Is it ever okay to spank a child? In a word, no. And, while you might be tempted to paddle a child, because that’s how you were disciplined when you were young, don’t even think about it.
It Has Serious Repercussions
"We know way more about spanking than we did decades ago,” says Elisabeth Guthrie, MD, associate clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. "We know that it doesn’t work and we also know that it reinforces behaviors that, in the long run, we shouldn’t be reinforcing.”
According to experts, hitting not only models aggressive behavior, it ultimately shows that it’s okay to vent your anger in a physical way. "Spanking also devalues a child and sends a message to him that he’s weak and powerless,” says Barbara Neitlich, a psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California. "When you hit a child, you’re also demonstrating that big people can hit little people in order to gain power and control.”
And the news is even more serious about spanking and its aftermath. In a recent study, published this summer in Pediatrics, researchers in Canada found that slapping or hitting a child—which is illegal in 32 countries not including the United States or Canada—was linked to their suffering from mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and more later in life.
Start By Managing Your Own Frustration
So what to do when you feel like a child is pushing your last nerve? Take an adult timeout. After all, it’s extremely scary for a child to see a parent (or grandparent) lose it. "A child will never forget it if you lose control,” says Dr. Guthrie. "It will be a terrifying moment for him.”
In fact, if a child has you ready to boil over, see that as the red flag, indicating you need to take a break. "Take some deep breaths and calm down,” suggests Neitlich.
Ideally, another adult will be nearby and able to take over childcare duties while you regroup. However, if no one else can lend a hand, consider the following strategies: If the child is a toddler, place him in a safe area, such as a pack-n-play or crib, and take a few minutes by yourself in the next room (where you can hear him).
Children should remain in "time out" for an amount of time that depends on their age. "It’s generally recommended that a child stay in that quiet place for one minute for every year of their age,” says Neitlich. In other words, a three-year-old would stay in "time out" for three minutes.
During that time, take care of yourself and focus on your breathing and your mindset. "Remind yourself of the child’s age and that he didn’t mean to push your buttons,” Neitlich says.
If it’s an older child that seems intent on misbehaving, explain that you need a break and, so long as he’s safe, walk to another room to calm down. "Let him know that you need a few minutes to yourself,” Neitlich adds.
Always Discipline Them with a Lesson in Mind
If you’ve tried that and it’s not working? The next step is to take away treats, privileges, toys, and electronic games. "Explain why you’re doing this and be specific on how much time he’ll be without this favorite thing,” Neitlich says. Limit this punishment to a few hours—max. "If you take this item away for longer, it loses the power when it’s gone and the child won’t remember the lesson.”
As kids get older, you can take items away for longer periods of time (a few days), because they are better able to cognitively grapple with cause and effect (ie: I hit my sister, therefore I got my computer taken away for three days). The main issue with taking items away from children of all ages is to make sure they understand why you are taking it away and to give a clear timeframe of when they will get it back. Don't just say "you'll get it back, when you learn not to hit your sister" or "when you learn to behave." These types of statements are too vague and they don't "stick" in a child's mind.
Here's an example of a proper punishment and explanation:
"I am taking your computer privileges away from you, because you could not control your body and you hit your sister. Do you see that your hurt your her? Today is Tuesday and you will get your iPad back on Thursday."
The keys to making this work: consistency and sticking to your word. If you give computer privileges back to him on Wednesday (because he has been so good), he will learn that you can be swayed and possibly manipulated. You want to make it known that, although you don't have full control over his actions, you do have control over privileges and punishments.
And, no matter what, never lift a hand to strike a child. It won’t improve the situation, you’ll irreparably damage your relationship and you might even scar him for life.
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