Reprimands: Unintended Consequences Can Damage Children

By Gwen Randall-Young

Psychology for Living

When does reprimanding a child cross the line and become abuse? Probably when things are done or said that you wouldn’t want others to see. There are, of course, many variables, and discussing this issue is not meant to make parents feel like their hands are tied and they cannot discipline their children. 

We do not own our children, and they do have rights not only from a cultural/social standpoint, but also intrinsically, in their separateness from us. One day they will stand before us as adults, when we no longer have the power that size and position bestows and will look us in the eye. In these moments of truth, past decisions can, in retrospect, seem hauntingly inappropriate. The past cannot be changed. It is not only parents who must carry the burden of seeds unthinkingly planted, but anyone who works with children, including teachers, day care workers, coaches, babysitters and so on.

Unfortunately, our culture has not tended to value the consciousness of children to a high degree, but rather seeing them as mini humans with limited awareness. While adults may forget words spoken in anger or frustration, those same words may be etched indelibly on the mind of the child, continuing to distort the child’s feelings about self for years, decades or even a lifetime.

Many adults know all about this, because it happened to them. I have heard countless painful stories about people who were humiliated as children. A teacher, past the point of frustration, reprimands a child in front of the class. The other children burst out laughing. Perhaps the child cries then and there, or later at home. For everyone else the incident is over. For the child it is a painful wound which will haunt him or her again and again, diminishing the sense of self-worth a little more each time it is recalled. 

If children are subjected to blows to their self-esteem repeatedly, it should not be surprising when they grow into angry, rebellious, aggressive young adults. It is true that children can be very challenging, but just because what we are doing is not working, that is no excuse to vent our anger in an uncontrolled manner. If someone cuts us off in traffic, most of us would not proceed to catch up to the offender and do damage to his car. Yet often this is precisely what happens to children, they transgress, and then their self-esteem gets bashed. As adults, it is our responsibility to do whatever it takes to learn to do it differently.

Gwen Randall-Young is an author and award-winning psychologist. For permission to reprint this article, or to obtain books, CDs or MP3s, visit Follow Gwen on Facebook for daily inspiration.