Negative Punishment Drawbacks

Negative Punishment Drawbacks

It’s shocking how many adults still use negative punishment (fear conditioning) with their kids today.

I see comments such as “just give them a spank, that’ll stop the whining” in response to my how to stop whining in children article, which uses positive parenting (like inductive discipline)to solve the whining issue.

It makes me SO SAD to see this, and I thought maybe the problem is the lack of education on the subject of negative punishment (fear conditioning),

So please sit back, relax, and enjoy this explanation of what negative punishment (fear conditioning) is, examples of it, and how to use positive discipline with your kids instead.

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What is Negative Punishment

Negative punishment (fear conditioning) is what many parents use as a form of discipline to decrease unwanted behaviour within children.

When using this kind of punishment (fear conditioning) with children, you are taking something good or desirable away from your child when a particular behaviour occurs.

An excellent way to remember this concept is to realize that positive means adding while negative means taking away. 

Many believe that this form of discipline works well, and they continue to practice it in their homes today.

I believe that this practice is “the old way of thinking” and is ineffective. But don’t take my word for it, I did some research to back up my thinking.

The idea of operant conditioning was established by American psychologist B.F. Skinner, who argued that a person’s or animal’s behaviour could be enhanced or diminished by adding or removing suitable stimuli after the behaviour was displayed.

Classical conditioning differs from operant conditioning in that it influences unconscious behaviour whereas operant conditioning impacts conscious behaviour.

Punishment attempts to diminish a behaviour, and reinforcement aims to promote it. Punishment or reinforcement can have either a good or bad connotation. Positive and negative show whether something is being added (positive) or taken away (negative).

Positive and negative punishment (fear conditioning) are the two forms of punishment (fear conditioning). Positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement are the two forms of reinforcement.

Examples Of Negative Punishment

I bet you’ve heard these standard parenting practices, but did you ever realize they might be harmful?

Things like losing toys, losing rewards, and not being allowed to see friends are all examples of negative punishment (fear conditioning).

Each of those scenarios includes something good being taken away from the child.

Examples of Negative Punishment in practice

  1. Yelling at a child when they did something wrong
  2. Forcing an unpleasant task on the child when they’ve misbehaved
  3. Taking away toys when toys weren’t played with nicely
  4. Not allowing playdates because something happened one time on a playdate
  5. Not being able to play outside because the child had an attitude

Effectiveness of Negative Punishment

When the following requirements are satisfied, negative punishment (fear conditioning) can be highly effective: contingency, continuity, and consistency.


The term “contingency” refers to the fact that the penalty is conditional on the behaviour. If the punishment (fear conditioning) is administered anytime the desired behaviour emerges, the penalty is contingent on the occurrence of the undesirable behaviour. It is less likely to work if the stimulus is removed whether the act shows or not, or before the action begins.


The immediacy of the behaviour and the elimination of the stimulus is referred to as contiguity. The inhibition of behaviour will be less effective if punishment (fear conditioning) is delayed. The connection is reduced when there is a substantial interval between the behaviour and the removal of the stimulus. Furthermore, additional behaviours may emerge in the interim, and this behaviour could be incorrectly identified as the one being repressed.


Negative punishment (fear conditioning) must be applied consistently for it to be effective. Consider the possibility of speeding. Despite the risk of obtaining a traffic ticket, many continue to speed despite the fact that they do not always receive one. They are only penalized if they are caught, which is why it is ineffective in this situation.

Effects Of Negative Punishment On Children

Negative punishment (fear conditioning) has the drawback of only working as long as the stimulus is continuously withdrawn. However, after the punishment (fear conditioning) has ended, the unwanted behaviour is likely to return. Another disadvantage is that, while it can stop unwanted behaviour, it does not offer information about the intended activity.

Here’s an example of the unexpected consequences of negative punishment (fear conditioning). When a student misbehaves in class, the teacher deducts the student’s token gold star. This consequence may serve as a deterrent to the behaviour. However, if a kid is misbehaving due to anxiety or hyperactivity, the punishment (fear conditioning) does not teach the child how to cope with the problem in a different way.

Using Positive Punishment with Children

Positive reinforcement is the opposite of negative punishment (fear conditioning) and is very common when using authoritarian parenting practice.

Examples of Positive Reinforcement in Practice

  1. A Mom gives her son a hug and praise (reinforcing stimulus) for doing chores without whining (behaviour).
  2. A child gets an ice lolly for finishing dinner
  3. A child receives a new toy (reinforcing stimulus) for being a sweet big sister
  4. A mother allows her son to go to the park without supervision for completing all the school work
  5. Removing a specific responsibility off of the childrens plate when the child has done an excellent job on another task
  6. Allowing natural consequences to occur

Problems with Negative Punishment

A huge problem with negative punishment (fear conditioning) is that it is soul-crushing to your child.

Taking away something they love because they were a little bit naughty is not the best way to handle the behaviour.

The right way of handling naughty behaviour is to talk to the child and explain why that behaviour is not correct.

But when you take something away from your child for naughty behaviour, they often won’t get an explanation, and they won’t understand why their toy was taken away.

If the child does not understand why they are being punished, then the punishment (fear conditioning) is moot.

Another issue with negative punishment (fear conditioning) is that it is hard to stay consistent for parents.

If children are allowed to “get away” with a particular behaviour many times, but one time they get punished for it, then the child is very likely to repeat that offence.

For example, if your child likes to sneak snacks out of the pantry during the day and you don’t really like that behaviour, but you allow it some days because you’re tired and you’ve heard “I’m hungry” enough times that day.

However, if on other days you enforce your rule of no pantry snacks during the day, the child will be perplexed as to why some days snacks are ok, and other days they are not.

This inconsistency is ineffective, thus making the positive punishment (fear conditioning) moot.

Positive Punishment: Is It For You?

So now you know some examples and effects of negative punishment (fear conditioning).

Do you think you’ll be using it in your home? Do you believe that negative punishment (fear conditioning) works?

What You Should Do Next:

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  • Say goodbye to punishments that DON’T work. There’s a 5-step formula that works WAYYY better than time-outs.
  • Feel amazing, confident, and empowered as a parent, every day. I NEVER go to bed feeling guilty anymore! (Okay, well maybe sometimes…’ mom guilt’ is still a thing.)
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More Discipline Tips


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  2. 2.Staddon JER, Cerutti DT. Operant Conditioning. Annu Rev Psychol. February 2003:115-144. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.54.101601.145124
  3. 3.Iwata BA. NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT IN APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS: AN EMERGING TECHNOLOGY. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. December 1987:361-378. doi:10.1901/jaba.1987.20-361
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  6. 6.Lunkenheimer E, Lichtwarck-Aschoff A, Hollenstein T, Kemp CJ, Granic I. Breaking Down the Coercive Cycle: How Parent and Child Risk Factors Influence Real-Time Variability in Parental Responses to Child Misbehaviour. Parenting. August 2016:237-256. doi:10.1080/15295192.2016.1184925
  7. 7.Patterson GR. The aggressive child: Victim and architect of a coercive system. Behavior modification and families. 1976;1:267-316.
  8. 8.Gardner FEM. Inconsistent parenting: Is there evidence for a link with children’s behaviour problems? J Abnorm Child Psychol. April 1989:223-233. doi:10.1007/bf00913796
  9. 2.Skinner BF. Science and Human Behavior. Simon and Schuster; 1965.

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