The Punitive Approach

Let’s begin by looking at how a parent handles a common problem of a sibling quarrel using the punitive approach. 

The Autocratic or punitive approach (firm, but not respectful)

Imagine the following scene. It is a Saturday morning. The parents are upstairs trying to catch a few more hours of sleep. Two children ages five and eight are downstairs watching their favourite cartoon show. The five year old decides to try to get more comfortable. He stretches out on the couch and his feet touch his sister. She gives him a kick and he screams.

As the parent arrives on the scene the two kids are pushing and shoving and fighting for control of the couch.

Mom: (In a loud voice almost yelling) What’s going on here? Why cant you guys watch TV without behaving like a couple of brats?

Brother: I was sitting on my side and she kicked me.

Sister: No, he was trying to spread out on my side. When I tried to make him move he kicked me.

Brother: That’s not true

Mom: (Angered) If you both were on your own sides of the couch there wouldn’t be a problem which means that one of you must be lying. Tell me the truth. Who was really on the other side of the couch?

Sister: He was.

Brother: No, she was.

Mom: I knew I couldn’t trust you guys. I have heard all the lying and squabbling I am going to listen to. If I hear any more arguing or fighting from you two, I am going to take away  your bikes for the whole day and there will be no desert after dinner. Do you understand? (Yelling now) Knock it off!

Sister: What a crab!

Brother: Yeah! (Laughs at the comment)

Mom: That’s not funny! You both earned yourself a day without bikes and desserts. Keep it up if you want more?

Sister: I bet you enjoy making life miserable for others.

Brother: Yeah.

Mom: (Yelling) That’s enough! ( She gives each a thump and threatens to ground them if they say anything more)

Sound familiar? If it does you have plenty of company. The punitive approach is still one of the most widely used training models. Parents who use the punitive approach often find themselves in the roles of police detective, judge, jailer, referee and probation officer. They investigate the behaviour, determine guilt, assign blame and impose penalties that tend to be harsh and drawn out.

Parents direct and control the problem-solving process which tends to be loud angry and adversarial. Cooperation is achieved through fear, threats and intimidation. It’s a win/lose dynamic. Parents usually win. The underlying belief is that discipline needs to hurt before children can learn from it.

Methods include investigation, interrogation, accusations, threats, criticism, shaming, blaming, spanking, grounding and taking away favourite toys and privileges for days or weeks at a time.

How do children respond? Compliant children usually cooperate out of fear and intimidation. Strong willed children often rebel and retaliate. Children in between do a little of both. Most children feel angry and resentful and perceive the methods as hurtful and humiliating.

Let’s examine a diagram of the interaction between the parent and the two siblings in the earlier example. The parents behaviour is on the left hand side of the diagram and the children’s behaviour is on the right.

At point A, the parent arrives on the scene upset and intervenes with detective work. Her tone is adversarial. The focus is on right or wrong, guilt and blame, good guys and bad guys. The kids pick up on this dynamic quickly and appeal to the parent while accusing each other of lying. The detective work leads nowhere which makes the parent even angrier. She accuses both of lying.

Point A

Parent Behaviour Child Behaviour
Siblings quarrel
Blame and accuse each other
Appeal for taking sides
More blaming and accusations
Retaliation “name calling”

Point B

Parent Behaviour Child Behaviour
Loss of toy
Angry displays
Hurtful Statements
More Revenge
More Threats

By midpoint in the interaction her anger and frustration take over. She has completely
personalised the conflict. The original sibling quarrel is now secondary to the parent child conflict that dominates the interaction.

Power Struggle

What started off as problem solving has deteriorated into a hurtful and escalating power struggle. At point B, the parent tries to end the conflict by threatening to take away their bikes and desserts but it is too late. Sharing the couch is no longer the issue. Feelings have been hurt and the kids want revenge. They retaliate with name-calling and disrespect.

The parent hurts back by taking away their bikes and dessert then taunts them. The kids become even more disrespectful which in turn pushes her over the edge. She gives each child a thump and threatens further consequences if they resist. The power struggle is over at least for the moment but what was really accomplished?

Did the kids learn any better skills for resolving conflicts on their own? No. Did they learn how to communicate more respectfully? No. What did they learn? They learned a lesson they already knew-a lesson in hurtful communication and problem solving.


As a training model the punitive approach has many limitations. It usually does stop misbehaviour eventually but it does not teach positive lessons about responsibility, problem solving or respectful communication. Why not? Because parents make all the decisions and parents do all the problem solving.

The methods parents model encourage hurtful communication, demonstrate poor problem solving and teaches children to be dependent upon adults.

What do you think will happen next time the two siblings in our example have a conflict? Sure, one of them will scream for mom or dad to come solve the problem. If mom and dad don’t show up in time the kids will use the methods they know best: yelling, threatening, blaming, name-calling and hitting.


When it comes to humiliation children respond much like adults, they understand the rule,
but they dislike the way the message is delivered. The punitive approach works best with the kids who don’t need it: compliant kids who have an underlying desire to please and cooperate. But the approach is poorly matched to the temperament and learning style of strong willed children. It makes them angry and resentful and incites them to retaliate. The cooperation parents achieve comes at a high price-injured feelings, damaged relationships and angry power struggles.

If the punitive approach has so many limitations, why do so many parents continue to use it? Most parents who used punishments were raised that way themselves. It feels, natural and familiar and they don’t question its effectiveness. When things break down they assume the problem is with the child, not with their methods.

The Autocratic or Punitive Approach

Parents Beliefs

  • If it does not hurt, children will not learn
  • Children won’t respect my rules unless they fear my methods
  • It’s my job to control my children
  • It’s my job to solve my children’s problems

Power and Control

  • All for parents

Problem Solving Process

  • Problem solving by force
  • Adversarial
  • Win/lose parents win
  • Parents do all the problem solving
  • Parents direct and control the process

What Children Learn

  • Parents are responsible for solving children’s problems
  • Hurtful methods of communication and problem solving
  • How children respond – Anger, stubbornness, revenge, rebellion, withdrawal, fearful submission