Thursday, October 21, 2010

Strokes and discipline

From a child development workshop

Strokes and attachment are intimately related (of course). The quality, strength and psychological health of an attachment between mother and child is directly influenced by the types of strokes that are exchanged between them. As we know there are 4 types of strokes
Positive unconditional
Positive conditional
Negative conditional
Negative unconditional

Attachment and strokes

If mother (and to a lesser extent the child) is giving positive strokes to a child then the quality and strength of the attachment between them will increase as is shown in the diagram. When there is an exchange of negative strokes then the quality and health of the attachment decreases. Thus the quality of the attachment is directly influenced by the nature of the stroking patterns between mother and child.

When there is no exchange of strokes from mother to child there is a plateau effect initially as is shown in the diagram. The longer the period of no strokes continues then there is a decrease in the quality of attachment at an exponential rate. Initially it is nil, then slow and then fast as is shown in the graph.

When a parent disciplines a child it is giving the child a negative stroke. Discipline causes a child pain. If the transaction does not cause pain then it is not discipline but something else. As discipline is a negative stroke that means it will subtract from the quality and psychological health of the attachment with the child.


If in the past there has been a lot of positive strokes then the attachment quality will be high up on the graph. Thus the negative strokes from the discipline has minimal impact on the relationship quality between mother and child. If the attachment quality is already low on the graph then the discipline has a more devastating effect on the relationship.

Most parents who present with discipline problems with their children have an attachment quality that is already low on the graph. One sees endless books on the disciplining of children which discuss the different types and styles and the pros and cons of both. When I work with parents on discipline I am mostly looking at what they are doing when they are not disciplining the child. The most important part in disciplining a child is what you are doing when you are not disciplining it!

This may seem a little odd and parents at times find this hard to accept and will try to bring it back to how to discipline the child and see the non disciplining periods as inconsequential. However I would assert that if the attachment between mother and child is high up on the graph then discipline problems will be negligible or quite transitory.

Tough kid

Other points.
One negative strokes is five times more powerful than one positive stroke. If a parent gives one negative stroke to get the graph back to where it was prior to that the parent has to give five positive strokes.

This however is just a general rule of thumb. The negative relationship effects of negative stroking vary greatly depending on the type of negative stroke (discipline) given. However negative strokes are more powerful than positive strokes as described above.


Main types of discipline

1. Physical - Hit the child, bite child, pinch child, pulling hair.

2. Behavioural - Loss of privileges. This is the consequences of behaviour
approach. “If you don’t clean your room then no TV tonight”, “If you don’t get
home by 12 midnight then you are grounded”.

3. Emotional -
Anger at the child. All people have a natural aversion to anger because the
consequences of anger are never pleasant and can even be physically threatening.
“If you don’t get ready for school mummy will get angry”.
Withdrawal of love. Very powerful in changing behaviour. “If you draw on the
walls mummy wont love you any more”. Or the parent who gives the silent
treatment or the cold shoulder to the child who misbehaves.
Abandonment fear. Also a very powerful discipline technique. “If you don’t stop crying I will get a policeman to come and take you away”. Or the parent who simply walks away from a misbehaving child.
Shame. The cinderella of the destructive emotions. “You should be ashamed of
wetting your bed”. “I am going to tell your friends how horrible you are for
drawing on the walls.” A powerful form of discipline indeed



  1. What you give as examples of physical and emotional ways of disciplining is appalling to me; I understand that there are people who use it but how can someone use the friggin "withdrawal" or "abandonment" techniques? It's over my head :(

    After this "intro" I can tell you that I agree with this entry and it makes sense to me as a general model but there are situations I don't know what to think of. E.g. my daughter, 5, once was telling me about her kindergarten friend and she said something like "Her parents punish her sometimes like she is not allowed to watch Tom and Jerry for a whole week. You can use such punishment on me, too." It seemed to me like she had to few negative strokes, or maybe she wanted to somehow get on par with her friend, and she was encouraging me "c'mon old man, don't be shy and give me some punishment". So I can guess that disciplinig her at that moment would be a positive stroke? haha :)

    And one more thing I am curious of your comment - she sometimes says things like "do as I wish (give me a candy, let me stay up etc.) or else I don't do you a favor (teach you a new song, draw a princess for you)".
    I don't want to either yield nor say "your offer/threat doesn't mean much to me" - so what in your opinion would be close to optimal way of dealing with this?


  2. Hi Zbig,

    I agree withdrawl and abandonment are damaging techniques of discipline to use but they work so I guess they will continue to be.

    Your little 5 year old sounds like quite a little negotiator. She may do well in the commericial world when she grows up.

    She makes an offer, "You do "A" and I will do "B".

    Come back with a counter offer and test her negotiation skills

    Zbig - "I will do A & C if you do B & D".



  3. Hi Graffiti,

    Popping by for my usual friday eve hello.

    Your post makes sense to me. I am guessing that you can probably guess from the style of disciplining what the quality and quantity of positive strokes are going to be from most of the parents.


  4. I wondered if you would drop in this Friday Kahless after a Bacardi or two.

    I some the fans threatened to kill Wayne Rooney if he transfered clubs! These people must take there footy seriously!!


  5. Yes, a mob stopped by his home. It would have depended what club he joined. A rival is a big no no. That's like betraying your country. All academic as he signed a new 5 year deal at united.
    I think you should go to a derby footie match in the uk one day. You'd love the transactions.


  6. > Come back with a counter offer and test her
    > negotiation skills

    Zbig - "I will do A & C if you do B & D".

    cool :)
    will give it a try when an opportunity comes :)

    and now for something completely different: I'd like to know what's your take on superstitions? I got an impression they mask something (what?) in people.