Corporal punishment, including spanking, happens when parents use physical punishment (usually hitting the child on the backside but occasionally elsewhere), with the hope that this ‘disciplinary action’ will improve the child's behavior.
What happens in reality, however, is quite different. In fact, spanking may actually increase aggression and other undesirable behaviors in children.
In this Q&A about corporal punishment, we'll delve into the research and address many of the questions parents and caregivers have personally asked us. We'll respond to each of them based on extensive research about healthy child development.
A: No. According to the American Psychological Association, spanking is not only ineffective, but also harmful to the developing child.
"...In the meta-analysis, researchers Elizabeth Gershoff and Andrew Grogan-Kaylor from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan, respectively, evaluated 75 published studies on the relationship between spanking by parents and various behavioral, emotional, cognitive and physical outcomes among their kids. They found that spanking was associated with 13 out of a total of 17 negative outcomes they assessed, including increased aggression and behavioral and mental health problems as well as reduced cognitive ability and self-esteem..." – Melinda Wenner Moyer, Scientific American
Additionally, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers this:
"Parents and other adult caregivers should use effective discipline strategies for children that do not involve spanking, other forms of corporal punishment or verbal shaming. The guidance is part of an updated policy statement in which the Academy strengthens its opposition to corporal punishment. The policy Effective Discipline to Raise Healthy Children, from the Council on Child Abuse and Neglect and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, is available here..." – Robert D. Sege, M.D., Ph.D., FAAP, American Academy of Pediatrics
It is now widely accepted that corporal punishment may increase the risk of future trauma for the child and potentially even lower their IQ. You can read more about the effects of spanking here as well as throughout this article.
A: No. Although it may temporarily change behavior, that change comes from a child's fear rather than their genuine desire to modify their behavior. Children may ‘behave’ because they're scared, and fear-based parenting is proven to be ineffective. Few parents want to scare their children into compliance.
Most parents want their children to grow up and be self-confident adults, able to stand up to the bully on the school-yard or in the workplace.
Plus, corporal punishment doesn't typically work as intended – according to this research,
"...Physical punishment does not appear to improve a child's positive behavior or social competence over time, according to a review of 69 studies from the US, Canada, China, Colombia, Greece, Japan, Switzerland, Turkey and the United Kingdom..." – Sandee LaMotte, CNN
More specifics from a university study published in Pediatrics journal, researching 2500 mothers and their children over the course of two years,
“...Children who are spanked frequently at age 3 are more likely to be aggressive when they’re 5, even when you account for possible confounding factors...spanking at age 3 increased the odds of higher levels of aggression at age 5. Signs of aggression included behaviors such as arguing or screaming; cruelty, bullying or meanness to others; destroys things; fighting and frequently threatening others.” – Keith Brannon, Tulane University
"Spanking is not an effective consequence for negative behavior in children,” says Dr. Danielle Baran, a clinical psychologist at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill. “Children who are spanked can learn that hitting is an effective way to solve problems." – Sonja Vojcic, Health eNews
A: Brain science is a relatively new field, so up until recently, no one realized the damaging implications of corporal punishment. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, ‘now that we know better, we do better.’
A: Yes, it absolutely can. There are myriad potential problems with corporal punishment, not the least of which is damage to the relationship between the adult and child. According to scientific research meta-analysis,
"The strongest associations with spanking were a negative parent-child relationship, child mental health problems and an increased risk of a child becoming an abuse victim, followed by low moral internalization, more aggressive child behavior, antisocial behavior in childhood and adulthood, more behavior problems in childhood and mental health problems in adulthood." – Tara Haelle, Forbes
Some sources don't mince words about the effects of corporal punishment:
"...Psychologist Alan Kazdin, the director of the Yale Parenting Center and former president of the American Psychological Association, has admonished that spanking is “a horrible thing that does not work.” It predicts later academic and health problems: Adults who were spanked as children 'regularly die at a younger age of cancer, heart disease, and respiratory illnesses...” – James Hamblin, The Atlantic
A: We are so thankful for exceptions like yours. Indeed, it's absolutely possible for children to overcome adversity. Resilience is real.
By the same token, you may be the exception. Scores of well-researched studies over the past several decades have proven the damaging effects corporal punishment causes for most children.
No adult can possibly know when spanking will cause lasting psychological damage to a child, so why risk it?
A woman recently commented on our post, “To all those who say they were spanked and they turned out "fine." I am, no doubt, "fine." In fact, I am quite better than "fine." However, I know the emotional stress being spanked inflicted upon me. And, I was spanked only a handful of times that I can remember. But those I remember, they were traumatic. No two ways about it. It wasn't a beating. It was done with a hand. But it was traumatic. There are better ways.”
Furthermore, some people say they were spanked as children and they still love their parents dearly, and that is certainly true. Might the relationship have been even better, however, without physical violence, even if hitting the child was brief and infrequent?
Especially when non-punitive options exist so readily, and particularly if we have the mental aptitude and education to understand how they work, why not use them? They have absolutely no negative long-term outcomes and are proven to improve children's behavior. We're counting on intelligent and rational people like you to guide the next generation.
A: Physically, the damage may be less severe with a hand than it would be from an object. Emotionally, however, the child's nervous system can't tell the difference. The child's body perceives the spanking as being similar to abuse.
A: It is important to note that if a child is left with visible signs of injury, it may be illegal in some of the United States:
..."any kind of corporal punishment results in significant injury to your child—such as bruises, cuts, or an inability to sit down—then it will be considered child abuse, even if the method itself might otherwise be legal." – Devon Frye, Psychology Today
A: No. Although spanking used to be more common around the world, there's now a global initiative to end all corporal punishment. It's viewed as a human rights issue.
"On the international front, physical discipline is increasingly being viewed as a violation of children’s human rights. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a directive in 2006 calling physical punishment “legalized violence against children” that should be eliminated in all settings through “legislative, administrative, social and educational measures.” The treaty that established the committee has been supported by 192 countries, with only the United States and Somalia failing to ratify it." – Brendan L. Smith, American Psychological Association
A: Although corporal punishment is legal in schools in some U.S. states, it is not universally legal, nor is it universally or consistently implemented. For example,
"In North Carolina, 63% of the cases of corporal punishment in the 2013–2014 school year were for disruptive behavior, fighting, aggression, disorderly conduct, or bullying...[In other states]...children have been corporally punished in school for being late to class, failing to turn in homework, violating dress codes, running in the hallway, laughing in the hallway...going to the bathroom without permission, mispronouncing words, and receiving bad grades." – Elizabeth T. Gershoff and Sarah A. Font, US National Library of Medicine
Society and lawmakers need to examine all of these, and we'll address a couple of them here. For example, if the use of corporal punishment is justified for fighting -- working under the assumption that the school is trying to discourage violence, we must realized that hitting teaches children to hit. Educators are called to model the behavior they want to see in their students.
Furthermore, since when are laughing, needing to use the restroom, mispronouncing words, or receiving bad grades ever peacefully addressed by this negative and harmful treatment of children? Are we telling children that they should not trust their own bodies and that physical pain will make them smarter?
Additionally, how would we feel about a parent hitting their child for laughing or using the bathroom at home?
A: We completely understand how much parents – almost all parents – truly love their children, regardless of their stance on corporal punishment. With that, we in no way mean to imply that you don't love your children or are a "bad parent" if you spank them.
What's important to know is that, once again, a child's nervous system literally can't tell the difference between being hit for a so-called "good" reason or not. It simply recognizes that it's being hit. Further, it is very confusing to the child to be physically harmed and soothed by the same person. The latter can lead to what's called a disorganized attachment.
According to world-leading expert Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, this can result in one of three possibilities for the child:
The solution doesn't rest in having the non-angry caregiver carry out the spanking; the child may simply wonder, then, why their "safe person" didn't come to their aid. That, too, is very confusing for a child.
A: As it turns out (and contrary to what many of us were raised to believe), the Bible does not say "spare the rod, spoil the child." This quote came from Samuel Butler in a 17th-century work called Hudibras. The quote has nothing to do with spanking a child; it's about a man who wants his lover to engage in sexual role play.
"...References to "the rod" in the Bible are worth exploring in and of themselves. If we harken back to the days of shepherds using rods to guide their sheep, there's a critical distinction in how they use their rods. They did not use them to hit or harm their sheep. They used them to gently guide their sheep; to keep them from wandering off and getting hurt. That's an incredible paradigm shift.
As an example of where the rod is mentioned, in Proverbs 13:24, the Bible says, 'Those who spare the rod of discipline hate their children. Those who love their children care enough to discipline them.' Another word worth defining here is 'discipline.' It means to teach, not to punish. Even Jesus' disciples (same root word as discipline) were responsible for teaching. The 'rod' (gentle guidance) was used to 'discipline' (to teach)...Gentle guidance – discipline – is what modern-day parents, Christian or otherwise, would call healthy and loving boundaries." – Sarah R. Moore, Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting
To be clear, this post is not blaming Christianity or Christian parents. We address it here and from this viewpoint simply because Christianity is one of the most common religions around the world and it's often erroneously cited as a reason for spanking. I support parents and caregivers from all belief systems.
A: There are many options in peaceful parenting, fortunately. Examples include a calm-down corner (note that it differs from a time-out), playful parenting, logical and natural consequences, and co-regulation.
How do we know they work? According to research,
"...Kids raised by [gentle] authoritative parents are more likely to become independent, self-reliant, socially accepted, academically successful, and well-behaved. They are less likely to report depression and anxiety, and less likely to engage in antisocial behavior like delinquency and drug use..." – Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., Parenting Science
Even without spanking or other punitive approaches, we can still hold children accountable in ways that discipline – which, again, means to teach – without doing them harm. This is true for strong-willed children, neurodiverse children, and all children.
A: YES. Please take heart; we've helped countless adults find new hope and change their paths for the better.
Recovery is absolutely possible for both caregiver and child. Healing and forgiveness are completely within your reach. It is possible to learn new, healthier patterns and ways of dealing with hard situations.
You can get started by exploring how to become a parenting coach today.
This article was originally published here.
Gentle parenting is a paradigm shift from control-based parenting to connection-based parenting.
It's also quite the buzzword these days. While it's great that there's so much more awareness of gentle parenting than there used to be, there's a risk: not everything that goes by that name actually brings any greater sense of peace to the home. There's a lot of false advertising out there.
How can you tell what gentle parenting really is -- and what it isn't?
This section covers what gentle parenting will look like in action, and what parenting styles directly oppose it.
Some adults will justify anything -- including spanking -- if they feel it's done under the guise of gentle parenting, such as when they're no longer upset or if someone other than the offended parent inflicts the punishment. This is clearly not the real deal.
Not only is this form of punishment the opposite of empathy, respect, and any form of positive discipline no matter how the adult is feeling; it's also directly linked to significant harmful effects to the child, such as lifelong trauma and developmental delays.
These are all forms of authoritarian parenting, which is linked to negative outcomes for children. (source)
These methods may "work" to the extent that they often gain temporary and perceived obedience. However, this relationship is based on parental control and manipulation. Here, parents raise children who fear them. The child will bear the emotional collateral of being raised this way.
At the opposite end of the parenting spectrum is permissive parenting, where the adult embodies little to no competent leadership. They may be more concerned about pleasing the child than leading the child with loving boundaries. In fact, healthy boundaries may be severely lacking or missing entirely. This approach, too -- while on the surface may seem gentle and respectful -- harms the child in the long run. (source)
A lack of healthy boundaries may lead kids to look beyond their family to find guidance wherever they can get it -- peers, social media, or really anyone who's willing to tell them the "rules of life." The risk, of course, is that these "rules" may be highly dangerous to the child.
Although parenting books won't recommend this style, parents who fail to use any form of discipline, including positive and respectful discipline, may feel that their family is conflict-free. They may believe that a family who doesn't talk about conflict is happy.
This false assumption poses two problems:
Related mini-course: Anger Management for Kids: Helpful Strategies for Before, During & After the Upset
These parenting styles are not at all helpful in supporting the child's development. To the contrary, these principles directly oppose the spirit of gentle parenting.
Gentle parenting, as done within the context of authoritative parenting and widely agreed to be the most beneficial for children, is neither authoritarian nor permissive (source).
It's based on connection.
The adult knows that they can't simply parent the child's behavior, even though that's what they live with outwardly. Rather, the child's behavior is always a reflection of what's going on emotionally for them. If the child is "doing well," they're likely thriving inside. If the child is exhibiting troubling or problematic behavior, the child is struggling inside.
It's rather like when a car breaks down: we don't just take it to a car wash to make it look better. We need to get under the hood and repair what's on the inside.
Gentle parenting is parenting from the inside out. It's about going beneath the surface and seeing the child fully.
It's about parent and child doing well for one another because they want to; because the foundation of their very co-existence is mutual respect and trust.
Some people assume that gentle parenting is the same as attachment parenting. Although there certainly can be varying degrees of overlap with attachment parenting, the real answer to whether they're synonymous is this: it depends.
Attachment parenting, a term originally coined by Dr. William Sears, is a gentle parenting style that encompasses the following parenting methods geared towards parenting small children. They're sometimes called the seven B's (source). Each is scientifically supported as noted below.
This refers to immediate and continuous contact between parent and child directly after birth. (scientific validation)
Here, the mother provides the most natural and most readily available solution to respond to baby's hunger. (scientific validation)
This means keeping baby close in a soft carrier, usually keeping the wearer's hands free. It's a key to having a calm and happy baby, and helps form a secure attachment between parent and child. (scientific validation)
The AAP recommends safe room sharing where a healthy and sober parent or parents sleep near baby throughout the first year of life. (scientific validation)
Dr. Sears suggests that baby will never cry for "no reason" and their emotions are every bit as valid as adults'. It's the parent's job to respond with presence, respect, and patience. (scientific validation)
This guidance is to avoid any so-called parenting expert who gives or sells advice to make baby sleep. Sleep comes naturally as part of development rather than training. Sears advocates that we should listen and respond to baby's cues day and night. (scientific validation)
Here, we accept that mothers and fathers still matter; there's no need to lose a sense of self or jeopardize the relationship by devoting all our energy to our kids. (scientific validation)
Individually and collectively, research shows that each of these tools can have positive outcomes for children.
A gentle parent doesn't have to do all these things to love their children and raise wonderful, securely attached kids. Let's look at an example:
A single mom is raising twin baby girls. She loves them dearly. She's also a nurse who works third shift. Her children spend their nights at home with Grandma. They attend daycare a few hours each day while mom sleeps. When mom is with her children, she's present, loving, and fully devoted to them. However, she can't room share with them at night because she's working, and Grandma has said no to a shared room. Although mom pumps milk when she can, she usually supplements with formula. When she's off work, she's too tired to baby wear, although she does hold her babies often.
Can this woman form a secure attachment with her children? Absolutely. Parents can embody gentle parenting without it mirroring Sears' definition.
Although it sounds simple (albeit, perhaps, a bit perplexing), what matters most is that she delights in her children, and that they feel her delight (source). Her presence, kindness, and empathy for their feelings when they're together show her girls the depth of her love.
She's mindful of their time together and, most of the time, stays calm and peaceful despite her own stressors. She models self-care by taking them for walks and spending time in nature. She models gentle parenting in every possible interaction with them.
Conversely, if a parent is going through the motions of attachment parenting but is emotionally spent and has no joy to offer their family, this is not the recipe for raising children who feel particularly special.
Gentle parenting isn't just about making children feel special, of course. Much more, research points to it being about open and ongoing communication that nurtures the relationship between parent and child.
All that said, if the parent chooses behaviour in line with the principles of attachment parenting and they feel delight in this parenting style, then it's a bonus.
You likely noticed that all the components of attachment parenting above apply to young children, where secure attachment is established (or not) in the first years of life (source).
What about older kids? Certainly gentle parenting doesn't end there. Indeed, it doesn't.
Gentle parenting isn't just for babies, of course. What does it look like for older children, as well? These benchmarks help us know for sure that we're using the real deal.
Gentle parenting incorporates the child's perspective when setting "rules" for the family. These rules are different than those of
the authoritarian parent, however: they're not there to control the child.
Gentle parenting isn't about sticker charts as a key to cooperation around boundaries. Gentle parenting isn't defined by rewards and other extrinsic motivation any more than it is by punishments. Instead, the adult will listen to the child, respect their perspective, and work to find win/win scenarios and boundaries that are mutually acceptable.
Gentle parenting models these attributes, even when parents are struggling or facing their children's challenging behaviour. Parents view their kids as allies. Problems are external issues to be solved, rather than internal issues that reflect the state of the relationship.
When problems arise, gentle parents pause and ask themselves, "How do I want my child to see me respond?" They realize that co-regulation is a powerful tool in gentle parenting and a sign of a healthy bond. Once parents and children find their calm together, they can create mutually acceptable solutions.
Gentle parents embody not only the "Golden Rule" -- treating others as they'd like to be treated -- but also another version, the "Platinum Rule" -- do to others what they'd want done to them.
The gentle parent realizes that it's much healthier for a child to release their feelings than keep them pent up inside. Although not all behavior is acceptable, gentle parenting works to encourage healthy expression of emotions.
Gentle parents encourage children to share what they feel, even if they're upset with each other -- and even if it's sometimes uncomfortable. Here, it's emotionally safe to do so because they work to genuinely understand the other's perspective.
It's helpful for many parents to set intentions about the specific ways they want to model respect for their kids. Some begin each morning with a prayer or meditation about specifically how they want to be peaceful that day. This approach can help tremendously.
The final important component to note about gentle parenting is that no person in the world is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. When gentle parents mess up, they model healthy repair and work to make things right with their children. In doing so, they raise children who know that modeling accountability for one's actions, and allowing grace for mistakes, is an integral part of healthy connections.
Although gentle parenting may feel daunting to those who haven't practiced it before, please know that it's not a race to perfection. No one would expect that of you. Just take that one next step. As they say, Rome wasn't built in a day (and no one's asking you to build Rome).
Choose one small way to connect with your child, and you're already on your way.
Please allow me to be blunt: sometimes children drive their parents batty. Of course, sometimes parents drive their children "'round the bend," too -- so all is fair in love and parenting. What should parents do, though, when their kids' batty-making behavior requires a response of some sort, and they want to address their children using non-punitive, positive discipline?
The solution often rests in natural and logical consequences.
What natural consequences and logical consequences have in common is that they peacefully teach children their so-called life lessons. That's the essence of peaceful discipline: teaching that does no harm.
When used correctly, natural and logical consequences are valuable teaching tools. Examples of both are below.
An important distinction to make, of course, is to know that both natural and logical consequences are different from boundaries. Ideally, boundaries are the loving and fair guidelines that grown-ups establish to help ensure their children's safety, health, and social-emotional growth.
Natural and logical consequences are not punishments; they're simply the effects of choices. Think of consequences as non-punitive teachers.
Consequences can be positive or negative. For example, the consequence of a child treating a sibling well is usually a peaceful relationship. The consequence of a child mistreating a sibling is usually conflict.
The place where boundaries and consequences meet is often where learning happens best.
Example: A child says he "doesn't care" that he's left his favorite toy truck outside in the driveway. The parent warns the child that the toy might break or be stolen if he leaves it there overnight. Still, the child refuses to retrieve it.
Sure enough, the next morning, the parent backs out of the garage to take the child to school and has completely forgotten about the toy truck. The car rolls over the truck and they hear the dreaded "crunch."
The natural consequence is that no one can fix the truck and the child is sad.
The broken truck and the sadness of the child are enough of a teacher that the child doesn't need further punishment for having left the truck outside. The natural consequence here is enough.
Likely result: Next time, when the adult says to the child, "Please move your toys off the driveway," the child will be more inclined to remember the broken truck and consider his options more carefully. If he chooses to move his toys, that will likely result in a positive natural consequence, instead -- nothing breaks. He'll learn greater responsibility naturally.
Just like natural consequences, logical consequences are not punishment. Still, they're a very effective teacher.
Example: A child who struggles with screen time wants to keep playing her online game even though she's exceeded the daily screen limit to which she and her parents had previously agreed. Perhaps she's sneaking away from the dinner table to "check in," or she's feigning sleep and staying up late chatting online with friends.
Her parents are aware of her "misbehavior," yet they know punishment will only make her want to hide her behavior further (source). Resultantly, her family wants solutions that help their child feel seen and validated, while still holding the agreed-upon boundary.
Although natural consequences might include letting her stay online and face the repercussions of being overtired at school the next day, her mom and dad realize that logical consequences might be in order.
It's not that logical consequences are harsher or "better" teachers, but perhaps there are safety or logistical reasons that she shouldn't be exhausted at school.
Logical consequences might include allowing her to use the device at will, but requiring that she give it to her parents for safekeeping at an agreed-upon time.
Likely result: She'll find a way to balance her time more effectively.
As an aside, another option worth considering is to see if it's time to revisit her daily screen limit. Perhaps the limit wasn't realistic and genuinely warrants another look.
It's normal and developmentally healthy for children to push back on, and question, the boundaries their parents establish. In fact, it behooves adults to let children practice pushing back. It's much safer for a child to practice boundary-pushing with a trusted adult than with peers, for example. In some cases, negotiation is a positive.
Still, children might have big feelings when grown-ups stand firm on healthy boundaries. If the boundaries are reasonable and fair, the parent can uphold them confidently and with compassion.
Gentle, respectful parenting isn't boundary-less parenting.
That said, the child should perceive no "vibe" of punishment with natural or logical consequences. Limits can and should be loving. Ideally, the parent will have collaborated with the child to agree on mutually agreeable behavior before a situation has escalated.
The key to this peaceful approach, of course, is being proactive. In the example of the toy truck, the parent might've used play to engage the child in collaborative problem-solving rather than only leaning on a factual warning that something might damage the truck.
Playful parenting, particularly with younger kids, removes the vast majority of potential conflict.
Related mini-courses: Holding Space for Big Feelings, Should We Talk to Kids about "Good" and "Bad" Choices?, and Playful Parenting
A parenting approach that focuses too much on parental control and punishment is called authoritarian parenting. It's linked to a host of problems as the child grows older.
The negative side effects to this type of parenting include: Children are aggressive, but can also be socially inept...Children in these families have poor self-esteem, are poor judges of character and will rebel against authority figures when they are older. Children will model the behavior shown to them by their parents while with their peers and as future parents themselves. Children rarely learn to think on their own. Children have a difficult time managing their anger and are very resentful. (source)
True, not all punitive parenting comes from authoritarian parenting. It's a very common combination, however.
If a child feels the parent's punitive "teaching" did nothing more than hurt their feelings and/or the relationship, the adult-driven "consequence" is not likely to be an effective teacher. It only teaches the child that the adult has control over them. The consequence does not get to the root cause of the problem.
If anything, some children will learn to hide their misbehavior better due to fear of being caught, rather than change their actions.
The present study compared the lie-telling behavior of 3- and 4-year-old West African children...from either a punitive or a non-punitive school. Children were told not to peek at a toy when left alone in a room. Most children could not resist the temptation and peeked at the toy. When the experimenter asked them if they had peeked, the majority of the punitive school peekers lied about peeking at the toy while significantly fewer non-punitive school children did so. The punitive school children were better able to maintain their deception than non-punitive school children when answering follow-up questions. Thus, a punitive environment not only fosters increased dishonesty but also children’s abilities to lie to conceal their transgressions. (source)
Even if they can walk, talk, and tie their own shoes, children are not miniature adults and can't be expected to act as such. Indeed, they may sometimes exhibit the emotional maturity to make grown-ups believe their brains are working like adults' do, but that's simply not the case.
Development isn't linear. It will take a child until roughly the age of 25 for their brain to work as an adult's does (source).
In the meantime, they'll often act in ways that seem to be attention-seeking, when really they're seeking connection to those they hold dear.
Furthermore, sometimes they'll act with empathy and seem to convey a deep understanding of others' perspectives, while other times, they'll seem "selfish."
As it turns out, this "focus on the self" is exactly what helped increase a child's odds of survival from an evolutionary perspective. It's a healthy stage of growing up. We can't make kids grow up faster, but we can support optimal brain development and gently help nurture emotional intelligence.
Learning about child development can help grown-ups manage their expectations about what's normal -- and parent accordingly.
If an adult thinks "connection is not an appropriate way to teach," these counterpoints are worth considering:
Further, when children grow older and need to navigate relationships with their teachers, in school with other students, and eventually in the workplace, will their parents have modeled how to address conflict peacefully or through force?
Kids are no different from grown-ups in these respects. Grown-ups can effectively teach responsibility, how to learn from mistakes, and other important lessons using non-punitive strategies. Causing emotional or physical pain to teach simply isn't helpful.
A so-called "strong willed" child is often named as such because of power struggles with the parent. Indeed, kids who seem to be especially stubborn can legitimately be frustrating for their grown-ups!
Interestingly, when kids are strong willed, many adults respond by digging in their heels and attempting to make their children less strong willed. From the child's perspective, however, the grown-up is just as strong willed as they are.
That's the classic recipe for a power struggle.
The remedy is not to be stronger than the child in an eternal tug-of-war until the parent "wins," but rather, to teach in ways that have only positive consequences.
Oftentimes, if a child is strong willed, the solution is to find a new way to communicate with that child. Natural and logical consequences can be particularly effective teachers for these kids. And bonus, they're often much less work for the grown-up!
Example: Sometimes grown-ups get "stuck" in their discipline pattern, such as yelling. If yelling isn't working, the child doesn't need the grown-up to yell even louder. Volume isn't the issue. Perhaps slowing down and peacefully getting on the child's level would get the child's attention better. If a "solution" isn't working, it's not the right solution!
Below are some drawbacks of common punitive approaches.
Unless the toy, privilege, or device is directly the source of the child's problematic behavior, removing these items only teaches the child that the adult has the power to control them.
In the examples of natural and logical consequences above, taking away cartoons, for instance, from the child who left his truck outside would not be an effective teacher.
This punishment is not related to the child's ability to understand the repercussions of his actions. It's like telling a child who's been eating apples that he can't have oranges anymore.
Sending a child away to process their feelings or "think about what they've done" rarely results in a child actually thinking about what they've done. More likely, they feel emotionally unsupported and unsure of what to do in the future when the triggering situation comes up again. It's as if they're given a destination with no map of how to reach it.
Indeed, there's a big difference between a punitive time-out and a calm-down corner for co-regulation. One is helpful for teaching; the other drives emotional distance.
Spanking is associated with a host of significant problems, both short-term and long-term, for the child's development (source). Although some parents claim it's a good "teacher" and is helpful for changing behavior, any change in the child's behavior comes from fear.
Even if the parent spanks only after their anger has passed, or makes it what they perceive to be a "mild" spanking, a child's nervous system is incapable of telling the difference.
Spanking a young child breaks trust and may hinder development in the same ways that ever stronger forms of abuse do (source). Further, spanking results in lower IQ (source), and may even contribute to long-term behavioral and mental health problems (source). That's hardly a "win."
It's understandable. Even adults learn quite quickly to hold out for the "prize" if given the choice between having one and not. It's not manipulation; it's human nature.
Threats are, like punishments, a component of fear-based parenting. No one wants a relationship based on fear of what might be taken away, up to and including a parent's affection.
Even smaller and seemingly more benign threats, such as "If you don't go to bed now, you won't get to watch your favorite show tomorrow," can create anxiety (source). Anxiety-ridden children often grow into anxiety-ridden grown-ups.
In this example, a better alternative would be, "It's bedtime, and I want to make sure you feel rested and happy tomorrow. Let's get cozy and relax together." The focus is on what the child gains, not on what they risk losing. Again, the grown-up can uphold the limit with compassion and empathy.
To be clear, both natural and logical consequences are better than punitive discipline. Both can address misbehavior in ways that help children learn how to get along well in the world.
Children can learn responsibility and self-discipline without being punished. The normal effects of living life and learning from experiences can be wonderful teachers.
While it's true that children do need healthy boundaries, those boundaries can guide gently and respectfully. When children feel they have a voice, and that their life experience teaches them what they need to know, it's a much more peaceful existence.
Positive consequences of this peaceful existence often include a child's natural desire to cooperate more easily because they feel more empowered, and less controlled, overall. Kids are wired for connection with their caregivers, just as are their caregivers to them. When everyone's getting along, they want to do well for each other.
Many people think of spanking, also known as corporal punishment, as being an "old fashioned" way for parents to discipline their children. Perhaps surprisingly, however, it's still much more common than many realize.
Despite guidance against corporal punishment from the American Academy of Pediatrics, half of parents in the United States have used spanking to address perceived behavior problems within the past year. One-third have used corporal punishment within the past week (source). Rather than being an outdated form of physical discipline, it seems to be alive and well.
What's going on? Doesn't "discipline" mean to teach, and isn't teaching supposed to be benevolent?
Before I say anything further, I want you to know this: if you use spanking as a form of discipline for your kids, I'm not here to judge you. I'm here to help you find another way, with your consent. If you need to, take time to process this information. Spanking can legitimately be a hard habit to break.
My goal isn't to shame you, but to show you a path forward, if you're willing. I acknowledge that almost all parents truly and deeply love their children.
This article covers why people spank their children -- and what to do about it.
For some parents, spanking was one of the consequences they endured as children. As with many patterns they learned in childhood, they simply didn't learn another way. Perhaps they rarely experienced positive reinforcement, connection-based parenting, and discipline strategies that are in line with what we now know best supports child development.
More compelling, perhaps, is that they believe spanking "works." After all, it can change behavior. Isn't changed behavior what we want?
In The Body Keeps the Score (afflinks), Bessel van der Kolk discusses the role of intergenerational trauma on the patterns and choices we make in our own lives. Some of these patterns "show up" without much conscious effort on our part; we simply do what we do because it's what our brains have learned to do as an automatic or near-automatic response.
Change and healing are possible, however.
The tricky part is that the adult children who were spanked by their parents when they were little, still craved connection with their parents despite the spankings. They're hardwired to stick up for their parents because, in addition being the source of spanking, those same parents also took care of them and likely truly loved them.
By virtue of being raised by the person who spanked them and wanting an ongoing connection, they often justify the adult's behavior. Perhaps now, as an adult themselves, they say spanking taught them something useful, or believe that they somehow deserved physical punishment.
They may believe that, at least some of the time, they were too "naughty" for anything less than spanking. Further, they may believe that the world is tough, so it's important to have been "toughened up" by their parents -- and they hold onto that belief for their children.
Indeed, it can be confusing for a growing child's nervous system to be both hurt and protected by the same person. Among other consequences, it can result in what's called an insecure attachment (source); in more extreme cases, it can cause trauma bonding (source). The child will work to "close the gap" and be more connected to those they love, even if there's a steep price for that connection (source 1, source 2).
In short, they're willing to look away from the short- and long-term pain that corporal punishment caused in order to emotionally save the relationship, no matter the impact on their sense of self-worth as a child.
Additionally, many parents feel awful after spanking their children. It's a no-win situation, but they often feel they have no choice.
Research shows that when parents work to make sense of their own childhood, otherwise known as their attachment history -- and form what's called a coherent narrative around it -- they can better separate the behavior of their own parents from the behavior they want to model with their children. A coherent narrative simply means a story that makes sense.
Although forming a coherent narrative can reach far beyond spanking (or, alternatively, not include corporal punishment all), it certainly can be part of the healing process for people who've endured corporal punishment. They can learn that spanking is not the only way, and that healing is possible for them and for their children.
Fortunately for the relationship, adults who choose to give up spanking don't necessarily have to vilify their own caregivers in the process. With empathy, they can separate the act of having been spanked from the human they loved who inflicted the action. They can separate the painful parts of their upbringing from the joyful ones, and not holistically judge their caregivers' discipline strategies as a reflection of the relationship overall.
Part of this work may include what's referred to as "re-parenting" themselves. That entails finding gentleness and compassion for their inner child. It can involve seeing their younger self as worthy of love and support despite the circumstances. It embraces that child as having done the best they could with the emotional tools they had at the time. It's a softening themselves to receive unconditional love.
Indeed, when adults who were spanked do this work, it can sometimes make waves between their parents and them. It may cause resentment; it may bring up pain from childhood. Adults recovering from corporal punishment often benefit from receiving professional support. They may be able to find ways to love their own parents as much as they ever did, yet have a healthier mental framework around the discipline that was used when they were little.
Choosing a new path does not have to mean a permanent rupture in the family. Healing is absolutely possible.
With that support, parents can decide that their history does not necessarily need to become their destiny with their own children. They can choose a new parenting path without being untrue to their roots unless they consciously choose to depart from them. They can, in fact, view their "roots" as still being intact, but choose to grow their parenting choices along a new branch of the same otherwise loving tree.
Some parents may be triggered by what they perceive as their child's attention-seeking behavior and not realizing that every behavior, even suboptimal behavior, is simply the child's best attempt to connect with them. They may not understand that even when, behaviorally, it looks nothing like a "best" attempt, the child is simply doing what they can -- even if to get negative attention.
With the best of underlying intentions, kids will do almost anything to help their parents "see" them.
Furthermore, some adults are of the opinion that whenever "nothing else works" to address their kids' behavior, their only option is to become more harsh rather than more gentle. It's a novel idea to them that the most direct way to lead a child, and naturally engage them in cooperative behavior, is through connection. It can seem counterintuitive especially when they're mad. Why would they want to "reward" misbehavior?
Sometimes, this belief system stems from the idea that children aren't "whole" or worthy of respect until they're older; that they must earn respect by learning and living up to adults' ideals.
It can be an incredible paradigm shift for parents to see their children as being inherently worthy of respect. When this is their point of view, it's often, once again, linked to beliefs from their family of origin. It can be beneficial to consider questions like these:
As for the belief that "nothing else besides spanking works," it's worth exploring whether the parent has genuinely attempted connection-based positive parenting approaches. Many children thrive and cooperate best with playful parenting, for example. Other children need other tools and guidance, such as storytelling and more time in "time-in" rather than "time-out" to co-regulate.
Despite what some people think, consequences do exist in peaceful parenting. The difference is that, while still being effective, these consequences do no harm.
Physical punishment, including spanking, does not need to be anywhere in the picture; it is not a "last resort" and doesn't have to be. There's always another, gentler option.
To be sure, it can be life changing for parents to learn about child development. Children aren't miniature adults; it'll take their brains until approximately age 25 to develop the reasoning and decision-making skills that most adults have (source). As such, they'll get plenty "wrong" until their brains are developmentally ready to meet adult-level expectations.
Understanding what's developmentally normal can be a path to incredible healing for both parent and child.
Some other religions do condone spanking, but many don't. The focus on Christianity in this article is because 78% of the U.S. population identifies as Christian (source).
If you've heard, "Spare the rod, spoil the child," odds are good that you (like many parents) attribute that quote to the Bible.
It didn't come from the Bible. It came from a 17th-century writer named Samuel Butler in a work called Hudibras. Interestingly and perhaps even scandalously, the quote has nothing to do with spanking a child. It's spoken by a man who wants his lover to engage in a certain type of sexual play.
For older children, roughly age 12 and above, it was recommended only in very specific circumstances as governed by the law at the time, not by Biblical teaching.
Samuel Martin (quite different from Samuel Butler) discusses spanking in Biblical times, and the specifics of how Christian parenting calls Christians to act towards their children in modern times. Watch his free expert interview.
References to "the rod" in the Bible are worth exploring in and of themselves. If we harken back to the days of shepherds using rods to guide their sheep, there's a critical distinction in how they use their rods. They did not use them to hit or harm their sheep. They used them to gently guide their sheep; to keep them from wandering off and getting hurt. That's an incredible paradigm shift.
As an example of where the rod is mentioned, in Proverbs 13:24, the Bible says, "Those who spare the rod of discipline hate their children. Those who love their children care enough to discipline them." Another word worth defining here is "discipline." It means to teach, not to punish. Even Jesus' disciples (same root word as discipline) were responsible for teaching. The "rod" (gentle guidance) was used to "discipline" (to teach).
They did not bring people to Jesus by being his "punishers" around the world. That certainly would not have been an effective approach!
Gentle guidance -- discipline -- is what modern-day parents, Christian or otherwise, would call healthy and loving boundaries. That's a far cry from spanking. Spanking and physical punishment of young children has no place in Biblical parenting, and the Bible itself confirms that. Christianity and spanking should be mutually exclusive.
Knowing that such a large percentage of the U.S. identifies as Christian, this section is written to encourage Christians. If you're not a Christian but know Christians who are using their faith to justify spanking, I invite you to have an open discussion with them and help change the narrative around corporal punishment.
The central theme of the Bible, and particularly of the New Testament, is forgiveness through Jesus. In fact, modeling Christ's loving compassion and forgiveness is literally the perfect model to follow for parenting.
If you will, look away from the "Christians" causing pain in any form, and towards those who are living gently and lovingly, as Jesus did.
Some verses to study and reflect on for parenting include these, among others:
If more Christians truly did model Christ's unconditional love, forgiveness, and compassion, perhaps fewer would stray from the church. If this was your reasoning for spanking, please know that if it fits within your belief system, forgiveness awaits.
A growing body of research is showing us that spanking is an ineffective way to address behavior problems, both short-term and long-term. Furthermore, perhaps surprisingly to some, spanking may have some of the same outcomes as more severe forms of child abuse. A child's nervous system simply does not have a way to differentiate between spanking and other forms of violence. What kids know is that their trusted adult is hurting them.
According to a recent study by Harvard University,
"...corporal punishment has been linked to the development of mental health issues, anxiety, depression, behavioral problems, and substance use disorders." (source)
Further, the American Academy of Pediatrics states this about spanking:
"The Academy released a revised policy statement today that reiterates its opposition to corporal punishment, citing new evidence linking this form of discipline to an increased risk of negative behavioral, cognitive, psychosocial and emotional outcomes for children. The policy also addresses the harm associated with verbal punishment, such as shaming and humiliation. The AAP recommends that parents do not spank, hit, slap, threaten, insult, humiliate or shame to discipline their children. Research has shown that striking children, yelling at them or shaming can elevate stress hormones and lead to changes in the brain’s architecture. Harsh verbal abuse also is linked to mental health problems in preteens and adolescents." (source)
Perhaps of particular note about spanking is that it literally stunts some of the child's brain growth and can result in a lower IQ. Specifically, the part of the brain that is often damaged by corporal punishment is the very part that helps the child learn empathy for others (source). This very much plays into the vicious cycle of people who've been spanked as children continuing to rely on spanking for their own children. Lower empathy "grows" lower empathy.
If there's any encouraging news, it's that it's never too late to learn and increase empathy (source). The tricky part is that to do it, the adult has to very consciously and actively work on it. New neural pathways can grow to help the adult behave differently with their child. After enough practice, the new patterns can become habit (source). It won't happen on its own, however. The adult needs to work on it.
"...Evidence that spanking and adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs—which include measures of physical and emotional abuse, neglect, intimate partner violence, parental mental health problems, parental substance use, parental incarceration and parental death—have statistically indistinguishable effects on externalizing behavior problems in early childhood" (source)
"In the meta-analysis, researchers Elizabeth Gershoff and Andrew Grogan-Kaylor of the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan, respectively, evaluated 75 published studies on the relation between spanking by parents and various behavioral, emotional, cognitive and physical outcomes among their kids. They found that spanking was associated with 13 out of a total of 17 negative outcomes they assessed, including increased aggression, behavioral and mental health problems, and reduced cognitive ability and self-esteem." (source)
Spanking is currently still legal in every one of the United States, including in many schools. Most of the rest of the world has banned it, however, in the spirit of promoting gentler discipline methods. In fact, this map was updated in 2009 -- more than a decade ago. Spanking is even less tolerated now than it was then, with 59 countries now forbidding it by law. Japan is the most recent country to banish it, as of 2020 (source).
Perhaps the most important point to consider is that -- true, corporal punishment does inflict enough pain on a child that it may deter their behavior. However, nothing about spanking tells the child what they should do; how they should behave. Indeed, the parent might tell the child what to do, but living what to do is much more impactful.
The core of discipline is, indeed, teaching. What if we redirected the energy parents spend on spanking into gently guiding their children; teaching them how to thrive, connect, and collaborate peacefully with others? What if we model how to be gentle even amidst conflict? What if we show kids how to act towards others because they've seen us modeling it for them -- and they know what it feels like to receive their benevolent teaching?
Finally, what if we gave ourselves permission to break free from the patterns that no longer serve us?
Additional resources can be found on the pinned post on Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting's Facebook page.
Below is a partial transcript from Part 1 of my interview with Debbie Reber, author of Differently Wired (afflinks).
Watch the full interview here:
Hello. I am Sarah with Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting and today I am so excited to talk to Debbie Reber, author of an amazing book for parenting in general, and specifically for differently wired kids.
This is the kind of book that makes me elbow my husband in the ribs and say, "You've got to hear this, you've got to hear this!"
We are both better for your work, Debbie, and I am so glad to have you here today.
Thank you so much! What a nice intro.
Let's dive right into the discussion of differently wired children. Let's talk specifically about getting to know the children that we have, not the children necessarily who we envisioned having long before we birthed or adopted them.
They don't always "look" exactly like what we envisioned they would. When parents learn their child is differently wired, how do they typically come to terms with the child who they actually have and are raising?
Is it intuition? Is it a diagnosis? How do we even come to know this child who we have?
Well, it's a slow process for many of us. I describe it in the book like pulling off a Band-Aid® very, very, very slowly because a lot of kids fall under the "umbrella" of differently wired, as I use it, which is just being neurologically atypical in a variety of ways.
It isn't so obvious, and a lot of the differences are invisible.
When they're younger, it may look like really intense behavior. A lot of us have kids who were colicky when they were little.
Just more intense -- the more kids like more energy, more movement, more emotions.
So we always kind of have a sense that, "Okay, this is a little more intense than I was envisioning and wasn't expecting it to be this hard." Perhaps those are thoughts that we might have.
And then over time, we start to gather more information, right?
We kind of intuitively may recognize something's going on, but we're also usually looking for evidence that everything's fine, which is always welcomed by us, right?
When we have little ones, we want someone to say, "You know, this is all kind of developmentally normal."
So, often, it's just piecing together information -- feedback from preschool and other teachers, which many of us start getting more and more of us are kids get older. And observations from other people.
And then we start asking questions. Eventually, many of us will go in for an assessment with an OT or with someone to start piecing together the information. But it's a slow process. And there's a lot of self-doubt, I think, that happens for parents as we're trying to determine, you know, is something going on or isn't it? Is this just in my head? - Debbie Reber, author of Differently Wired
[We wonder] are we being overprotective? Are we being helicopter parents? Are we paranoid? What's really going on?
Yeah, absolutely. And I love how you say that other people offer some of the insight that sometimes we're seeking.
We want to know, "Is our kid okay?" We want to know, "Are we okay?"
I know in my experience, I might have felt that something was different. This wasn't necessarily what I envisioned parenting would be, but it wasn't until another parent would come to me and say, "Oh -- is your daughter (and then she'd fill in the blank)."
I'd never even heard that term before. Let me look that up. And lo and behold, "Hey, that resonates. That makes sense to me. I think we have something to explore here." [Or no, that's not on target and I can release it.]
Yeah. I would say that most of my friends would often normalize what we were experiencing. It was very well-intentioned -- "You know, well, my child does this, too" or "This happened to us," and as a way to make me feel better, but that was more confusing to me.
And it was a friend, ultimately, I think when my son was four, when I was trying to explain some of the intensities and challenges we were having, she was the one who said, "Oh! That sounds like a sensory processing issue. You should read this book..."
That's when the light bulb went off for me for the first time. I was like, "Oh, there could be a reason for all of this," beyond just my husband and I not nailing it as parents. - Debbie Reber, author of Differently Wired
Yeah, absolutely -- because of course you were doing the best you could with the information you had.
Let's talk a little about our frame of reference.
Most of us grew up naively thinking that everybody was more or less 10 percent within the same range, neurologically speaking. Is it that we are simply more aware of neurological differences at this point or have children always been differently wired, and we just kind of said, "Oh, that child is just a busy child" or whatever.
How have the labels changed? How is the understanding changed over time?
I think the understanding has changed a lot. In raising my son and doing the research for this book, I reflected so often on kids that I went to school with back in the 70s and the 80s.
I was like, "Oh, oh my gosh, that's what was happening with this kid, and with this kid," and I I started realizing, you know, just kind of piecing it together. These kids who, back then, even something like dyslexia was not really talked about her understood.
And so it was really grouped on intelligence or the weirdos or you know, like we just had these kind of broad labels: the bad kids.
The kids who had no emotional regulation were just bad kids and they got punished or they dropped out of school. They went down that road.
And that really breaks my heart when I think about that and recognize, "Oh my gosh. So many of these kids had ADHD, or were on the autism spectrum, or had these other differences."
And so I think we're so much more attuned to it now.
Even from when my child was in early elementary to now -- he's 16 -- I feel like we're still evolving as a society and there's just more and more awareness, but it's been a long time coming.
Yeah, without a doubt, I had the same reaction you did when I think about the kids who I grew up with, also in the 70s and 80s.
It really takes me to a place of compassion and empathy and my strong mama heart wants to go and hug all of these little versions of these now adults, and say, "Now I understand. You weren't trying to be difficult or whatever label you may have had. We just didn't understand you. And as your classmate, I'm sorry I didn't know that about you because I would have loved to show up for you better."
Yeah, and so many adults are discovering their own neurodivergence through raising their child.
I actually did a couple podcast episodes on this where I interviewed adults who had realized they were on the spectrum or had ADHD in their 40s.
What does that do? There's a sense of relief. There's also a sense of sadness, right? And all those pieces fitting together and then realizing, "Oh my gosh. This little person that I was for all these years, and my needs were not being met, and this is how I internalized it. It's really challenging for a lot of people to reconcile.
It is. You know, and at the same time, to your point, a lot of these adults get to rewrite part of their stories. If an adult grew up thinking, "I'm just a tricky personality." "I'm just hard to love." "I'm just hard to be around." "I'm disruptive" -- all of the lies that they were fed as kids -- now they can say, "I did the best I could with the wiring that I had -- and look at all of the ways that I did learn to cope and to regulate and to exist in a world that wasn't necessarily built for me. Look what a superpower that was to get where I am today."
And I love how you had it from a place of empowerment rather
than a place of, you know, self-punishment or any of the negative things that parents could be doing. Now they're saying, "Hey, I've got this too, and now I understand all the better what my child might need."
Debbie: Yeah, a hundred percent. For me it explains the class clown label that I was given in the senior poll. "Best excuse maker." So that gives you a little sense of who I was in school.
Sarah: Awful, awful labels. Yeah, I was "most reserved" and I hated that one. This doesn't define us anymore, does it.
Debbie: Absolutely not. No. I'm still a bit goofy, but I'm definitely not a class clown anymore.
Sarah: Right there on the goofiness with you. That is an important element of success in today's society.
Debbie: [laughter] Yes. True.
One thing that I love so much about your book is that you don't limit "differently wired" to one specific medical diagnosis. You talk about a broad range of things -- ADHD, Asperger's, ASD, giftedness, sensory issues, learning disabilities, anxiety, twice exceptional, highly sensitive children, and various combinations thereof -- and that's not even a full list.
This is not a single, "Ooh, I can point right here and say that's what it is" and build our life around that. Many times these things coexist together.
So for the parent who is getting, be it a single diagnosis or some combination of these things, how does the parent keep from getting totally overwhelmed?
And what does the parent do with this information once they have it?
I think labels are so tricky and I certainly talk a lot about them. I've thought a lot about them.
Labels can be super helpful as we're getting information because it can give a context for things that are happening with their child. It can open up the door to services or accommodations or other types of support that we need for our kids, especially, you know, legally, depending on what the diagnosis is, but they don't actually solve anything.
I used to really want the label because I wanted an answer, right? I wanted to know this is what it is and I wanted the answer so I knew exactly what to do to fix it.
And I think that's what so many of us, especially when we're earlier on in this journey, we want an answer to explain what is challenging in our lives and ultimately, a label -- well, I can give you some insight into a course of support or areas to prioritize your support on.
But [a label] doesn't change who your child is and isn't -- there's no playbook, like, 'Do this, this, and this and that will fix or solve for all of these symptoms.' - Debbie Reber, author of Differently Wired
So I think that they're tricky. In Venn diagrams of differences, you'd see so much overlapping between, you know, profoundly gifted, ADHD, and autism spectrum, for example. Sometimes they could fit into any of those buckets.
What I like about the term "differently wired" -- it's not a medical term, obviously, but it's a positive term that parents can embrace and hopefully reframe what could be seen as a negative or a deficit or a problem that needs to be solved. Instead, it's about an understanding that my child's brain isn't considered neurotypical; and my child is a unique thinker; my child's brain wiring is is outside the box and that's okay. - Debbie Reber, author of Differently Wired
It's a difference.
And so I really love that language as a way not just to feel more positive and optimistic. But also, when we are honed in on this one little diagnosis, we're very narrow in our vision. I feel like societally, that keeps us marginalized because we're all in our own little buckets.
And so we can talk about well, it's not that many kids who are dealing with this, or it's only this percentage of the population has this issue so it keeps them all "problems."
But when we expand and more inclusive and say actually there are so many people whose brains are not considered "normal," we have to accommodate for that.
We have to take a step back and look at what are we really doing in terms of how we're educating kids.
We're educating to a majority that probably isn't even a majority. I think that differently wired kids make up more than 50% of the population if I were to put money on it.
I agree wholeheartedly and I love how you reframe the labels. So much of our ability to come to terms with who our child is, is to look at them in a positive light, you know?
I often talk with my clients about reframing a tantrum as an emotional release. It's the same thing, but it really feels different if we look at it as this is a healthy expression of emotions.
The same is true for what you said. If you have a child whose brain simply differently wired, that doesn't make them less worthy of love, compassion, all of the gifts that we have to offer as parents -- and also as a society.
[And I agree that the numbers of differently wired kids are much higher than what's typically stated.]
You also said another word that I want to go back and highlight for a minute. You talked about our desire to "fix" our differently wired kids. This reframing really helps us reframe the need to fix our kids, too, doesn't it?
Yeah, because fixing implies that there is a problem or that there's something broken. And that is because we are holding up our kids to a neurotypical standard. We're suggesting that there is one way of "being" that is acceptable and normal and okay and everything else...well, and in order to to fit into this "normal" bucket, all of these issues have to be fixed or addressed.
That does such a disservice to so many people. Again the 'normal' side of people -- there's nothing 'normal' about it.
The mental health problems [people have] and the ways that people compensate to get by in society -- and those who struggle with so many things like executive function and paying their bills and being organized and running a household -- all of those things -- everyone's making it up as we go along right? There's no one gold standard. - Debbie Reber, author of Differently Wired
And so this divide, and thinking that these other people aren't somehow broken, it just really does such a disservice. It implies that they're not okay in who they inherently are. To give a child that message is just heartbreaking to me.
It is. And it doesn't have to be that way. We can reframe it, and it is on us as the parent to say, "I'm going to change the narrative, not only for my child but also in the narrative that my child shares with those around them as they grow up, too." That's so important.
Let's talk a little bit about fear. One of the most common themes that I hear from parents is fear.
Suddenly, they're raising a differently wired child who may not feel at all
familiar to them -- or perhaps feels very familiar to them. Either way, it's a little bit scary sometimes as a parent, wondering how we can best support our child.
How can parents move from a place of fear to a place of trust and growth in parenting their differently wired child?
I think that it's really important to to know that fear is part of the human experience. It's part of our inner self trying to protect us and keep us safe.
We don't want to make fear [of raising a differently wired child] to be a bad thing. We want to have a relationship with it. We want to see it for what it is. - Debbie Reber, author of Differently Wired
I encourage parents to get really open and honest with themselves about investigating what things they're really worried about. What are their biggest fears?
They're often about this unknown future. Because the path is very unclear and not laid out before us, and the way that we assume everyone [else is] raising a neurotypical kid.
Related guest post: One Mother's Journey of Raising an Atypical Child
And so yeah, when we're kind of spiraling out of fear about future unknowns and all of those things, and "Can I do this?" and "This is going to be hard" and all the things that we do -- yeah, we run into problems. And we're not parenting from from a place that would really most benefit our kids.
Understanding what those fears are, questioning those fears, and choosing love, you know, I talked about choosing love and possibility.
I love that quote by Neale Donald Walsch: "All human actions are motivated at their deepest level by two emotions--fear or love."
When we start to understand what making a choice from fear feels like in our bodies, like usually know we're doing it. Our gut my may be saying, "This is the wrong move, Debbie" but in my head, I'm like, "But X, Y and Z."
So we're living in our heads and not our bodies.
So, if we can start to tune in more with our bodies and and parent from that place; make choices from that place, we will start getting feedback that that was the right choice to make. It'll feel lighter. - Debbie Reber, author of Differently Wired
It feels scary. I'm not going to say it's not scary, but it'll it'll feel like a lighter choice or we'll start to get feedback that the results are, "Oh, that was the right decision to make." And it's kind of like a muscle that that we're building.
I think, again, we have to uncover the fears of raising a differently wired child and acknowledge their existence; make some sort of uneasy alliance with it and then keep pushing ourselves to choose love and possibility instead.
See more from Debbie Reber, author of Differently Wired:
This is a guest post from Emma Salt about raising an atypical child.
Perhaps you've always known you have an atypical child, or perhaps it's all new territory for you. Either way, when a doctor looks you in the eye and confirms a diagnosis related to your child's physical, cognitive, or emotional development, it can be jarring for the whole family.
Some people get a diagnosis quickly. For others, it may come after months or years of trying to get people to listen, to understand and to help their atypical child. Regardless when you get the diagnosis, however, your life changes.
Both of our children are atypical. One has ADHD; the other, autism.
Both are amazing, but the journey we have been on with both of them has been tough. If my background wasn't teaching, I'm not sure we would have known what to say and what to do to push things forward. (We are based in the UK and processes and support systems differ around the world.)
Still, the emotional journey that parents of an atypical child experience are often similar to one another.
Our youngest was almost 14 when we finally got an Autism diagnosis. We could see atypical behaviors at home from a very young age, but our eldest has ADHD. With two atypical children, there was no 'typical' to compare with. He met developmental milestones, although, looking back, he met them in his own atypical way.
The final straw for us was a school residential when he was 9. He was
nervous before he went (he's never been keen on staying away from home), and when I picked him up from school, I could see from the look on his face that something was very wrong. He got in the car and cried all the way home.
He just sat next to me and sobbed. When we got home, he curled up on the sofa and a migraine started, and then he vomited. The stress of the past 36 hours had built and built and this was the result. I realised that our quirky individual was more than quirky.
Something was going on. It wasn't just that he didn't want to stay away from home, he couldn't stay away from home. He wasn't just an eclectic individual; he was atypical, and I needed to get him help.
I made an appointment to see our GP. I had told our son that we were going to the doctor to see if someone could help with his worries, and he was happy with this. I remember it was a warm May morning and the doctor's office was stuffy and busy, and the doctor was running very late.
In the waiting area, an elderly gentleman with a kind face smiled and talked to my son. My son growled in reply. I had never heard him do this before, and it shocked me. He pulled his hood over his head and wouldn't make eye contact with anyone.
When we finally got called in, the atypical behavior carried on. He climbed onto a chair and crouched, then he sat on the floor and rocked. He refused to talk to the doctor, but his behavior meant that I didn't need to say much. My child was showing everything I wanted to explain. He wasn't attention seeking or misbehaving; he was just a child who was stressed and showing a deficit in social skills.
I was heartbroken by what I saw that day. My beautiful child wasn't typical. He was almost 10, but couldn't function in a crowded room.
When we told our families that our child was going to be screened for autism, there was a range of reactions. Most people were very supportive, but others didn't see atypical development or behavior. They couldn't understand why we were doing what we were doing, and some refused to
Even though we were in the system, the assessment for diagnosis took a year. We had this assessment through CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service). We had to fill out a form, his school had to fill out a form, and then our child had a 1-2-1 assessment.
We went back three weeks later for the result. We were told he had traits but not a full diagnosis. My reaction was one of disappointment, but then guilt that I was disappointed he didn't have a diagnosis (and that mum guilt would come in waves over the next few years).
He then went to secondary school, and everything (anxiety, stress, the difference between the typical and atypical children) seemed to increase. He is a clever child, and he knew that he wasn't the same as many of his peers. He felt different, and this awareness impacted his mental health.
We went back again for another assessment, but this time we were told he couldn't be re-assessed, but they diagnosed clinical anxieties, so he had cognitive behavioural therapy. The following spring, four years after our first attempt to get him diagnosed, he asked to go back. He knew he was different, he knew that he had a different developmental trajectories to his peers (some more advanced, some less), and he knew he was autistic.
CAMHS would not see us again, and so we were sent to the Children's Department who were amazing. He was assessed again. The assessment took much longer this time, and just four months after this referral, he had his diagnosis
I sobbed when they told us.
I cannot begin to express the toll this journey took on me, and how it affected my mental health. I was on such a rollercoaster. I felt guilt for pushing for a diagnosis, and yet more guilt for not noticing atypical development and strange developmental milestones. Should we have asked for a diagnosis earlier? As parents, had we let our child down? Should be have been more aware of the difference between typical and atypical behaviors?
Most of all, though, I felt guilt for grieving the life our child would not have. He is wonderful, he is social (when he is motivated to be), he is an integral part of our family and he makes our lives better.
But life is tough for him sometimes, tougher than it should be. As a parent, it is very hard to see that without being able to make it all better.
Parents of atypical children need people who will listen and sit with them in their dark days. They need people who nod in the right places without giving too much advice, or telling you the latest 'cure' they've read online. They need a support network of likeminded people, and they need people with a relatable sense of humor, because, sometimes, that's what gets you through the day!
Family is important, but sometimes family members just won't get it -- the diagnosis, what it means, and the impact an atypical child may have on the parents' life, both good and bad.
For me, try to get them involved for as long as you can, but the mental health of you and your child has to come first. If seeing an aunt who will not try to understand what is going on upsets your child, you have to ask yourself if that aunt is worth seeing. This is harsh, but you have enough to deal with, and sometimes it's easier to walk away.
You also need to make time for you. That could be anything from a holiday away without your children, a day at a spa, a walk in the woods or for me, I have half an hour most mornings before anyone else is up. I indulge in social media, online games, reading a book, looking out of the window or whatever I want.
That is my time, and it gives me time to breathe before the day starts.
There are lots of debates about what to tell your child, and what to tell people you meet, and I think the unhelpful answer to these dilemmas is 'do what's right for you'. For us, our children were not diagnosed with their atypical conditions (and even calling them conditions can trigger a response from some atypical adults - if this is you, I apologise), so they had strong identities before their diagnosis. They have not been defined by their diagnoses.
The diagnosis is seen as a lens rather than a label, and this is how our children see it, too.
We are also as honest with our children as we can be. When our youngest was being screened for dyslexia, h was only 7. We told him that he was going to see a lady who would try and find ways to make reading and writing at school a little easier.
When we got his diagnosis of dyslexia and we told him, he looked at us and said, 'Well, I know that already, I think like my brother!' Our oldest is
severely dyslexic. If they are high functioning, then they probably already know.
Our eldest was almost 17 when he was diagnosed with ADHD. For him, it was a relief; he had felt every day that he was going mad, that there was something 'wrong' with him. Once he knew he had ADHD, a huge chunk of worry left.
I should add that we decided not to have him screened when he was younger as we didn't want another label - in hindsight, this was the wrong decision. It is better, in my opinion, to have a correct diagnosis and be able to put support plans in place than to have a label such as a naught, disruptive or aggressive child. Back to my earlier point, though, you need to do what is right for your family and situation.
You have to remember that support is not a one size fits all package. Both my children have dyslexia, one severely, one significantly (although I don't think those terms are used any more), but with the initial diagnosis and report, there is not much difference between them. However, in terms of academics, school, behavior, development, reading and writing, they are completely different -- as is the support they need.
One issue we've had with education is that teachers who have not experienced atypical children firsthand (either as a parent, sibling, close relative or child) do not understand this. Not only are atypical children, well, atypical, each has their own atypical development and developmental needs.
As a parent, I like to know as much as I can about anything that's new to me, so I have endless books on dyslexia, ADHD, ASD, raising the atypical child, schooling, unschooling and so on.
The search for more and more information got overwhelming, when what I should have done was ask my children what they need. Yes, there are things that are applicable to most atypical children. Yes, there are proven aids and therapies that may help. Yes, there are strategies that can be put in place, but at the end of the day, you need to get the support that your child needs.
Parenting atypical children can be exhausting, the battles with school to get help can feel overwhelming, visits to hospitals or therapists can feel never ending, but I wouldn't change a thing.
I am a mum of two boys who both have barriers to learning/SENDs, and I am a qualified teacher, and have taught a wide range of students from 13 to 60+ for the last 19 years.
From both parent and teacher perspectives, I feel that so many children miss out on so much that education has to offer. As a parent, I find it frustrating to see my children climbing mountains every day, and as a teacher I find it frustrating that I can’t always do what is needed to make every child achieve their potential.
I blog about my journey as a parent, from how I felt with the diagnoses, how my children feel and how my husband and I make our family a safe, happy unit.
Yesterday, there was a mass shooting very close to where I live. How's that for the beginning of a blog post?
This is not the kind of thing that should ever happen under any circumstances, but when it does, our lives can be deeply affected. As such, we need to be able to talk to our children in ways that are honest and supportive, but without going "too far." After all, they're still kids.
Let me preface this by saying that these tips apply to other hard situations, too. Anytime there is a loss, anytime there's something hard that's going on in the child's life, the discussion and healing processes are largely the same.
Perhaps it's the loss of a loved one or a pet. Perhaps it's something else that's a big deal emotionally -- whatever it is, it matters deeply to you or your child.
The shooting, of course, is particularly poignant right now because of what happened here yesterday.
We can feel really overwhelmed, ourselves. Of course, we have to start with our own processing; our own beginning of the healing process. We want to be careful not to just blurt out the news to our child.
We don't need to invite our child into our own processing, because by definition, as adults, we are going to process things differently than they do. We are going to have a different perspective than they will; different fears and concerns than they will.
Our first task is to pause, reflect, absorb, and decide how we want to respond. We must be very intentional about how we want to handle the situation with our children instead of reacting without thinking it through.
We know that kids talk to one another. We also know that many kids have access to screens and media and all sorts of sources of information that are not us.
We don't know what those sources are going to share. We don't know if they are going to be accurate. And we certainly don't know if they are going to be age appropriate.
We want to handle the situation in a way that's appropriate for our child, specifically. There is no one size fits all. There is no script that works for every child.
Whenever possible, we wand to be the first one to share the news with them. Obviously, sometimes kids hear things before we do, and if that happens, our job is to be emotionally safe; be responsive to our child.
We want to hold space for the their feelings and talk about the things we need to talk about in ways that resonate with our family values, with our belief systems, with the messages that, once again, we know are appropriate for our children.
To be clear, I say "appropriate for our children" in very loose terms because there is nothing "appropriate" about tragedy.
I do believe in being direct with children. However, depending NOT only the age, but more so depending on the emotional maturity of the child -- as well as what they are likely or unlikely to hear from other sources -- you want to be age appropriately honest.
For example, if it is something like the tragedy that was the mass shooting yesterday, you can say to a young child, "Something really terrible happened. Somebody came into a place and hurt a whole bunch of people." You can leave it at that. They don't need more detail.
You can then move forward to next steps; how we're going to take care of ourselves and each other, and how we're safe and everybody we know is safe (if that's true).
For an older child, you might share more information. Perhaps they're old enough to know the location of the incident without developing a fear of all places of its kind. You know them best.
As I mentioned above, the same approach can. be effective for other tough situations.
For example, if a grandparent died, a younger child might only need to know that they're gone and how very much they were loved.
An older child might understand more detail of a long-term illness, for example, and how that illness is different from the common cold or flu.
You can share your family's belief system around the event and then move forward, compassionately, with extra love and support as you navigate the loss.
"In the moment" -- while you're discussing the situation -- you can adjust the amount of detail you share based on your child's sensitivity, their emotional maturity and their body language, and their responses to what you're saying.
Keep in mind that some kids are "processors" and won't show their true response right away. Go slowly.
For the children that can only handle the details and bite-size pieces, they might know that something bad happened, but that's enough for right now.
If they ask, "Can we talk about this later?" Your answer can be, "Yes, of course." Trust your chid's timing and cues, verbal and non-verbal.
We don't need to divulge everything that's on our heart. We need to trust the child in front of us. Revisit what you need to, later.
Some children, of course, really want to hear more details.
Related: Positive parenting mini-courses
It is entirely misleading to the child if we put on a brave face and act like we are unaffected by big events.
We need to be authentic.
We need to say things like, "I am so sad that this happened."
"I am so angry that this happened."
"I am so --" whatever you are feeling. It's all valid.
In being emotionally authentic, you are modeling to your child.
It's also important to let your child know that you're responsible for your own feelings, and even though you are feeling sad or angry (or whatever it is you're feeling), that you're going to find ways to deal with these feelings. It's not your child's job to "fix" them.
Be specific about how you're going to support yourself. You might say, "I'm feeling really sad about this situation, so I'm going to:
The child needs to know that addressing your feelings is your job and you've got it under control, even if it's hard right now.
Encourage them. Offer emotional safety to them.
Mr. Rogers always said we should "look for the helpers," and I firmly believe that this is instrumental in our healing from everything hard that happens in life.
If it's a medical situation, we can express gratitude for the medical facilities and personnel that are out there helping every single day. Even when nothing difficult is happening, they're still there and they are prepared.
We might share hope that stems from our faith.
We might share hope in gratitude that we are alright, or in something specific we can do to be part of others' healing.
Share whatever gives your child hope that life goes on, that things will get better. Let them know that time helps all wounds, because it truly does. It may not heal them fully, but it always helps once time has passed.
Lest I sound cliché, I want your child to know these truths. They're not "toxic positivity," because we're not pretending things are easy. We're not gaslighting or glossing over anyone's feelings. No one would "buy it" if we said everything was alright in the first place. Sometimes, things just aren't okay.
Share the specific and actionable steps that we can take right now, in this moment of hardship, to give us hope -- to give us that olive branch -- to give us something to hold on to.
These things will carry us through until we get to a place of peace and emotional safety again.