even if they’re not doing it to the child, if parents are regularly shouting at each other, calling each other names, using threats or bribes, then what message does this send to the child?

    On the other hand, on the subject of shouting, is it a little more nuanced, and perhaps there is (to over simplify) ‘good’ and ‘bad’ shouting. As parents, we have a role in teaching children that it’s okay to be angry, and show anger in the right way. Doesn’t this mean it is sometimes okay to raise one’s voice, and it’s more about in what context and other behaviours are shown when you do raise your voice?

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    1. I think there needs to be much more discussion of sexist attitudes amongst men and the violence they use to strip women and children of their human rights in the home. My daughter aged 12 wanted to watch Love Island as some of her friends at school have been watching it. I sat down with her as I wasnt thrilled at her choice and gave her a feminist commentary as we watched a few episodes. The amount of low level domestic violence and gender based hate speech being used by the men towards the women that they described as lads behaviour or banter was a shocker, also their complete gaslighting and two facedness towards the women in their partnerships was appalling. If your shouting as someone is abusing your basic human rights is actually defending yourself and therefore quite different from abuse.

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      1. Aside from the food, how about other stuff like taking a nap, taking a bath, tidying up? How do we get them to follow? This is a real eye opener but then, any suggestions or books to read? Like, instead of the reward system, what can I do to be better?

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  10. If you learn how to parent with empathy you shouldn’t have too much of a problem. The authoritative and dismissive styles of parenting you refer to are not good. Haim Ginot mid 20th century, Gottman and more recently Faber & Mazlish are pioneers of good parenting.

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  11. I believe this article has a lot of truth in it but still doesn’t touch on other major influences in “mirror abuse” Religion, Cluture, Race, Socialism, Education even advertisement. No parent is pefect and like of us we are born into a world already defining who and what we are. All of these things influence us and our children in many ways. I’m sorry but I believe you have a longer article to write.

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  12. Yes!
    I’d add:
    -forcing children to hug and kiss people, family members or not, that they don’t want to.
    -not respecting their ‘no’. We ask them to do things as if they have a choice and then when they say no we force them to do it anyway.

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    1. Yes but this article is suggesting that we *Should* be asking them to comply, giving them the option to say no, instead of telling them to do something. If we are going to say “you’re doing all these things wrong”, we should also be ready to say how to get it right. As a mom of 8, I can’t always wait for my kids to decide they want to fold laundry with me(for example). By the time they independently decide they will help, everyone is naked and out of clothes – OR *I* am doing laundry literally in a 48-hour stretch to get on top of things, even with some kids old enough to take on their own. There is not always time to wait and hope – so what is next? This article leaves no room for setting a firm expectation and following through with consequences, because the consequence is then a “threat” that has been made to coerce someone to comply.

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      1. In response to you laundry question, pitching in happen pretty organically in households when the members of the family are presented with options. Conveying to everyone that can help out that a team effort translates into more time to do other meaningful things together. If a family walk is postponed or cancelled because household jobs get in the way, each person makes a choice to be part of the effort to do laundry, or clean dishes, etc. This approach is less likely to create an employer/employee relationship with your children, and more likely to empower children to be contributing members of the family and then society.

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      2. All well and fine for the average family but I’m a single mom and two of my kids have special needs including behavioral disorders and mental illness. For my most oppositional child, taking away privileges is the only way to get him to do school work and go to school in the past – hes homeschooled which is not going well but he failed out last year. Special Ed teachers are no longer a help to him since entering high school. Sometimes, I can get him to do chores for money except he will do his laundry which is great. I know this sounds really negative but I do everything I can to encourage and guide him.

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      3. A consequence is only a threat if presented as one, eg “do your homework or else….” “eat your vegetables or else ….” those are threats, they’re not consequences. Consequences start with “Kids, eating your vegetables will help you grow, if you choose not to eat them then you also choose not to have desert” therefore making it the child’s choice whether they get desert, your follow through will then be to say to the the child that he chose not to eat vegetables and therefore is not getting desert. As for folding laundry, you divide the laundry and hand each child a pile of clothes, not their own, turn a movie on and say that they need to be done before the end of the movie, those who aren’t done will be doing the next day’s laundry on their own. Again, you have set a task and consequence and left it open to choice. You could even set a time for a reasonable amount of time, say 30mins, and say that should everyone be done by the end of the timer then you’ll all go to the park before/after dinner. You’ll probably see that older kids will help younger kids. Here you’ve not set a consequence explicitly, but created an environment of team work. In a large family there will most likely also be that one stubborn child that will defy you and deliberately not fold their pile of laundry, for this child it will be ok to single him/her out and say “Peter, if you do not cooporate and cause everyone to miss out on the park outing then you’ll forfeit the privilege of your XBox for a week / be responsible for ‘task’ for a week / etc” again creating a specific consequence for the child, which is not a threat, it is left open to the child to understand that their actions have consequences.

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      4. Having read the replies of joesisco5125 and Natalie below I don’t understand how that is different to an adult relationship where one says ‘because you haven’t done X we cannot do Y.’ and thereby starts on controlling their partner.

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      5. Trevor, you’re missing the point. Every action as a reaction. You speed, you get a fine. Simple. HOWEVER you have the rule and consequence set out for you even before you get into the car, so you know if you speed that you’ll get a fine. So setting out the rule and consequence for a child is the same thing. It’s not abusive, it’s parenting, if you can’t teach your child to face the consequences of their actions while they’re little, how are they going to become law abiding citizens who respect others? And NO it’s not like an adult-on-adult abusive relationship where one partner overpowers the other by saying ‘because dinner was late you can’t have any’ etc. We are talking parent-child relationships and it is our duty to teach them that their actions have reactions/consequences. My daughter knows that when i give the 5min dinner eta that she is to feed her kitten and wash her hands, if she doesn’t then her dinner will be placed in the oven till she has first fed her kitten. Rule and consequence, she isn’t being deprived of her dinner, but she is also responsible for the welbeing of her pet, therefore she needs to follow the rule, there is no shouting or bribing or whining about it, it’s clear and simple. She knows that if she wants to go to the gym to swim that she must pack her bag and have it at the door by 5pm, if it’s not there then we won’t go swimming (many things factor into this as there is traffic to consider and also dinner, if we even leave at 5:15pm it takes an additional 10mins to get to the gym because of the traffic build up).

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  13. Hello im Wondering what authors do you suggest so we can have a better parenting? The articles points à lot of bad parenting but no examples for replacement. I have a very strong willed children that has à really hard time listening. Hé puts himself in danger à lot and tests everything alot. While we dont use physical discipline nor name calling. I use threats alot and yelling sometimes occur when I lose patience . It’s nothing I like but I was raised with all the abusive behaviors you mention in the article. I feel very lost in regards of what good parenting practices are. Thank you for your help!

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    1. Hi Mary

      I also had a very challenging child who was very difficult to parent. I resorted to doing many things that just did not work e.g. nagging, repeating, reminding, cajoling, bribing, threatening, ultimately shouting like a banshee and all that happened was I felt very not in charge and my son’s self esteem lowered. By the time he has been excluded from three schools by the aged of seven, I felt like I was the worst parent in the world and that I had a very difficult child.

      Once we started to understand his needs socially and educationally and learn positive parenting skills of Being positive -we talked and listened to him differently
      Being consistent – we discussed our values together and tried to get more of a United front
      Being Firm. – we were clear on the rules and boundaries and instead of being in control we learnt how to be in charge…..the magic started to happen and the end result was transformational -a young man who finished his school as Head Boy, and became an entrepreneur and intrepid explorer.

      It’s the subject of a book “ My Child’s Different” and I hope I am allowed to suggest it here as learning alternative strategies is vital to you being able to keep calm and unlock your child’s potential .

      Good luck

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    2. Read “How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen” by Faber and King if your child is between 2 and 7 y.o. Or “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Faber and Mazlish. They give very specific tools for getting kids to do things without using threats, rewards and punishment. Excellent books.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. These are valuable points, I reflected on them myself. However, if you can’t use take away threat, coercion or rewards: how do you get them to do things they don’t want to do, or are testing authority. Looking at a toddler, who would not wear shoes, or jacket, or won’t eat on time? I think it is more important to teach what is right and wrong about external abuse.

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  15. This may be “wordy” but worthy read… Parent Magazine has tons of valuable topics, articles and suggestions…
    Common Time-Out Mistakes and How to Solve Them

    Could this classic discipline technique actually make the situation worse? Learn what experts recommend, including a new and improved five-step technique for giving time-outs.

    By Alisa Bowman from Parents Magazine

    Little Girl Upset Sitting on Time Out in Corner

    Priscilla Gragg Time-out certainly sounds like a brilliant fix: A child spends a few minutes sitting alone, and emerges calm and cooperative. Parents often admit that it simply doesn’t work—because their kid fights going to the time-out, cries and calls out instead of sitting quietly, or gets even more worked up afterward. However, according to a recent study from Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, 85 percent of parents who use the strategy make mistakes that can reduce its success, such as giving too many warnings or talking to their kids or letting them play with toys during time-outs. If you’re ready to become a time-out dropout, consider when they will be most effective and how you can adopt other tactics to quell your kid’s antics.
    Where did time-out come from?

    Time-outs became popularized by reality shows like Supernanny, but the technique was first developed in the 1960s as a more humane alternative to harsh punishments that were common then. Before Arthur Staats, Ph.D., now retired from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, came up with the concept, teachers and principals routinely smacked children with rulers, and parents spanked or whipped their kids with switches. Now—at a time when a video of a kid being paddled at school goes viral because it’s so shocking—most parents are embracing a more gentle approach. After all, decades of research have shown that children who have been routinely spanked are more likely to be aggressive when they get older, as well as to suffer from anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.

    rovided by Bayer Consumer Health

    RELATED: 6 Successful Time-Out Tactics

    But a time-out isn’t benign either. “When your child has a tantrum or a meltdown, she may be overwhelmed and unable to control her emotions,” says Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine and author of No-Drama Discipline. Rather than immediately sending her to a chair in the corner, it’s important to let her know that you empathize with how she’s feeling. Says Dr. Siegel, “Your child actually needs you the most when she’s at her worst.” Most experts believe time-outs can be effective, as long as they are used correctly and in the right situations, especially for kids who are over age 3. “They should be reserved for particular offenses that could cause injury to your child or someone else,” says Parents advisor Ari Brown, M.D., a pediatrician and author of Toddler 411.
    Time-Out Mistakes

    1. Using Them Too Often

    Despite popular belief, time-outs aren’t supposed to be about getting children to think through their misdeeds. “A time-out is primarily a ‘Let’s stop things from getting worse’ strategy,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a Parents advisor and author of Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids. Dr. Kennedy-Moore explains, “In the history of the universe, no children have ever gone to their rooms to ‘Think about what you did!’ They’re thinking about their parents’ meanness. The learning starts after the time-out, when you can say, ‘Okay, let’s try again.’ ”

    2. Giving Kids Attention During Time-Out

    A time-out is essentially a mild consequence. Young kids crave attention, and even negative attention may suffice, explains Dr. Kennedy-Moore. In fact, “time-out” was originally short for “time-out from positive reinforcement,” because Dr. Staats felt that paying attention to a child’s misbehavior can encourage him to misbehave more. “To me, time-out isn’t a naughty chair or a corner of the room,” says Dr. Brown. “It’s simply the lack of parental attention for a short period of time that lets a child see that his behavior led to losing attention instead of getting it.”

    3. Using Them for the Wrong Reason

    Research from Oklahoma State University, in Stillwater, has found that time-outs work best on young children who are oppositional and defiant by hitting or intentionally doing the opposite of what you ask, but only if you first try milder responses most of the time. When a child is put in a time-out for different types of problems or if it’s used too often for oppositional defiance, his behavior may get worse, says study coauthor Robert E. Larzelere, Ph.D., professor of family science. Little kids who are just whining about the mashed potatoes or negotiating for more iPad time respond better to other approaches. In those types of situations, consider these tactics instead:
    Alternatives to Time-Out

    Identify and reinforce positive opposite behaviors, such as playing gently and speaking kindly, suggests Mandi Silverman, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, in New York City. Praise or offer rewards for these behaviors, saying, “Wow, you are playing so nicely with your toys” or giving your child stars or stickers.
    Use when-then statements. Instead of telling your child, “We can stay at the playground for five more minutes, but only if you put your shoes back on,” you can motivate her to cooperate by saying, “When you put your shoes back on, then we can stay at the playground for five more minutes.”
    Strike when the iron is cold. After everyone has had a chance to cool down, you can explain, “We don’t throw toys because throwing toys is dangerous.”

    The New and Improved Time-Out Technique

    If you ask parents how they use time-outs, you’ll probably hear a wide variety of answers, ranging from having a naughty chair to keeping kids in their room. Since Dr. Staats first wrote about time-outs, researchers have changed them for the better, so they’re both gentler and more effective.

    Step 1: Give one clear warning. The best study found that a single non-repetitive warning before every time-out can reduce the number of time-outs needed by 74 percent, says Dr. Larzelere. If your child doesn’t start cooperating within five seconds, proceed with the time-out.
    Step 2: Announce a time-out. You might wait until your child is relatively calm, but briefly reiterate what he did wrong (“No hitting. Time-out.”), and escort him to a naughty chair. (Many experts advise against sending your child to his room, because he’ll have toys, books, and other fun things there.) Resist the urge to lecture him. It’s okay to offer an explanation before the time-out or after it, but not during it. If you say things like, “I’ve told you about this a thousand times,” “Now you are paying the price,” or “I hope you are thinking about what you did,” you are giving your child attention rather than removing it—and any attention, even negative attention, can act as a reward rather than a consequence.
    Step 3: Start the clock. Dr. Staats originally suggested keeping kids in a time-out until they stopped fussing, even if that took a half hour. Today, many parents use the “one minute for every year of a child’s age” rule. However, recent research done by Timothy Vollmer, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, shows that even brief time-outs of one to three minutes are effective, at least for children ages 3 to 5. Setting the clock for longer may make it harder to get your child to sit in a time-out in the future.
    Step 4: Make it boring. During the time-out, do not talk to your child or make eye contact. Staying silent may require some practice, especially if your child says things like, “You are the worst mom in the world!” or asks questions like, “Why are you doing this to me?” and “Can I have a glass of water?” No matter what your child says or asks during the time-out, ignore it.
    Step 5: When the timer goes off, call an end to the time-out. It doesn’t matter if your child is still fidgety, sassy, or crying. Once the timer goes off, the time-out is over, Dr. Vollmer says. How will you know if time-outs are working? If you start following these steps, within one to three weeks you should need to employ them less and less often. Says Dr. Larzelere, “When you call for a time-out and mean what you say, children will learn to listen.”

    What If My Child Refuses to Go to Time-Out?

    Present a choice. He can cooperate or lose a privilege, such as screen time. If he chooses not to have a time-out, say, “Okay, then it’s no TV,” and walk away.
    Offer time off for good behavior. You might say, “Time-out is normally three minutes, but if you go now and sit quietly, it will be two.”
    Take it yourself. If your child is safe being unsupervised (or another adult is there), go to your own room. Or say, “I will not talk to you for three minutes because you hit your brother.”

    More in Discipline & Behavior

    6 Successful Time-Out Tactics

    Why Time-Out Is Out

    Rethinking Time-Outs

    10 Reasons Your Toddler’s Tantrum Is Actually a Good Thing

    7 Tips for Disciplining Your Toddler

    When Should You Start Disciplining?

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  16. This article is ridiculous. It’s really trying to reach to draw parallels that are just not there. Please…If my child gets bad grades then they will loose time with friends, that’s not threatening – that’s part of just being a parent. Consequences are a normal part of life. Hitting and screaming in your child’s face is not the best approach, but taking away privileges due to not following household rules? Please – kids need boundaries with parental follow through.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Completely agree to what you share. ! Kids need consequences to ensure they be more responsible. But when you have a deterrent consequence it’s something that you discuss with your kids and agree to the consequence mutually rather than enforcing the consequence thus making it a punishment.

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    2. To say to your child “if you don’t clean your room I’ll take away your XBOX” isn’t discipline and consequences, it is a threat and bribe. HOWEVER if you set rules and consequences for your child BEFORE assigning a task then they know what the consequences are. It’s the same when learning to drive, you first learn the rules of the road and consequences, before ever getting into the driver seat. So you already know the consequences of speeding before you’ve started up the engine. Similarly children need to understand that their actions have re-actions. I learnt with my child that you cannot punish a behaviour that they don’t know is inappropriate, you first have to teach them that it is inappropriate and then set a consequence. Example, drawing on the wall. Most toddlers do this. So to hit them or yell at them or take away their crayons isn’t consequences, as they don’t know that drawing on the wall is wrong. First step is to say ‘oh no, drawing on the wall isn’t a good idea, here come draw on your paper, we don’t draw on the wall’ Second step, “sweetheart, I’ve told you that you should draw on paper and not on the walls. Now please come help me clean it up, and remember that you need to draw on paper not the wall. In future if you draw on the walls I will have to take your crayons away for a day”. Third step (if necessary) “Sweety, are you allowed to draw on the walls? (wait for response) Do you remember I said that if you draw on the wall that your crayons will be taken away? (wait for response) Now bring me your crayons please (wait for compliance) and now clean the wall (hand over cloth and allow to clean on their own), You can have your crayons back tomorrow. Fourth Step “Sweetheart here are your crayons. Please remember the rules. Where are you allowed to draw? (wait for response) What happens if you draw anywhere else? (wait for response)

      This worked for my daughter at 18months of age. By 20 months of age she was no longer drawing on walls or anywhere she isn’t allowed to.

      The above example sets the rule, the reaction and the consequence. So she knows the rule, she know she’ll have to wash the wall if she draws on it, and she knows she will loose the privilege of her crayons should she continue drawing on the wall.

      And being 8yrs old now, this method has spilled over into every aspect of her life. As she got older the ‘time frame’ got shorter, and I can now buy her something like gloop and right off the bat set the rule and consequence, eg “You may only play with this gloop on a tray in the kitchen. If i see it anywhere else in the house it goes right into the bin, agreed?” and she agrees. No need to bribes or threats, Simply set the rule and consequence right from the start.

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  17. Good luck on your PhD!

    I like the others commented note the fact that parents are not the only influences – other children, teachers, other parents provide direct examples of behaviours that children may wish to try out for themselves.

    I was raised differently to my peers, akin to Haim Ginot, Alice Miller and others of that era were read by my parents. I was raised in a (more) non-violent manner, and I have turned out to have less violent tendencies compared to my peers. My parents didn’t tell me what to do, they reasoned with me instead. I generally favour reasoning, open communication of feelings and needs over coercion. The problem is this sometimes lead to bullying/abuse directed my way when being involved with people who have no qualms with the various behaviours in your blog. But of course the solution isn’t to blame the victim, the solution is that society needs to recognise the harms and change as a whole.

    The fact is that behaviours along the spectrum of violence are so prevalent because they are socially rewarded. Men in particular have been ‘rewarded’ (in terms of more offspring) for “dominance” traits for thousands of years and this is still seen as a defining characteristic of masculinity by many people. As they grow up, many children experience the social rewards of controlling or manipulating others, pushing boundaries and so on, and they aren’t magically going to stop these behaviours when they become adults.

    The real key is for our society needs to change and that is why I hope research like your PhD have a strong impact.

    The last point I’d like to touch on is related to mainstream media and other fictional elements. The examples posted by VigilantCitizen are quite horrific and should never be shown to young children. However children (and adults for that matter) still need to learn the difference between fiction and reality, we need to learn why it is not a good idea to mimic certain behaviours that are common in mainstream film for example. To simply say, it should be censored or simply don’t do it because an authority said so, fails in the same way the simplistic education programmes about bullying in schools does nothing to stop bullying in schools.

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  18. Much of what you describe doesn’t “mirror abuse”–like name-calling, threats to kick kids out if their grades aren’t good (which is a survival threat to a kid), hitting kids (i.e. spanking)–it IS abuse.

    I think the questions about grooming tactics versus positive reinforcement are much more rich.

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  19. It is a good article but I feel that you misrepresents positive parenting 🙁 saying “I’ll give you a cookie if you eat your veggies” is a bribe and manipulation, it’s not positive parenting. Positive reinforcement/parenting comes after the child has done what you asked (not begged/threatened/bribed) and you then reward them, eg “I’m so proud of you for keeping your room tidy this week. Let’s do something fun tomorrow after all your hard work. Shall we go for a walk on the beach?”

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  20. If people would learn Nonviolent Communication most of these abusive or manipulative behaviors would not be seen as an option. Many behaviors of parents are so common and socially acceptable and even expected that we are not aware they are “violent” behaviors.

    Liked by 2 people

  21. Thank you for the unique perspective on parenting and abuse. My only concern is that you didn’t put forth any suggestions for change in parenting or in society so are children can easily identify the difference between safe or abusive relationships. Maybe you will in the future. I hope so

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    1. To be realistic you cannot expect it all in one blog post. This post was to create awareness of our parenting tactics. So that we can reflect and change our ways. Maybe there will be a second blog post that links to this one that offers alternate ways, but in the mean time also take responsibility to change and don’t wait for someone to always hand the answers on a silver platter. If any of the tactics listed above rings true to your parenting style then it is YOUR responsibility to research alternate ways to parent, because the change must come from within you from a conviction of change.

      Liked by 1 person

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