Punishment Does. Not. Work.

Jillian Enright

“Punishment” Does. Not. Work.

And it’s particularly ineffective with neurodiverse kids.

Written by Jillian Enright, CYW, BA Psych.

Bear with me. Before you read the title and dismiss the premise, I am not advocating for a permissive style of parenting, and I am not suggesting that children shouldn’t have boundaries.

Quote by L. R. Knost.Photo by author.

Boundaries vs. Punishment

The difference is that boundaries and discipline are about teaching, whereas punishment is about retribution.

Punishment often includes shaming and blaming which can really harm our children’s self-worth. Causing children to feel shame about their behaviour without giving them the skills or tools to do better will likely lead to worsening behaviour.

“Shame is the most disabling learning disability.”—(Hallowell & Ratey, 2021)

More concerning, children may internalize the messages they receive about themselves, either directly or indirectly, which leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy (“well, they say I’m a bad kid, so what’s the point in even trying?”).

Children follow our examples much more than they listen to our words, so if we role model losing our temper when a child does something goes wrong, then that is the example we are setting for them.

“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”—James A. Baldwin

What I am saying is that adult-imposed punishments, usually referred to as consequences because apparently that sounds nicer, are rarely effective.

Quote by James Baldwin.Image created by author.

I’ll rewind a bit…

Way back in 2007 when I started my Psychology degree, a professor sat at the front of a lecture hall and told a group of students “we — meaning we humans — suck at punishment.” He was right.

Our professor went on to explain that, in order for our adult-imposed consequences to be effective, they would have to be immediate and severe enough that the behaviour would either decrease immediately or never happen again.

How often do we blame a child for not “learning” from consequences? Well, if we read our learning theory textbooks, then we would realize that it’s not Johnny’s fault that the adults in his life haven’t taken the time to look beneath the surface to discover the underlying causes of his behaviour. Yeah, we, the ones with the fully-developed prefrontal cortex are responsible for sorting this stuff out, not little Johnny.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for complex decision-making — and much more. The PFC is not fully developed until approximately 25–30 years of age (Hartshorne & Germine, 2015), and children with ADHD are approximately 30% behind their peers in brain maturation (Berger et al., 2013).

Johnny has been suspended three times for this behaviour, why doesn’t he learn?” we ask. Hmm, if we are repeating our behaviour of punishing him in this way, despite the fact that it’s not helping him, then why aren’t we learning and changing our behaviour?

Consequences that are delayed, such as detention, suspension, grounding, etc., and that gradually increase in intensity (the first time is a warning, the second a detention, and so on)… are ineffective.

Children, especially children with learning differences, have a difficult time connecting delayed consequences with their behaviour. We humans are very good at habituating to punishments, especially when they gradually increase in severity.

“Rewards work much better for the ADHD mind than do consequences”—(Hallowell & Ratey, 2021).

Not to mention, frivolous suspensions infringe on students’ rights to an education, and often do more harm than good. Suspensions and “zero tolerance” do nothing to keep schools safer and end up alienating students and harming their self-concept (Welch & Payne, 2018).

Ford and colleagues (2018) found that excluding or suspending children from school raises their risk of long-term mental health concerns and distress.

Additionally, more recent research has demonstrated that suspensions are associated with increased misbehaviour and additional sanctioning (Wiley et al., 2020), so they actually make problems worse both for the child and for the school.

What is Punishment, Really?

In scientific literature, punishment is defined by its impact on behaviour. …So it’s only actually referred to as punishment if the behaviour decreases or stops.

If we continue imposing consequences — despite the fact that they are helping neither the student nor the school, because they are ineffective — then what is it? Retribution? Shame? Certainly nothing good or useful, which is why I started out saying that punishment (but really not punishment) simply does not work.

Our modern version of punishment often does more harm than good, because it hurts the self-worth of the child, it can hurt their relationship with the adult doling out the consequence, and in the end the child learns nothing other than better ways to avoid getting caught. Worse, they may also begin to internalize the message that they are a “ bad” kid.

In her book, “Grow Together" (Luvmour, 2017), Dr. Joanna Luvmour states:

“Punishment teaches children how to avoid punishment; it does not teach children anything about the nature of an appropriate relationship. Guidance is in relationships is required to form new knowledge of how to behave properly.”—Dr. Joanna Luvmour

After all this adult-imposed punishment, if no interventions are put in place to actually support the child, then they still have no idea how to do better, and the cycle continues. We’re essentially shaming and punishing children for not having skills when we haven’t taken the time to teach them.

Not to mention the fact that what we’re role-modelling is punishment and retribution, which is often what we’re punishing the child for in the first place…. When you think about it that way, doesn’t it sound hypocritical and even cruel?

If a child’s behaviour is disruptive, harmful, or maladaptive, how do we help them? Look for the root cause, the underlying factors that are driving the behaviour. All behaviour is communication. What is the child trying to tell us? Believe it or not, it is extremely rare for a child to misbehave just for the sake of it.

Behaviour Iceberg.Created by author.

What’s beneath the surface behaviour?

How do we find this out? Here’s a novel idea, why don’t we ask the child? And when I say ask, I don’t mean interrogate, I mean ask with the intent of truly understanding their experience and perspective.

Ask open-ended questions without blame or shame, and truly listen to the answers. Observe the child, build and strengthen your relationship with the child, and talk to the child.

Watch interactions that are happening, really get to know the child, and learn about their world and their perspective. If you take the time to do a little detective work with a focus on understanding, compassion, and empathy you’ll be surprised what you can learn.

Don’t assume or jump to conclusions, because our assumptions are usually wrong. Seriously. I’ve been humbled so many times thinking I know what a child is going to say and then they tell me something completely different.

Give children the dignity of being treated like the competent human beings that they are, they are people who have something very important to contribute to the problem-solving process. Show them you genuinely care about their feelings and their thoughts and they will gladly enlighten you.

Give children the dignity of being treated like the competent human beings that they are.

Not only that, but role-modelling this process will help children build the skills to begin doing this for themselves, first with support, and later independently. This will reduce the undesired behaviour, but more importantly, will help boost their self-concept and will set them up for future success.

Follow me for more articles like this.Image created by author.

When their behaviour is communicating instead of their words

Many children are not yet developmentally capable of knowing and expressing what is going on inside of them when they are overwhelmed by their emotions, their senses, or when they lose control of their behaviour.

If we ask children and they say “I don’t know”, don’t push, and don’t guilt them for not having an answer. It may very likely be the truth, and this can be a further source of anxiety for them.

Punishing them for behaviour they cannot control, or making them feel shame when they can’t explain themselves, will only add to their stress. When children feel stress, there is a subconscious perception of threat that underlies their behaviours, which are adaptive and emerge from an instinctive drive toward self-protection (Delahooke, 2019).

Instead, offer your observations or insights in a non-judgemental, non-leading way, and invite the child to be part of the problem-solving process. Offer to work together to brainstorm some things they think may help, coming up with some potential supports and solutions to try, per Dr. Ross Greene’s Collaborative Proactive Solutions approach (Greene, 2014).

Focusing on aspects of the environment and our own coping strategies, rather than on the child’s behaviour and the consequences of said behaviour, will provide them with important skills to self-manage in the future. Empowering them to develop their own tools will help boost their self-concept and will set them up for future success. It is worth it. They are worth it.

© Jillian Enright, ADHD 2e MB



Berger, I., Slobodin, O., Aboud, M., Melamed, J., & Cassuto, H. (2013). Maturational delay in ADHD: evidence from CPT. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 7, 691. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00691

Delahooke, M. (2019). Beyond Behaviors: using brain science and compassion to understand and solve children’s behavioral challenges. PESI Publishing.

Ford, T., Parker, C., Salim, J., Goodman, R., Logan, S., & Henley, W. (2018). The relationship between exclusion from school and mental health: A secondary analysis of the British Child and Adolescent Mental Health Surveys 2004 and 2007. Psychological Medicine, 48(4), 629–641. doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/S003329171700215X

Greene, R. W. (2014). The explosive child: a new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, chronically inflexible children. Revised and updated. Harper.

Hallowell, E. & Ratey, J. (2021). ADHD 2.0. Ballantine Books.

Hartshorne, J. K., & Germine, L. T. (2015). When Does Cognitive Functioning Peak? The Asynchronous Rise and Fall of Different Cognitive Abilities Across the Life Span. Psychological Science, 26(4), 433–443. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614567339

Luvmour, Josette. (2017). Grow together: parenting as a path to well-being, wisdom, and joy. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Welch K., Payne A.A. (2018). Zero Tolerance School Policies. In: Deakin J., Taylor E., Kupchik A. (eds). The Palgrave International Handbook of School Discipline, Surveillance, and Social Control. Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-71559-9_11

Wiley, S. A., Slocum, L. A., O’Neill, J., & Esbensen, F.-A. (2020). Beyond the Breakfast Club: Variability in the Effects of Suspensions by School Context. Youth & Society, 52(7), 1259–1284. https://doi.org/10.1177/0044118X19896716

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Neurodivergent. 20+ years social work and psychology experience. I write about mental health, neurodiversity, advocacy, education, and parenting. Founder of Neurodiversity MB. CYW, BA Psychology.


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