Behavior & Discipline

Why Spanking Your Kids Is Harmful: 4 Better Ways to Address Unwanted Behaviors

When kids feel out of control, they need their parents to respond calmly. Spanking is the opposite of this — and hugely counterproductive. Here are some workarounds for lowering the temperature when your child’s unwanted behaviors make you want to explode.

A little boy lies face down on the floor under a table, while a woman comforts him

Q: “I am a mom of a 9-year-old son with ADHD. He acts up quite a lot and I don’t always keep my temper in check. I admit that have spanked him briefly on his rear end from time to time. A friend told me that spanking has adverse effects on a child with ADHD. Is this true, and how do I keep my physical impulses under control when he is totally out of control?”


Is Spanking Effective?

Children with ADHD can be more than a handful. Whether they’re bouncing off the walls with hyperactivity, getting into mischief with impulsivity, leaving a mess everywhere with disorganization, not following directions with distractibility, or throwing epic tantrums with emotional dysregulation, it can be extremely difficult to keep our cool in the face of their unwanted behaviors.

But spanking, like yelling, is a punitive reaction that happens when a parent feels out of control. Research has shown that spanking causes long-term damage for all children. It is particularly damaging for kids with ADHD, because you can’t spank ADHD out of a child.

When we are upset, our brains shift into “flight or fight” mode. This leads us to react angrily instead of responding thoughtfully. Hal Runkel, LMFT, author of Scream Free Parenting (#CommissionsEarned), explains that when a parent loses control emotionally, the message they are sending to their child is this: Calm me down!

ADHD and Behavior Problems

Children with ADHD already feel out of control much of the time. They can’t get themselves to do what’s expected of them, and that’s super frustrating to them. But spanking and yelling reinforce their sense of powerlessness. It also sends a message that it’s OK to take frustration out on someone else, physically or emotionally.

[Get This Free Download: Best Discipline Strategies for ADHD Children]

Children with ADHD are also developmentally immature for their age — about three to five years “behind.” As a result, they have a hard time behaving the way you might expect a child of their age to behave. A nine-year-old, for example, may be developmentally more like a five-year-old.

Because of this developmental delay, changing your mindset about unwanted behaviors helps you set realistic expectations and respond calmly, sending a message that kids with ADHD need. Can you accept that your child’s difficult behaviors are not likely something they can completely control?

We want our children to feel understood and accepted, to know that we understand that it can be difficult for them to behave appropriately, and that we’re going to help them learn to do that over time. We also want kids to see that, when we get frustrated, we can stay calm and exercise self-control; this will help them learn to practice self-control.

T.A.C.T.: The Alternative to Spanking

These four strategies will help you set appropriate behavioral expectations and begin to calm things down for everyone, starting with you. They will also help reduce the frequency and intensity of your child’s unwanted behaviors – much easier to achieve than trying to eliminate them.

[Read: How to Manage Your Child’s Toughest Behavioral Problems]

1. Triggers. We get triggered when our expectations don’t match up with reality (and so do our kids). But we can anticipate when that is likely to happen and shift our response. When you can anticipate what’s going to cause a blowout or trigger a meltdown, you can use safe, effective strategies to prevent it. Recognize what’s going to set you off (“If I see one more dirty dish in your room!”) or what will set off your child (“I don’t want to do my homework!”).

2. Acceptance. ADHD is neurobiological. Your kid blew up at dinner again? They forgot their homework again? They didn’t want to. Their brain makes everything from managing impulses to short-term memory a challenge.

3. Calming strategies. Take some time to figure out what you need to calm yourself down (reclaim the brain from getting triggered) in stressful moments. For some people, ten deep breaths will do the trick. Others sip water, go outside for a walk, take a shower, or give themselves a time-out. Brainstorm the calming strategies that work for you, so that you know what to try when you start feeling pressured.

4. Transitions. Whether it’s turning off the TV and going to bed, stopping outside play to take a bath, getting off technology, or switching classes at school, transitions are difficult for kids with ADHD. Make transitions smoother by anticipating the upset. Give plenty of warning and, when possible, plan ahead to minimize potential upsets.

Better ADHD Discipline: Next Steps


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