Punishing Behaviour Makes it Worse

Jillian Enright

Punishing Unwanted Behaviour Just Makes it Worse

(Especially for neurodivergent children) — Based on neuroscience

Written by Jillian Enright, CYW, BA Psych.

Doubling down on a previous story, Punishment Does Not Work, I am taking this concept a step further by explaining how punishment actually makes things worse in a lot of cases.

Firstly, let me explain what I mean by punishment.

The scientific definition of punishment is a consequence that follows a behaviour that decreases (or attempts to decrease) the likelihood of that behaviour occurring in the future (Holth, 2005).

So when I refer to punishment, I don’t mean only physical punishment, I am referring to anything that a child may experience as unpleasant. This can mean time-out, yelling, removal of privileges, grounding, suspension from school, and spanking.

This is not a new concept

The concept of avoiding the use of aversives is not a liberal snowflake, new-age form of permissive parenting. The idea that punishment may do more harm than good has been around for at least 77 years.

As early as 1944, a psychologist named Dr. William Kaye Estes wrote in favour of positive reinforcement over punishment. Dr. Estes concluded there was no evidence to indicate that punishment exerts a direct weakening effect upon a behaviour comparable to the strengthening produced by a reward (Estes, 1944).

B.F. Skinner himself, the scientist whose work many clinicians with a behaviourist philosophy use to defend their practices, actually warned about the fallout of using punishment.

In his 1953 textbook, Science and Human Behavior, B.F. Skinner explained that while punishment may seem to stop undesirable behaviour, the behaviour often returns once the punishment ends if a child has not been taught more adaptive ways to behave.

Worse, punishment creates fear, guilt, and shame, which result in less learning overall (Skinner, 1953).

In his experiments involving rats, Skinner came to realize that punishment does not result in learning. In fact, punishment doesn’t even stop undesired behaviour, it only temporarily suppresses that behaviour. Not only that, it often causes new, sometimes worse behaviours to emerge as the child seeks to escape what scares or hurts them.

Not much later, Dr. Russell Church wrote about the problem of inconsistent results when using punishment (Church, 1963).

In his 1984 book, “Coercion and its Fallout”, Dr. Murray Sidman explained that punishment eventually proves counterproductive. Nearly a decade later, Dr. Sidman reiterated his point, concluding that coercion produces side effects that may be even less desirable than the original problem behavior (1993).

Our PFC & Amygdala are not always friends

A significant finding about the neurobiology of ADHD is that the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) matures slower in people with ADHD than in those without (Curatolo et al., 2010).

People with ADHD also have abnormalities in the connection between their amygdala and Prefrontal Cortex (Faraone et al., 2015).

Essentially, our amygdala is the fear centre of our brain, it is responsible for processing unpleasant emotions and then sending signals to the PFC.

The PFC is the command centre of our brain, it is supposed to take in the information, then help us make a rational and calculated decision about what to do next.

Supposed to.

The PFC is the part of our brain that slows us down when we’re about to react impulsively. Its job is to inhibit our response to give us time to consider our options before acting.

When we experience stress, our PFC and amygdala are fighting to see who’s boss. While the PFC is telling the amygdala “hang on man, let’s think about this”, the amygdala claps back “stand down, man! No time for complex decision-making, it’s go time!” (The amygdala is a bit of a drama queen sometimes).

People with ADHD have an abnormality in the connection between their amygdala and their PFC, as well as problems in both of those regions of the brain (Arnsten, 2009), which is part of the reason for our impulsive behaviour.

Punishment Increases Stress

Neurodivergent children generally experience increased life stressors in comparison to their neurotypical peers. A vicious cycle can develop wherein increased stress exacerbates one’s ADHD symptoms, and those worsened ADHD symptoms in turn increase life stressors (Hartman et al., 2019).

We now know that people with ADHD already have communication problems between their PFC and amygdala, and the amygdala responds to stress by telling the PFC to stand down and let instincts take over, which in turn makes us behave more impulsively.

Now consider that when we punish children for behaviour that we don’t like, we cause children stress.

“The kids who are most often described as being manipulative are those least capable of doing it well.”—Dr. Ross Greene

Blaming, shaming, or otherwise punishing a child for stress behaviours can make things worse. The punishment becomes a stressor in its own right (Shanker & Barker, 2017).

This is especially true if the punishment is inconsistent, unpredictable, or a consequence for something over which the child has little or no control.

And what happens when our brains are under stress?

That’s right. Emotions and instincts take over, rational thought and careful consideration go offline, and people revert to fight-or-flight mode.

This is an evolutionary necessity: if a pack of wolves is surrounding us, ready to pounce, and we stand there weighing out every option before we act, we’re dinner. Our brains need to engage our survival instincts for the very reason they’re called survival instincts.

The subconscious perception of safety and threat underlies stress behaviours, which are adaptive and emerge fro the instinctive drive toward self-protection (Delahooke, 2019).

When our children feel threatened, they are no longer neurologically capable of accessing their intellect and logic, and neither are adults.

“Traditional discipline can inadvertently escalate negative behaviours because survival brains cannot process rewards, consequences, or reason.” — Dr. Lori K. Desautels

We are all biologically programmed to shift from the forebrain (PFC and complex reasoning) to our hindbrain (emotions and survival instincts) when we perceive danger.

The part of the brain that serves intentional behaviour is precisely the part that shuts down when we become too stressed (Shanker & Barker, 2017).

The overactive amygdala sends messages to the PFC telling it to decrease its functioning because something scary is happening; you don’t want reason getting in the way of survival (Harris, 2019).

Unfortunately, frequent or long-term stress and repeated activation of the amygdala cause the amygdala to become increasingly sensitive. In cases of severe prolonged stress, the amygdala can then remain hypersensitive, and the brain tells the PFC to remain less involved (Wei et al., 2017).

This can lead to emotional volatility, hypervigilence, and increased impulsive behaviour as a response to protracted stress.

When the stress response is activated too frequently, or if the stressor is too intense, the body can lose the ability to shut down the stress response and it remains activated, even in safe environments (Harris, 2019).

End the Cycle

The more we punish children, the more stressed they become. The more stressed they become, the less they are able to regulate their emotions and control their impulses.

The less they regulate and inhibit, the more they get in trouble. The more they get in trouble, the more they get punished. The more are punished, the more stress they experience, and the cycle continues.

“Pain is often misunderstood and seen as intentional disrespect, indifference, or deviant behaviour.”—Dr. Lori Desautels

When we punish children we are not teaching them any new skills, we are not giving them a sense of autonomy or control over their own behaviour and their own lives, and we are potentially causing them to resent their punisher — or worse, making them feel afraid of the punisher, which is usually an adult with whom they are supposed to feel safe.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to continue this way

There are a number of important ways that we can guide our children and enforce appropriate boundaries in a loving way without the use of punishment.

I want to be clear that we all do things that make our children, or children in our care, uncomfortable — even unintentionally. We may hurt their feelings, raise our voice in frustration, or threaten consequences in anger. None of us is perfect, and we will all mess up.

When we do, we can role-model what taking responsibility and making amends look like. We acknowledge our error and its effect on others, we apologize, and we tell our child what we plan to do in order to avoid making the same mistake in the future.

“It is powerful when we can model an observation of our own mistake and then model how we take responsibility for it” —Linda K. Murphy

In the mean time, we can learn and grow as parents or caregivers, and as people in general. This starts with filling our toolbox with new and better ways to deal with challenging behaviour, and arming ourselves with knowledge — knowledge about child development, healthy relationships, and about the individual children in our lives.

Collaborative & Proactive

Another great place to start is Dr. Ross Greene’s Collaborative & Proactive Solutions method (Greene, 2021). Our website has a summary of this method, as well as links to the Lives in the Balance website, which offers extensive resources for both families and professionals.

In essence, the CPS method explains that kids do the best they can with the skills they have at that time. When we encounter difficulties, it’s up to the adults to identify and teach those skills which our children are lacking (Greene, 2021).

The most important priority is to strengthen the adult-child relationship first and foremost. When our children feel loved and cared for in a secure, unconditional way, it is much easier for them to learn and grow in a healthy direction.

When we deal with our own issues separately from the adult-child relationship, and focus on developing healthy and secure relationships with our children, the rest comes more readily — certainly not easy by any stretch, but easier than before. Like any skill, it gets easier with practice.

You got this.

(C) Jillian Enright, ADHD 2e MB



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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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