Psychology Melbourne Blog

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Why smacking children is a bad idea

Edited by Jill Wright,

All children need discipline and safe boundaries, but physical punishment is one form that should be avoided.

Studies have shown that while smacking - provided it does not constitute illegal physical abuse of a child - has no long-term positive effects on behaviour change, that is the very reason many parents cite for why they use physical discipline in the first place.

This is because spanking doesn’t teach children how to behave in a particular situation. It teaches them only how not to behave when a parent is watching, out of fear of punishment.

Smacking undermines your child’s ability to trust and doesn’t help a child to learn how to manage emotions or solve conflict.

It’s not surprising that smacking has also been associated with an increase in aggressive behaviours and mental health issues.

So what else can parents do to teach children about appropriate and inappropriate behaviour?

10 alternatives to smacking that can help create lasting positive change

1. Is your child tired, worried, over-excited, upset? Seeking to understand why your child is behaving in a certain way may help you to think of how to solve the problem, whilst also reducing the frustration and resentment associated with seeing the child as ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’.

2. Prioritise regulating emotions - yours and your child’s - before trying to discipline or solve problems.

If you or your child is distressed, or ‘in a state’, there is no point in trying to reason or discipline. Take a break from the situation and give some space for everyone to cool off. Re-approach the problem once everyone has calmed down.

3. When calm, tell your child clearly and firmly what they have done wrong. Be clear that it is the behaviour you don’t like, not your child.

4. Use "wonder" statements to encourage your child to use words instead of acting out.

Help your child to pause and use words to communicate what they are feeling or struggling with (e.g. "I wonder if you’re feeling excited and it’s hard to wait for your turn? What else could you do?"). This may not only avoid an escalation, but helps your child to manage feelings and problem-solve.

5. Tell your child what they should do rather than just what they should not do.

Guide your child to try again using the appropriate behaviour and offer praise for their success. This will make it more likely they will be able to use the positive behaviour next time.

6. If their behaviour has caused problems, ask them how to make things better. With your help it could be positive for you both.

7. Give children positive attention.

If kids are ‘good’ we ignore them. If they are ‘bad’, they get our attention. Catch them doing something good and tell them. Random rewards for positive behaviours go a lot further in creating lasting behaviour change.

8. Behaviour is a family business.

Talk with your partner and children to set age-and-stage-appropriate boundaries that everyone is clear on.

9. Set children up to be successful by letting them know what behaviour is expected before entering a situation.

Pick a positive behaviour (eg. help Mum put the groceries on the check-out counter) that is incompatible with the negative behaviour you may be anticipating (eg. taking a chocolate bar from the shelf).

10. Use natural consequences for inappropriate behaviour. For example, if your child(ren) is refusing to take turns with a toy, take it away for a period of time (depending on the age of your child), or pack up an activity if they prove unable to follow the rules.

Need some help?

To use these alternative techniques, parents need to be supported to learn the skills to regulate their own responses, and build awareness of safe and effective alternatives.

Psychology Melbourne is staffed by expert clinical, education and counselling psychologists who can provide assistance and training for parents.

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About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.