After warning her child to be careful with a glass of milk, a mother screams at him and calls him an idiot when he spills it on the kitchen floor. After asking his 7-year-old twin girls to quiet down at bedtime, an angry father threatens to lock them in the garage for the night when they continue to spat. After reviewing a teenager's report card, her parents refuse to talk to her for days because she got a C in math.
Although these types of emotionally abusive behaviors leave no physical scars on children, they can--if they are recurrent--be damaging to both their physical and emotional health. Children who experience this type of abuse regularly are at risk of growth delays, even when provided with adequate nutrition; are more likely to suffer depression, anxiety and low self-esteem; and are more prone to aggressive behavior. The effects of emotional abuse can extend into adulthood; several studies have found that men and women who were emotionally abused as children report more physical problems than those who were not.
Because of the lack of physical evidence, many--if not most--cases of emotional abuse go unrecognized. And, although illegal, they are rarely prosecuted because they are usually difficult to prove.
Sometimes, the boundary between discipline and abuse is not clear. But child-abuse experts say parents (or other adults) cross the line when they repeatedly act or threaten to act in a way that makes a child feel worthless, flawed, unloved or endangered (for example, threatening to abandon a child or to hurt the child physically--even if they have no intention of carrying out the act).
Other examples of emotional abuse include calling children names or humiliating them in public, and isolating them with unreasonable limitations. Simply failing to express caring for a child can also constitute emotional abuse.
So, how do you discipline a child without becoming abusive? The first step is to think about the issue of discipline ahead of time, planning how you will respond the next time your child misbehaves. That makes it more likely that the discipline will be appropriate and reduces the risk that anger will cause you to lose control and respond excessively. Your child should also know what to expect ahead of time. Tell the child which behaviors are troublesome and what will happen if misbehavior recurs. Explain, also, why the behavior is wrong, so your child knows how to act appropriately.
As you plan your responses, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, keep these elements of effective discipline in mind: Misbehavior should result in negative consequences (to discourage a repeat performance), and desirable behavior should be rewarded or encouraged.
A popular technique for discouraging undesirable behavior--especially with younger children--is called "timeouts." During a timeout, children are required to stay in their room or sit quietly by themselves; interaction with others is not allowed. Studies have shown that timeouts are effective when used correctly and consistently, increasing compliance with parental expectations by as much as 80%. Timeouts should not be too long (many experts suggest about one minute for each year of the child's age); frequent, prolonged timeouts could be construed as parental rejection by the child.
With older children, revoking privileges can help reduce unacceptable behavior. A child who refuses to do homework, for example, might lose the opportunity to watch television; a teenager who comes home past curfew could be denied access to the car. Revocation of privileges should not go to extremes. "Grounding" teenagers for a weekend may be appropriate; prohibiting all contact with friends could be counterproductive--even harmful to the child.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends against trying to change too many behaviors at once. They advise parents to focus on behaviors that create serious problems, especially those that place the child or others in danger--a toddler who bites, or a teenager who drives drunk. Attention should also be given to behaviors that are out of line with what can reasonably be expected of the child, such as a fourth-grader's constant disruption of a classroom.
Effective discipline rewards desirable behaviors, especially if they are chosen as alternatives to misbehavior. Some parents resist doing this because it feels like they are bribing their children. ("Why reward a child for behaving the way they ought to in the first place?" they ask.) What these parents fail to recognize is that most desirable behavior is learned--not innate. Although behaviors such as sharing, taking turns and good manners are second nature to most adults, children must be taught these things, and rewards are great motivators. Rewards do not need to be large or expensive. However, they must be meaningful to the child. Special time with a parent is a reward; even a few simple words of praise can work wonders.