April is Child Abuse Awareness month and the subject invariably comes up: what constitutes abuse?

Discipline is one of the defining elements of parenting; whether used sparingly or liberally, it’s fundamental to the parent-child dynamic. Through discipline, children are taught to become responsible, honest, kind, sharing people. By following their parents' guidance, teachings and rules, they ideally grow up to be well-behaved and respectful individuals.

If you, however, punish your child instead of disciplining them, the end result will not be the same. Punishment is an act of anger and impulse. It happens when a parent takes things personally; the punishment is, in fact, retaliation for the child’s poor choice. In contrast, discipline is centered around helping the child, with the goal of correcting their choices and actions. A parent who disciplines is trying to teach their child right from wrong, helping them learn life skills. Ultimately, punishment hurts a child whereas discipline helps a child.

Resisting The Urge to Punish

The urge to punish comes from within when you feel hurt by a child’s behavior — you’re looking to strike back and inflict this same pain, often overreacting to the situation. For example, in the heat of the moment, Mom or Dad might lash out — even raising a hand to a child instead of taking a deep breath and assessing the situation objectively.

The challenge parents face is to detach themselves from the situation and control their anger and impulses before responding or reacting to the child. By controlling this anger and emotion, a parent can stop themselves from making the situation worse. And this is important, as punishment — which can lead to abuse — is usually both unreasonable and much more physical than discipline.

Here's why it's so important to resist the urge to react in anger. Most abusive parents never plan on hurting their children, but they impulsively react and strike out of anger, punishing them with physical revenge instead of teaching them right from wrong. Once trapped in this mindset of punishment, it is difficult for parents to think rationally or even compassionately about their child’s actions. And in an instant, on impulse, lives can change dramatically.

A loving parent can be convicted of child abuse and land themselves in prison simply because they impulsively did something violent to their child. If you choose to listen to your impulses, you lose your self-control and ability to think clearly. For example, a parent grabs their child by the hand. The parent is upset and twists the tiny arm. Being a “good parent” they take their child to the hospital to have it looked at. They find a greenstick fracture. The x-ray clearly shows how the arm bone was twisted. This is a red flag for hospital employees who know this is a symptom of child abuse. In a whirlwind, Child Protective Services is called in, the children may be removed from the home, the guilty parent can be arrested and even go to jail.

One of the biggest problems with an adult punishing a child is that the two are not equals. When calm and rational, no one would argue that children are the same as adults. They are not the same size, nor strength; they have less knowledge and fewer life experiences. Furthermore, when parents punish their child out of anger, they teach kids that it’s okay to treat those who are weaker, smaller, and younger with less respect. The parent is modeling a bullying type of behavior which is obviously not a positive way to interact with others.

My father was verbally and physically abusive so I understand on a personal level the negative impact impulsive, erratic behavior can have on a child. To justify their actions parents may say, “This is what happened to me when I was growing up.” While that might explain why you’re more likely to parent this way, it doesn’t excuse the behavior. So, instead of coming home and taking out your frustrations on your children, resist the urge to overreact and lash out at them.