Providing children with exposure to guidance, and positive and peaceful discipline around conduct, ethics, etc is an essential part of parenting, but the way it is done can have a lasting impact on a child's self-esteem. Watch this video where I explain a bit more, and read on for more information:
I witnessed a close relative one day reprimand an 8-year-old girl who was also a relative, in front a large group of people at a party. The little girl was simply asserting her opinion in a discussion. All humans have a need to be heard, seen and understood after all. Then, this older woman put her hands on her hips and barked at her with an authoritarian tone and judgment on her face “Leena, close your mouth. Stay in your place.” Literally, the woman used those words – to put this girl in her place. I watched as the little girl’s body shrunk backward and inwards, hunching over in shame as she felt the eyes of others fall up on her… It was like her spirit was crushed in that moment.
Reprimanding kids in front of their peers, relatives or even siblings can be detrimental to their emotional well-being and even backfire in our parenting. When children are scolded in front of others, it can induce shame. Now there are two kinds of shame, as per various experts in the field of nervous system wellness and psychology: toxic shame, which is defeating, and a type of shame that actually spurs learning and change in a person. Toxic shame can have a negative effect on a child’s self-perception and self-esteem, which can impact their overall confidence and ability to navigate social situations.
The problem is that we don’t know which one is coming up for the child in any given context or situation: a) toxic shame or b) shame that spurs growth or change for self-empowerment and betterment. Each child is unique and comes with a unique past, neural programming and comes from a unique environment. Therefore, reprimanding, or disciplining kids (if you choose to use the word discipline) in front of others is an action best avoided.
#1: Their brain doesn’t work like yours!
Understanding the connection between behavior and self-esteem
Children's brains are different than adults' brains. They rely heavily on their emotional brain; the logical and reasoning part of the brain is the last part of the brain to fully mature close to age 25. When children are reprimanded in public, it triggers their emotional brain. Intense emotions can overshadow the intended lesson and make it difficult for the child to process and internalize the message a parent might be trying to get across. So essentially, it defeats the purpose.
Behavior is an indication of a child’s needs and emotional state. When children “misbehave” or “act out,” it is often an indication that they are dealing with an underlying cause that is invisible to our eyes or ears. Children communicate through their behavior more than words because their developing brains are less logical and more emotional, and according to biological sciences and neurosciences, very much rooted in survival instincts. And, they also have fewer years of life experience in their pocket to be able to clearly and distinctly verbalize what is going on for them.
Even if you have a child who goes quiet, or withdraws when they are disciplined or reprimanded like this, which on the surface seems to be “working” to “teach them a lesson,” emotions felt will become emotions expressed at some point in life… and in children, emotions are often expressed through behaviours, and less through rational thought or words.
Therefore, with the understanding that there is much more going on than meets the eye, by addressing their behavior in a respectful and private manner, parents can create better long term results in their family dynamics.
#2. The very thing you’re trying to avoid may occur more often but in different ways.
Why disciplining children in front of others backfires:
Disciplining children in front of others can have a counterproductive effect. Instead of teaching them valuable lessons, it can exacerbate the challenge and lead to further negative behavior. When children are reprimanded in front of their peers, relatives and sometimes even siblings, they often find a way to release the shame and frustration they experience in being “publicly” reprimanded by redirecting their emotional energy onto others.
For example, if an older sibling is reprimanded in front of a younger sibling, the older sibling may one day out of impulse, push the younger child for what seems like no reason at all. And when you ask why they did it, they reply “I don’t know. I just did it.” Yes, you could chock this up to “lack of impulse control,” and you could also attribute it to pent-up emotional energy being released.
Another example: If one cousin is compared negatively to another cousin at a family gathering, you might see one of the kids start exhibiting negative behaviour towards the cousin who was favorably recognized through behaviours such as snatching their toys, hitting, or even excluding them from games and activities.
In older children and teens, it can feel absolutely devastating to teens when they are “disciplined” in front of peers, siblings, teachers, and others. If a teenager is aware of whomever happened to witness or overhear them getting reprimanded by their parents, then negative comments, curt behaviour, insults or even bullying and ostracizing may happen to the witnesses.
Imagine being a fully matured adult at 45 years old, being reprimanded in front of other staff at work. It’s embarrassing right? Then are you ready to make eye contact and be your cheerful self right away? Or do you want to avoid those people who witnessed everything for a bit? And is it possible that resentment and ill-will can accrue between staff members if this is a regular occurrence? Well, it’s kind of the same thing for kids, but on a whole other emotionally-charged level.
This can lead to a cycle of negative behavior and strained relationships. Additionally, it doesn't support the child's self-esteem and diminishes their positive self-perception.
Children who grow up from infancy to teenage years and beyond, who continue to be addressed this way by caregivers and parents, can exhibit all kinds of negative behaviours. Bullying, rage, violence and host of other problems can stem from chronically unmet needs that sprouted in childhood.
To be bold, the way I see it, if I reprimand my child repeatedly in front of others, compare them negatively to others, and publicly describe their inadequacies, I’m asking for dysfunction to become the norm in my family life. Can I really expect that my child will exhibit cooperation if they are challenged with shame? Can I really expect a warm, welcoming and connected relationship with my child when I do this? Can I really expect them to mentally and emotionally thrive?
Basically, I’m shooting myself in the foot. If I’m wanting them to stop hitting another child, and then publicly reprimand them, their shame will manifest as behaviour and show up in the very ways I hope to avoid; hitting me, hitting their siblings, maybe escalating into biting etc, ripping up a sibling’s artwork and so on and so forth. With teenagers, if I want them to follow curfew and then reprimand them in front of others when they don’t, the consequences can be even more disconnection, aloofness, “rebellion,” untruths being told and so on.
It is important to recognize that children are still learning and growing, and addressing their challenges privately can be a more effective and compassionate approach.
#3: How public reprimanding diminishes positive self-perception
Positive self-perception is crucial for a child's overall well-being and development. When children are reprimanded in public, it can damage their self-perception and create a negative internal narrative. They may start to believe that they are inherently bad or unworthy, leading to a lack of confidence and self-esteem. Public reprimanding can also cause children to develop a fear of making mistakes or taking risks, as they associate these experiences with shame and embarrassment. By protecting their self-esteem through privately discussing challenges, parents can help cultivate a positive self-perception that will serve the child well throughout their life.
Alternative approaches to disciplining children
There are alternative approaches. Instead of publicly reprimanding a child, parents can gently bring them aside to address a challenge discreetly away from potentially judging eyes. This allows for a more open and honest dialogue between parent and child. It also creates a safe space for the child to express their emotions and concerns without fear of judgment or shame.
For example, if a child has swiped dirt on another child at the park and the other child is crying, instead of shouting at the child who did the deed in front of their peers, we go up to them on their level and address what happened, what was going on for them when they did that, etc. With your emotionally regulated calm presence as a parent, you can support the child to come to a place emotionally, where they may address the situation with an apology as needed to support the other child who was hurt. In this situation, we have avoided shame, and met all the parties needs. You may want to reference my other article here: 7 Reasons Why Making Kids Say Sorry Backfires In The Long-Run.
By focusing on understanding and teaching, rather than punishment, parents can guide their children towards better behavior and stronger self-esteem. When children feel safe and supported, they are more likely to learn from their mistakes and grow as individuals.
One situation where it may benefit to discuss things in a rational way more openly is when others are involved in the challenge at hand. For example, sibling rivalry. When siblings are involved in a challenging situation, it may be appropriate to discuss openly between the parties. But, your wise discernment is required to make this effective. It might be prudent to discuss separately, then together. And before all of that, let us be reminded that an emotionally dysregulated brain-body system cannot effectively reason and rationalize. So, such discussion is best suited when all parties involved are in a more calm state.
Building confidence and fostering positive self-perception
Building confidence and fostering positive self-perception in children is a lifelong process. By preserving self-esteem through a discreet and connected approach to address challenges our kiddos experience, parents can create an environment that promotes growth and resilience. When children feel respected and understood, they are more likely to develop a healthy sense of self and navigate social situations with confidence.
By fostering positive self-perception, parents can set their children up for success in all aspects of life.