Why not use hitting when so many parents say that it “works”?

Even though it is true that hitting may seem effective sometimes in the short run in terms of getting a child to obey, in the long run, it interferes with a child’s development of a sense of ownership and boundary over his physical body. Furthermore, I would like to suggest that any method of discipline that shuts down a child’s ability to think will be counter-productive in the long-run. I base this on my experience as a clinician and also on my understanding of recent research (such as that of Peter Fonagy and colleagues) in the areas of child development, attachment, affect regulation (how to manage one’s feelings effectively) and mentalization (the ability to accurately understand what people are trying to communicate through their actions, as well as how to reflect on what is going on in a person’s mind).

One of the biggest failures in development that we see in adults who have extreme difficulties with relationships (for example, those with Borderline Personality Disorder or Narcissistic Personality Disorder) is in the area of knowing how to manage one’s emotional and mental experience reflectively as opposed to impulsively. Those who react impulsively to their feelings often use reactions such as exploding at someone else, hurting the other person, or shutting down completely to communicate and to manage their emotions.

The ability to reflect on feelings rather than impulsively reacting to them (or defensively shutting them out) is dependent on a number of cognitive capacities, including the following: knowing how to distract oneself from upsetting thoughts and feelings by diverting attention away from them, being able to step back from a situation long enough to get a new perspective on it, feeling comfortable to use other people to help oneself calm down, and having a good sense of the emotional boundaries between oneself and another (for example, knowing the difference between how I feel versus how someone else feels in a given situation). Such capacities develop best in a child who learns from adults who themselves are skilled at knowing how to take a step back from intense situations and how to think of flexible, helpful responses even while embroiled in the “heat” of an emotional moment. As we all know, figuring out something helpful to do or say when emotions are running high is no easy task, and takes a lot of skill and practice.

When parents communicate with their children primarily through reactive or coercive action (hitting the child, threatening, yelling, embarrassing), this effectively shuts down the child’s mind as he defends against the overwhelming experience (he goes into survival mode). The child who is being hit or embarrassed may think about fighting back or running away (essentially the way that anyone responds to an “emergency”), or he may simply freeze and dissociate during the experience (space out or become numb). None of these responses helps the child to think about his actions and learn from the experience by reflecting on what exactly his behavior meant and whether there are more effective ways to communicate, get what he wants, accept what he cannot have, manage intense feelings, etc. in the future. New learning does not take place under conditions of being afraid, physically hurt, or intensely embarrassed. Rather, the best way to help a child learn is to try to understand what the child is trying to say and to help the child communicate his message increasingly through symbolic means such as thinking, feeling, playing, or talking, as opposed to reactive/enactive means. Kids get better at this with time if development is going smoothly.

Many parents say that they were hit as children and it didn’t do them any harm. It is hard for me to imagine that these parents were actually present emotionally and mindfully while being hit and were reflecting on their actions as they were being hit (and feeling loved). It is also hard for me to imagine such a person using the experience afterwards for learning- a much more likely scenario is the child fantasizing revenge against the parent, figuring out how not to get caught the next time, or simply not thinking about the incident at all (effectively leaving it dissociated from his thinking/learning mind). One cannot learn from that which cannot be thought.

There are also some children whose temperaments make it especially difficult for them to manage their feelings in a healthy way. A healthy way to deal with feelings is to become aware of them, put the feelings into words (either to someone else or in one’s own mind), and to reflect on how best to handle the emotional situation. For children who become intensely emotional very quickly and don’t know how to manage their feelings using cognitive processes, there might be a diffuse sense of anger, anxiety, or frustration inside. The child does not know what his feelings mean, where they came from, or how to tame them. All the child knows is that he needs to get these uncomfortable feelings out of himself quickly so that he can feel some relief. He may then push his parent’s limits until it feels as if the parent has no choice but to either explode or be bullied by the child (give in). This child is attempting to get a reactive response from the parent.

Such children are often prone to projective mechanisms- dealing with their own feelings by provoking reactions in other people. For example, this kind of child might push his parent’s buttons relentlessly until the parent actually hits the child or explodes- the child then seems to calm down, and the parent then assumes that the only method of discipline that works for such a child is to hit the child and that this is helpful. (These are often the kids who get more and more oppositional as the parent acts “nice”, “empathetic”, or “calm”). I’d like to suggest that rather than being helpful, all this does is reinforce for the child that the only way he can get any relief from his intense and diffuse feelings is to get someone else to explode – and this pattern usually follows all the way into adulthood, where he now may be a very difficult spouse or parent because he has no awareness of his own feelings and where they are coming from and how to manage them. This adult becomes dependent on having someone else around at all times who can be manipulated into expressing whatever emotional response he/she needs them to in any given moment in order to feel relief. For example, a diffusely angry spouse may withdraw calmly and coldly until his/her partner explodes in frustration; he is then relieved of his own anger and distracted from it as he criticizes his partner’s angry outburst.

Of course, I present no easy answers about how to discipline in a way that opens up a child’s ability to reflect, because there are no easy answers in this area. Rather, what is required is a general, “one day at a time” attitude of trying to understand what the child means and helping the child learn how to be straightforward in his communications and strivings. Additionally, in situations where a child is completely out of control and requires his parent to contain him through some action (for example, by holding the child or giving a time-out), the thinking/reflective part of disciplining should not be left out, at least in the back of the parent’s mind. And, as a useful first step for parents who want to become more reflective in their parenting, I recommend taking a step back from your own attitude towards your child and trying to become curious in a new way about what is going on your child’s mind.