Maullika Sharma

Building Blocks

Does hitting impact the mental health of your children? - Maullika Sharma

There are several myths surrounding the ‘need’ to resort to hitting, and its importance, in bringing up children. Some parents believe that they should be strict and their child should be fearful of them. Is this best way?

Children are routinely hit, at home and at school. After all, that is the most effective way to discipline them, isn’t it? Well, it certainly is the easiest way. How effective it is, is a whole different story.
I have met several children who are routinely hit for the slightest misdemeanor on their part. And adults who were hit when they were children – either with a bare hand, a ruler, a stick, or even a hot metal rod (as I mentioned in my last column). Apart from the fact that this gets me really agitated (and is really my issue to deal with), I began to think about the reasons that could possibly drive parents to hit their children, and the psychological and emotional impact of this on their children.
So why would a parent physically hurt their child? My conversations with several parents over the years have thrown up many possible reasons. One of these, and a very significant one, is that that was the way they were brought up, and, therefore, that is the only way they know to discipline their own children. They turned out okay, and so will their children, they tell me. “How can you discipline a child without beating them?” is a common refrain. My question to those parents is, “Did you like being hit, when it was being done to you? What were your feelings at that time?” It may have been a long time ago, but if they took a minute to recollect those instances, those feelings of many years ago would resurface: the fear, the anger, the frustration, the hurt, the feeling of not being good enough, the sadness, and yes, even the hatred for those who used to hit them!
The second reason is anxiety and helplessness — anxiety about their child’s performance and future, and helplessness at their inability to control it. Anxiety about how society will judge their child, anxiety of what will become of their child in the future, and probably above all, anxiety about how society will judge them as parents, if their child does not turn out ‘right’ or ‘perfect’. This also ends up being a conscious or unconscious outlet for their other anxieties, stresses, frustrations and failures. They feel angry with life and this is their way of expressing their anger. They may, knowingly or unknowingly, be expressing their anger onto their children, who feel powerless to respond. This may make the parents feel more in control of their actions, at a time when they feel helpless and out of control in the face of other situations. 
There are several myths surrounding the ‘need’ to resort to hitting, and its importance, in bringing up children. Some parents believe that they should be strict and their child should be fearful of them. This makes them feel in control. On the contrary, though, their children may end up believing that the parents are completely ‘out-of-control’ and stop trusting their ability to guide and mentor them.
They also believe that if they beat their child, the child will be scared of them, and will be able to focus on work, achieve something in life, and stay on track. In reality, children who are hit, learn to steer clear of their parents’ track, and do exactly what they want, just ensuring that their parents never come to know of it! The child feels motivated to do ’wrong’ behind the parents’ back. Fear also distracts the child and stops them from being able to concentrate. Fear may motivate them enough to avoid failure, but it can never make their journey joyful, or motivate them enough to achieve their true potential.
Some parents may argue that there is no better way (or other way) to discipline or bring up children. On the contrary, this is probably the least effective way. It teaches them that violence is okay. It teaches them that they don’t need to respect the feelings of others. It teaches them that they are not worthy of being liked or respected. 
That disciplining must involve painful, punitive punishment for it to be effective is another common justification for hitting. On the contrary, this only results in feelings of hatred and dislike towards the offending parent. For disciplining to be effective, consequences must be known ahead of time, and there must be certainty of their being enforced a hundred per cent of the time. 
The purpose of disciplining is not to make the child pay for past misbehavior, but to stop future misbehavior. And this involves a completely different shift in mindset for the parents. The painfulness of the hitting becomes completely irrelevant. The knowledge around certainty of punishment becomes more important than its randomness and painfulness.
So, there are several psychological and emotional fallouts from resorting to hitting as a way of parenting and instilling discipline. For one, the child lives in constant fear. And, more importantly, children learn that violence is an acceptable reaction to a trigger, and so start practicing it themselves. They act out in school — either by becoming bullies, because they also want to feel powerful at least somewhere, or by becoming subdued, scared and submissive, and become targets for others. They work just enough to avoid failure, rather than being self-motivated and pushing themselves to achieve success, exploiting their true potential, and enjoying the journey that is life. They may slowly stop communicating with their parents and hide their feelings and activities. This may lead them to maintaining only a duty-bound relationship with their parents, as opposed to a relationship built on love, connection, communication, trust and caring.
So, parents, find a way to deal with your anxieties and the shortcomings of your past, whether that means practicing meditation, talking to a friend, or seeking the help of a counsellor. Take a minute to reflect on the time when you were at the receiving end of such behavior.
I would prefer to believe that parents hit their children mindlessly; that it is an automatic response to a momentary stimulus, rather than a thought-out action with the intent of hurting their child. And, therefore, this is an attempt at making parents aware of the possible long-term implications of these momentary thoughtless acts. If they then still choose to indulge in such behavior, it is at least a thought-out, mindful choice that they make, the consequences of which they fully understand.

Maullika Sharma is a Bangalore-based counselor who quit her corporate career to work in the mental health space. Maullika works with Workplace Options, a global employee wellbeing company, and practices at the Reach Clinic, Bangalore. If you have any questions pertaining to this column please write to us at columns@whiteswanfoundation.org.