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Parenting and Child Development, Punishment and Its Result

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Case Study:

Many years into his adulthood, a man had a discussion with his elderly parents as to why they punished him so much when he was a child. His father responded by telling him that it was for his own good. “For my own good?” said the man, “How was spanking and hitting me supposed to be for my own good?” His father said, “Well son, my father raised me that way and I know it helped me be the man I am today.” “But Dad,” said the son, “You are sick with heart disease and you’ve been taking antidepressant medications for many years. Don’t you think your depression has something to do with what your father did to you?” The father looked seriously looks at his son and repeated, “That was how my father raised me and that is how his father raised him. It’s the way of our family and heart disease and depression has nothing to do with it. Thanks to Dad I lived my life as a hard worker and a law abiding citizen who goes to Church and is a good citizen. I have my dad to thank for that and you have me to thank for the way you turned out. You know, you were quite a hell raiser from the time you turned two-years-old.”

And so the conversation went, with the son not getting any sense of understanding or satisfaction from his dad.  The son had spent years in psychotherapy and on medication for severe anxiety and depression. It was only in therapy that he came to understand that he wasn’t just spanked but was physically abused. He was locked out of the house in freezing cold weather if he dared venture an opinion that his parent disapproved of or if he asked a question that they deemed unacceptable. He came to learn the reasons why there was silence at their dinner table while children from other homes talked about the debates they had with their parents at dinner.

It is a paradox that children of abusive parents feel guilty for being punished. In other words, they are convinced that the punishment is their own fault. Alice Miller, psychologist and author of such books as the “Drama of the Gifted Child” discusses the fact that all of us are raised with the biblical entreaty to “Honor thy Father and Mother.” Added to this is the fact that these parents teach their children that punishment was used for their own good. The hidden message is that you, the child, did something bad that deserved punishment. Of course, the problem often is that no one takes the time to explain to a child why something he did was wrong. The child walks away from the situation with hidden feelings of resentment and fear. Ultimtately, the child accepts both the punishment and notion that he is bad because the love and nurturance of the parents are vitally important.

Later in life the adult takes with him the attitude that he is bad and deserving of punishment. This is one reason why some people repeatedly choose partners who are unempathetic and abusive. It’s a variation of “Looking for love in all the wrong places.” Just as with the parent, the child, now an adult, confuses love and punishment. This explains why I receive so many Emails from people who describe their boyfriend or girlfriend as abusive but can’t leave them because they are in love. My usual response is, “What’s to love?” However, logic doesn’t work because the abused person is reenacting a “childhood drama” whereby the parent did not merely punish but abused. Their history of abuse has damaged self esteem to such an extent that the individual believes that punishment is what they deserve.

Another outcome of abuse is that the person identifies with the parent who is using corporal punishment and then inflicts the same treatment on others. The extreme form of this is hating and attacking racial and religious minorities. Often, the abused child bullies others, doing to other children what was done to them. For a segment of the population, this can even lead to criminal behavior. This type of criminal assaults others and beats up on his or her spouse.

No one can change the past. For those raised in abusive homes or where there was too much spanking, the result is often depression, anxiety and low self esteem. From this point onward, the job for each of us is not to brood over the past but to overcome the feelings of depression and low self esteem.

There is a never ending cycle of abuse, damaged self-esteem, rage and repeated abuse that leads nowhere except to perpetual repetition of the same hopeless behavior.

In the next blog we will explore a better alternative to spanking and punishment in rearing children.

Comments and questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.

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