Positive Punishment Techniques And Their Effects

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Woman sitting on a bed while holding and comforting a young boy who looks sad. What is positive punishment and how does positive punishment work?

Is positive punishment the right choice for your family?

Discipline can be challenging for many parents, and finding the right balance between understanding and authority can be difficult. Parents and caregivers may have various strategies available to help them connect with their children while providing structure and guidance to help influence behavior. One parenting method called positive punishment generally refers to adding something to a situation to decrease unwanted behaviors and potentially increase certain behaviors as well. For example, a parent might assign their child extra chores if they fail to clean up their room when asked. Positive punishment typically works best when paired with positive reinforcement, and it’s generally not recommended to use positive punishment on its own. It can be helpful to attend parenting classes or work with a licensed therapist to determine the best parenting strategies for your family.

What is positive punishment?

Positive punishment is generally defined as a behavior modification method. The concept of positive punishment involves adding something to a situation rather than removing or limiting in order to influence a particular behavior occurring (or not occurring). It’s believed to have ties to B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning theory. With this discipline strategy, the purpose of any punishment is usually to decrease adverse behaviors. This goal is typically achieved with positive punishment by offering unfavorable outcomes or negative consequences for undesired behaviors, such as scolding or additional chores.  Adults may see examples of positive punishment applied in everyday life. For example, they may receive a speeding ticket for driving over the limit or accrue late fees at the library for failing to return items on time. Positive punishment works for many people, and some parents use it to support the behaviors they want to see. 

Identifying the difference between positive and negative punishment

Behavior-Modifying Positive Parenting Methods By B.F. Skinner discusses the details of using positive and negative punishment to limit undesirable behavior along with positive and negative reinforcement to encourage desired or appropriate behavior:

  • Positive punishment: Adding something to the situation to discourage unwanted behavior
  • Positive reinforcement: Adding something to encourage desired behavior
  • Negative punishment: Taking something to discourage unwanted behavior
  • Negative reinforcement: Taking something to encourage desired behavior

Broken down to its essentials, positive punishment typically adds a discouraging or undesirable consequence as a response to adverse behavior. You might try thinking of it as two negatives canceling each other out and making a positive. Negatively reinforcing unwanted behaviors can reduce the likelihood that they will be repeated. Rather than referring to something desirable, “positive” relates to the ability to reinforce acceptable behaviors. Consider the terms “positive” and “negative” to correlate with “adding” and “taking away,” respectively.

According to a 2006 study, typically positive punishment adds something, such as an unpleasant consequence, to a situation to discourage specific behaviors. For children, positive punishment might look like being given sentences, or the same sentence, to write over and over for neglecting to complete their homework. Research shows this tactic may encourage the child to manage their time better to avoid extra tasks. 

Negative punishment typically removes something from the equation, in order to influence specific behavior. For example, if your child doesn’t complete their chores, you may take away their favorite toy as a consequence. This tactic may encourage the child to complete their responsibilities to avoid losing something they want. 

How positive punishment and reinforcement can work together to limit unwanted behavior

You may actively discourage unwanted behavior when you use positive punishment methods with your child. On its own, this strategy can effectively modify your child’s behavior, but when combined with positive reinforcement, you may see significant changes in your child. Positive reinforcement normally adds a reward for good behavior, such as an allowance for completing household chores or a set monetary compensation for good grades on a report card. By discouraging unwanted behaviors and rewarding desired behaviors, you can offer your child a clear, unobstructed path, should they choose to take it. 

Positive punishment techniques

You can influence your child’s behavior in many ways with positive punishment. Here are some standard methods you may wish to try.

  • Marker System: This system is often used in schools. Write the child’s name on a board and add marks for each incidence of bad behavior or breaking school rules. If they finish the day with no marks, they receive a reward.
  • Scolding: Reprimanding your child for misbehavior can be a standard parenting strategy. Some parents may escalate to yelling at their children. While this tactic can be public or not, some psychologists suggest public embarrassment can be a traumatizing experience. Scolding in public or a teacher scolding a child in a classroom can be a form of vicarious punishment. Though it can change the child’s behavior at times, potential problems can come along with it.
  • Writing Sentences Or Essays: Schools often use this punishment in the classroom effectively, and you can easily adapt it for use at home as a way of influencing behavior.  
  • Additional Chores: Adding chores to your child’s to-do list can be a positive punishment. It may keep your child active while contributing to the maintenance of your household and avoiding the isolation of a lengthy time-out.  

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

  • Grounding: Preventing a child from attending a desired event can effectively deter bad behavior but can easily cross the line into a negative punishment or be seen as an aversive stimulus. Grounding them in their room may be more appropriate, but this is one method that can have vague boundaries. 
  • Early Bedtime Or Extra Nap: Younger children often view losing time to sleep when they could play as unfavorable, so early bedtimes and extra naps can be effective as positive punishments.  
  • Additional Study Time: If your child is not completing schoolwork or their grades are suffering, additional study time can be an effective positive punishment.  
  • Natural Consequences: The natural consequences of your child’s actions can be a valuable teacher. These generally require no effort on your part, though consequences could range further than the immediate situation. For example, if your child refuses to study for a test, the natural consequence may be failing the test. However, your child may also do poorly in the class and be required to repeat the course if it becomes a pattern.  

Risks of positive punishment 

Applying positive punishment on its own is generally not recommended as a discipline strategy, according to medical health professionals. By itself, this method can suppress adverse behaviors while providing no practical alternatives for a person’s behavior. Physical punishment or corporal punishment is frequently part of this discipline method. 

2010 study indicates that spanking may create a future risk for aggressive behavior by conveying to your child that problems can be solved by hitting people. Furthermore, it is frequently only a temporary solution, with adverse behaviors often returning after the punishment has ended. Researchers reviewing the past 50 years of information and peer reviewed studies suggest that your child is more likely to defy you the more you spank them

Additionally, too much punishment or an unpleasant stimulus without a reward system or pleasant stimulus in place may make your child feel they receive negative feedback no matter what they do, and they could stop trying. This may backfire, leading them to act out more and making positive punishment progressively less effective. It could also lead to mental health concerns* over time. It can be helpful to explain your expectations to your child and ensure they understand the rules and the consequences. 

* Please note that the term “mental health problems” is outdated and no longer used in the DSM-5.

Turning misbehavior into a learning opportunity

By combining positive punishment with other operant conditioning methods, parents can turn misbehavior into learning opportunities. In addition to discouraging the adverse behavior, it can be best to explain why it was bad, provide an alternate option, and reward positive choices.

Modeling good behavior

You are generally your child’s first and most crucial teacher. Most children model their behavior after parents or guardians, according to recent studies. In addition to using positive punishment, it may be beneficial to model the behaviors you want to see, and your children will likely pick them up over time. 

Tips for positive punishment

  • One of the most important aspects of positive child and teen punishment is generally consistency. Studies show that this discipline method usually only works if it’s applied consistently. 
  • Use positive punishment in conjunction with positive reinforcement. 
  • Give your consequences meaning and apply them uniformly. 
  • Talk to your child about problem-solving, why their behavior was problematic, and how they can do something different in the future. 
  • Hold firm to your stated consequence. 
  • Appeal to your child’s self-interest with a reminder of the consequences they could face if the behavior occurs. 
  • Hold your children accountable for their behavior. 
  • Avoid sarcasm and disdain; your primary goal is generally to teach your children, not tear them down. 

How positive reinforcement can lead to better behaviors

Is positive punishment the right choice for your family?

When you provide clear expectations, discouragement for unwanted behaviors, and rewards for good behaviors, you can make it much easier for your child to choose the path of least resistance with the behaviors you want to see from them. 

By actively encouraging good behavior and offering explanations to your child along the way, you can help them choose to display desired behaviors while building a solid relationship with them and helping them to understand what is acceptable. 

Consider attending parenting classes

Parents tend to face many responsibilities, and it’s not necessarily surprising that parenting can be challenging. Beyond teaching valuable information about your chosen topics, parenting classes can help you find a community of other parents likely to experience similar challenges. It can be helpful to relate your concerns with others who can understand. Parenting classes can also teach coping skills, broaden your horizons with new parenting styles and philosophies, and correct any harmful behaviors or ideas you may have so you can be a positive, active influence in your child’s life. 

How therapy can help you build stronger family dynamics

When choosing a discipline method for your family, consider working with a licensed therapist through an online provider. Therapy can teach you practical parenting, communication skills, and coping strategies to manage stress and challenging behaviors. Many said attending family therapy from home made it feasible to fit into their busy schedules. Online therapy can also benefit from reduced costs, reduced wait times, and flexible appointment formats. 

According to results from recent studies, online family therapy can be a viable alternative to treatments in the traditional office setting. The virtual environment can also make younger patients feel comfortable. If individual therapy sounds like a better fit, online cognitive behavioral therapy can also be highly effective. 

Takeaway

Positive punishment generally refers to adding a stimulus to decrease an unwanted behavior. For example, if your child does poorly on a test, you might require them to spend additional time studying or if a child throws a tantrum over doing chores or neglects them entirely, you might assign them additional tasks. In the classroom, positive punishment might look like writing additional essays for poor behavior at school. Generally, pairing positive punishment with positive reinforcement (rewarding your child for desired behaviors) is the most effective. It’s usually not recommended to use positive punishment on its own as a parenting strategy. For expert guidance on parenting topics, it can be helpful to attend parenting classes or schedule a session with a licensed therapist.
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