Physical Discipline Vs. Verbal Discipline for Children

Discipline is a means by which children learn standards of acceptable behavior and repercussions, which they can apply toward greater independence, according to the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development. Though verbal discipline is generally recognized as being more appropriate for children, it may also carry damaging effects if practiced irresponsibly. Physical discipline is not an acceptable solution under any circumstances, because of dual physical and emotional risks to the child.

About Discipline

Discipline sets standards of behavior that can be adjusted for each family’s situation. In addition, discipline offers a means of communication for parents to encourage behavioral traits and acknowledge the outcome of actions. However, Health and Human Services cautions that severe discipline does not offer a reference point for appropriate behavior and can damage a child's self-esteem.

About Physical Discipline

Physical discipline involves the use of physical force as a means of intervention or expressing judgment and may reach an intensity that endangers a child’s safety. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that while many Americans may have been spanked as children, this does not condone the behavior or negate its side effects. Physical discipline perpetuates aggressiveness and anger instead of teaching responsibility, control and reason.

When physical discipline escalates into a physical struggle, notes the AAP, parents may find themselves not only unable to stay calm, but also acting in a way they regret later. The group also warns that research has shown that children who are spanked are more likely as adults to hit family members or engage in criminal and violent activities.

About Verbal Discipline

Though discipline without physical contact may pose less immediate danger to children, it can still be destructive. Parents may threaten, insult or ridicule their children. Caregivers may cajole (coax by flattery), make negative or unflattering comparisons between children or outright beg children to behave appropriately. In short, verbal discipline may still incorporate force, instead of communicating needs and outcomes and acknowledging and encouraging positive behavior.

Discipline Research

Researchers have found that both physical and verbal discipline can have negative effects. A recent study in the scientific journal Headache in 2010 evaluated 4,000 children aged 13 to 15 and found that those who experienced physical maltreatment were significantly more likely to develop headaches and more frequent or intense headaches.

For a 2006 article in the Journal of Affective Disorders, researchers requested feedback from 5,614 individuals aged 15 to 54 on their history of verbal abuse and mental health. They concluded that individuals who experienced what they determined to be verbal abuse as children were more likely to be prone to depression, anxiety and self-criticism in their adult years. Adults who experience harsh discipline as children may lack reference points for appropriate behavior and may have difficulty serving as role models when disciplining their own children.

Verbal Discipline Strategies

Communicate and serve as a role model of acceptable behavior, recommends Health and Human Services. The agency advises parents to ask about the emotions that may have led to their behavior, and to allow children to give feedback on chores or schedules to inspire their involvement.

Caregivers should also use positive reinforcement, acknowledging when children act responsibly and focusing on the behavior they seek when intervention is needed. Parents may even allow children a degree of leniency (e.g., staying up late on a school night), to discuss the ramifications (fatigue in class). By remaining constructive and flexible, parents can provide spontaneous discipline that maintains the integrity and safety of the family.