Moving Past Punishment With Compassion

emotional intelligence  positive parenting 

By Ashley Patek

My Reaction To Witnessing A Parent Punish

She grabbed their tiny wrists and yanked them out of the door and led them through the parking lot. I couldn’t hear her words but she was enraged like a bear, towering over her children as they sat on the curb looking at their feet. 

My boys and I were sitting outside the restaurant at a table eating some cheeseburgers when I witnessed this mom with her children. They looked about the same age as my own, around three and five.

The commotion caught my oldest’s attention, too. His curious gaze became fixed. His smile faded. And together, we watched as the children were pulled yet again across the parking lot and to a table next to us. 

Her children were now instructed to stand against the wall to “not move … not say a word.” When they did wiggle or giggle, she yelled, “I dare you to move or say something. Do it. And see what happens.” 

The children stood there as their food arrived, again looking at their feet. One last time, the mom approached them, mumbled some words, and then slapped their wrists as she called her children liars. The kids were now crying and the mom looked on the verge of exploding from anger and possibly into tears.

My stomach was turning. My heart was racing. My hands were sweating. I wanted to go over and say something … to advocate for these children and embrace them in a protective hug. I wanted to tell this mom that she was on the same team as these babies she loves, and that hurt was happening, physically, and, even more profoundly in this instance, emotionally. 

As I was contemplating my move (mind my own business or bellow out), the children moved from the wall and ate their dinner. My husband urged me to finish my burger and let it be, but I had lost my appetite. And the pit in my stomach stayed with me the entire ride home. 

Deep into the depths of my heart and thoughts, my shift somehow, surprisingly, turned from those children to the mom. As I peered over my shoulder toward the backseat at my own children, I became curious about the why beneath her behavior. My disdain melted a bit and made way for an inkling of compassion. 

I found myself wanting to hug the child within her. My training has taught me that the things we struggle with as adults are adaptations from our own youth. We are all looking to survive, and as children, we learn which parts of us lead to connection and safety and which parts of us lead to punishment and isolation. We learn to grow the parts of us that our system wants.

Instead of seeing an enraged mom, I began to see this woman like a scared child herself, seeking the same things she was robbing her children of - the feelings of safety, power, and connection. It was possible that the ways she was reared or that the impulses her body stored from her own childhood were now coming up and out of her as an adult and were being directed toward her children. And it reminded me to stay curious, because the parents we become, are often influenced by the children we had to be:

  • The parent who struggles with their child’s big emotions was often the child who was taught it was unsafe to feel.
  • The parent who uses punitive punishment was often the child who was spanked, isolated, yelled at, or shamed.
  • The parent who is a people pleaser was often the child who had to be a parent pleaser.
  • The parent who feels she isn’t worthy or enough was often the child who was told her wants and desires were wrong or bad.
  • The parent who yells was often the child who had to internally yell “stop!” to avoid threatening his attachment with caregivers.
  • The parent who has poor self-talk was often the child who wasn’t allowed to express her frustration or give answers that the adult in her life didn’t want to hear.
  • The parent who struggles with setting boundaries and asking for what they need was often the child who felt they had to choose between inconveniencing their caregiver and getting their needs met.

Compassion For Another

This mom’s actions had a story to tell. And I was listening. While I may never see that woman and her children again, it got me thinking: What if we held compassion for the authoritarian adult … the one who uses time-outs, spanking, or other punitive measures? 

This isn’t the same as condoning any behavior that is detrimental to a child. Because I am not. What I am saying is, what if we also see the child within the adult who had to adapt … or who experienced shame, blame, and pain and help them replace those narratives with safety, love, and connection within themselves? Could that not be more effective than further shaming them for parenting practices that were likely handed down to them? 

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It is possible that the more we perpetuate the cycle of shame, blame, and pain, the more the adult retreats to those protective mechanisms they put in place long ago, and the more they are dug in towards their own children.

We carry the energy of our lineage. It takes awareness and real courage to be a generational cycle breaker - to be a pivot point that says, “this stops here.” So instead of meeting that authoritarian parent with more shame, what if we met them with compassion? 

Here are 5 ways to show compassion for another parent:

  1. Give a smile 
  2. Empathize 
  3. Offer to help (when appropriate) 
  4. Share encouraging words
  5. Validate their experience 

Compassion For Self

If you find that you are the parent who practices punitive measures or any parent at all for that matter, here are 3 ways to rewire your mental and emotional circuits for more connection in your home: 

1. Notice Triggers

When your children do (fill in the blank), you feel (fill in the blank). This requires us to pause and reflect on the energy that comes up within us when our children (or anyone for that matter) behaves in a certain way. 

Our triggers show us the parts of us that were shut down in our own childhood. When we feel ourselves become elevated by something externally, we can choose to go internally. This means that instead of perpetuating the cycle that shuts down our kids or attempts to control them, we reclaim our power and notice which parts of us were suppressed - this is an opportunity to grow those parts. 

So this step is all about noticing. When (fill in the blank) happens …

  • I think __.
  • I feel __.
  • I can __.
2. Teach About Feelings

We may think that emotional education is for our children and it is. Yet, it’s also for the child that lives inside of us, too. While we have the science, most of us parents lack the skills to notice, name, and effectively manage our emotions, which makes it tricky to teach our children. 

Our children come into this world with the capability to feel and without the ability to self-regulate. And when their developing brain and big emotions encounter our child-self, fireworks (aka power struggles) can happen. But here’s the really cool thing. Only we know what our child-self needs and we can now, as an adult, meet those needs while we teach and guide our own children. 

Using Time-Ins as a daily ritual is a powerful way to build connection and teach about emotions and calming strategies. Feelings posters and mantra cards create a sensorial way to engage children so that they are intrinsically motivated to play with the tools when regulated and can better access them during dysregulation. Spending five to ten minutes a day learning about emotions and sharing when you felt happy, sad, calm, and mad, not only teaches your child but strengthens those circuits in you. 

3. Spend Time With Your Inner Child

As parents, we spend time with our children. No brainer, right? But there’s a child inside of us who needs our attention, too. 

Using all of your senses, time travel back to a memory from your childhood. Visualize it as if you were there right now. What does it feel like? What do you see? What are you wearing? What can you hear? And so forth. 

Maybe start with a memory that feels good and familiar. And then shift to a more challenging, painful, or less familiar memory. See and feel yourself as that child. 

And then imagine your adult-self, and meet that child version of you. Give her/him what she/he needed in that moment. Spend five to ten minutes a day doing this. 

When we revisit a memory and add a different experience, we have the power to rewire circuits and change the memory. We can replace self-blame with self-compassion and isolation with connection and fear with safety. If you find that these memories are hard to find, you can read more here.

It would have been easy for me to write off the woman from the restaurant as a bad parent. But maybe what she needed, and has always needed, was to be seen, heard, and validated. For someone to tell her that she didn’t have to be that scared child anymore. And that she can break the cycle. 

•  •  •

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