Highly popularised by certain TV shows, the ‘Naughty Step’, along with other sanction/reward techniques are commonly used parenting approaches. Based on Behaviourist principles, the idea is that behaviour which has bad consequences is unlikely to be repeated, whereas behaviour with good consequences will be reinforced. However, seemingly positive resolutions to behavioural difficulties may have unintended, negative consequences for the 'misbehaving' child. Take little Jonny on Christmas day as an example (6 years old).
Jonny woke up really excited. He had been hoping that he would get a new bike. However, on receiving his presents, he realised there was no bike shaped gift. Watching his sister open one of her presents (which made her squeal with delight), Jonny leant over, snatched it from her and gave her an extra shove for good measure. His sister cried. Jonny’s mother rushed to his sister’s aid. Jonny got sent to the naughty step. He was told that it was very bad of him to hurt his sister. He could come back and join the fun when he had apologised. Jonny, screamed with rage and was dragged to the Naughty Step shouting “it was her fault, she made me do it!”. Eventually, he calmed down and came and said “SORREEE” (you know, in that tone that actually means “I’m not really sorry”). He had a hug from his mother and was told “thank you for apologising”. She tried to ask him what had happened but Jonny wouldn't talk about it. So they all got on with some fun activities. However, throughout Christmas day, Jonny’s behaviour escalated. His (weary) parents felt sure that their son was ‘testing’ them and so they tightened up on setting limits and giving consequences for bad behaviour, to try and nip it in the bud. When Jonny was well behaved or kind to his sister, they made sure they praised him prolifically to encourage this behaviour.
Perhaps these kind of Behaviourist methods works to curb undesired behaviour, perhaps they don’t - it didn’t work for Jonny. Regardless, most parents do not realise the potential emotional difficulties that this kind of approach can cause their children. Unfortunately, dealing with the behaviour alone, is simply not enough. When children misbehave, there is usually an important emotional experience driving this behaviour and this needs to be processed by the child with the help of his/her parents.
In the case of little Jonny, he was filled with disappointment about not receiving a bike for Christmas. Perhaps, somewhere deep inside, this made him feel unloved, rejected or not cared about. Perhaps, even deeper inside, this made him feel like he had done something wrong or was a bad person for making this happen. Of course, we know that this isn’t true (little Jonny’s parents simply couldn’t afford a bike this year) and his parents care about him very much. But little Jonny is only 6 and his brain isn’t good at understanding his parents' intentions yet. Furthermore, Jonny’s emotions overwhelm his brain and he doesn’t yet know how to describe what he is feeling. When he saw his sister delighted with her present, it made his feelings explode, and so he pushed her. This action didn’t make much sense, but then Jonny’s only 6 years old - his brain is not very logical yet. Jonny got sent to the Naughty Step. This made him feel rejected and bad (on top of what he was already feeling). The feelings of shame overwhelmed Jonny and he blamed his sister. Later, on the Naughty Step, he felt so lonely and bad that the shame completely shut him down. Desperate for some approval, Jonny felt he had no choice but to apologise, and so he did. Jonny was comforted by his mother’s hug, but that ball of emotion surrounding the bike remained unchallenged, and was still there - deep inside. Later in the day, little things kept making that ball explode. Jonny felt worse and worse. Jonny was indeed ‘testing’ his parents – perhaps not consciously, but he was testing them to find out whether they still loved him.
If experiences like this aren’t processed and the child does not receive empathy and help with their feelings, there can be long term emotional consequences. Jonny needed his parents to tune in with what he was experiencing emotionally - to have them care deeply about his experience, and have them help him.
So perhaps, once Jonny's parents had comforted his sister and checked she was fine, Mum or Dad should have taken little Jonny to the ‘Love Step’. This is how it could have worked: The parents calmly explain to Jonny that he needs some time with Mummy/Daddy to help find out what just happened. Sitting together on the Love Step reassures Jonny that he is loved and cared about no matter what. Once they are sitting together, Mum/Dad can start to tune in with whatever emotion Jonny is showing (anger, sadness etc.) – e.g. “I can see that you are sooo angry right now”. They make it clear that they understand and care about his feelings (note: this is not the same as condoning his behaviour!). Once he has started to calm down, Jonny might be able to describe what happened with his sister and Mum/Dad can start to explore what he was feeling when it happened. Maybe then he will start to open up about his disappointment about the bike. Mum/Dad can empathise with how hard this must have been for him. Once Jonny appears calmer, Mum/Dad can then start to bring in a bit of logic and reasoning (his brain won’t compute this until he is calm). They can explain why they weren’t able to buy him a bike, reassuring him that they love and care about him a great deal. Now Jonny is feeling more emotionally secure, they can start to deal with how he treated his sister. They can explain about how it would have made his sister feel (e.g. shocked, hurt, upset). Because Jonny is feeling loved and cared about he will be able to tolerate thinking about his sister’s feelings - rather than being plunged into a pit of shame. If necessary, consequences/punishments can then be discussed - although the discussion will hopefully engender a genuine apology from Jonny which will likely suffice. The result? Jonny has processed his feelings about the bike, so they are not dragged out all day. He has felt the love and empathy of his parents and he has learnt about his feelings and the feelings/intentions of others.
We are not, of course, advocating total abandonment of limit setting and rewards/punishments. They have their place, especially where dangerous behaviour is concerned. However, presuming it is safe to do so, it is important that everything happens in a particular order i.e. deal with the child’s emotions first, then deal with the behaviour (including consequences if necessary). This is because it is neurologically impossible for a young child to be logical or reasonable until their emotional brain has been taken care of.
Now More than Ever
Current world events have caused all of us some degree of anxiety and fear, and this is likely to be exacerbated in children who may not be able to process what's happening so easily. So, more than ever, we need to remember the importance of giving love and empathy for a child’s emotional experiences. Think of yourself, and how nice it would have been if somebody had sat on the Love Step with you when you’d made mistakes in the past.
The Whole Brain Child by D.J. Siegel and T. Payne Bryson
What Every Parents Needs to Know by M. Sunderland
Creating Loving Attachments by K.S. Golding and D.A. Hughes