In almost all cultures punishment is used in order to change the behaviors of others. You may question yourself if this is what we should do. Especially in care giving relationships or in raising children. This isn’t just a moral issue. It’s also an issue of being more aware of the side effects of punishment.


The side effects of punishment

Punishment has  number of side effects



We put ourselves explicitly above the person.  Not only because we have better insight in what is appropriate or not – this might be true – , but because we think we have the right to judge over the person and do harm to him. We don’t have that right.


2. Developing fear

By definition punishment has the intention that you want to make the person afraid of what you might do when he doesn’t listen to you, or behaves the way you want him to. You teach him to turn away from you instead of the feeling of companionship


3. Wrong role-model

You also teach that it’s obviously ok to punish a person who is lower in rang than your are (according to your own opinion) when he does something you don’t like. You don’t only teach this to the person who is punished, but also to the others who witness this.


4. Social isolation

By punishing a person in front of others (like in a classroom or grouphome), you show the others that this person is doing something bad. This can cause others to punish also when they see him doing it again, or  they come and tell you, hoping that you will punish the ‘bad guy’. This starts a process of marginalization and social isolation.


Causes of harmful behavior

But what to do when a person behaves harmful towards himself or others? To answer this question, it’s good to look first at the possible causes of the behavior. There  five main causes of harmful behaviors.



The person may simply not be aware of the fact that his behavior is harmful. Remember that ‘not being aware’ is not to be confused with ‘not knowing’. A person may ‘know’ by conditioning that he is doing something others don’t want him to do, without any understanding that what he is doing is harmful.


Loss of control

Due to stress, psychiatric disorder or confusion a person may have lost control over his actions and react out of impulses.



People who don’t feel connected with others have no intrinsic motivation to be caring for others. Research has shown clearly that disconnectedness leads to an increase of ‘negative’ behaviors.


Negative self-image

Due to life experiences a person may have developed an image of life and of himself in which it is normal to harm others.  For instance when the person has always lived in a violent environment, or when he is a victim of frequent punishment or abuse. Many victims become offender later in life!


Free choice

Of course there is also free choice when a person deliberately, and realizing what the effect will be, harms others. But people with special needs hardly never act harmful towards others out of a free choice. Instead of thinking that a person does it by free choice, you may question yourself is the person is capable to say NO to what he is doing.


Will punishment do any good?

Looking at these causes of harmful behaviors, we see that we shouldn’t only avoid punishment from a moral point of view, but also because in most situations it is useless.

  1. First we are too late. We punish after the harm has been done. Punishment can’t repair the damage.
  2. Punishment teaches the person what we don’t want him to do, but not what he should be doing.
  3. Punishment doesn’t teach a person how to control his impulses. It will only increase his insecurity and increase the risk of loss of control.
  4. Doesn’t teach the person to feel connected with others. On the contrary!
  5. Punishment doesn’t help the person create a positive image of SELF or of life.


Only when a person really acts out of free choice, you could imagine that punishment would help. But then you first have to be absolutely sure that it really is free choice, and not one of the causes described  above. But even then, you also might consider if the person might – from his perspective – have a good reason to harm somebody. If that’s so, we better help restore the relationship which is obviously very disturbed.


Are there alternatives?

If we don’t punish, what else can we do?

Most important is to work on the relationship – companionship – with the person. When the person feels unconditionally safe with us and loved by us, we will more likely be able to help him when problems appear to arise.  We can make warm contact with the person and guide him through the difficult moment.

Also, based on a good relationship, we can become a positive role model and help the person develop more adequate behaviors.

And if there is no other option for this moment of stress, it may be necessary to be clear and firm and prevent harm to be done. This can be done in a warm way as long as we are connected with the needs of the person.