Positive punishment is a form of behavior modification. In this case, the word “positive” doesn’t refer to something pleasant.

Positive punishment is adding something to the mix that will result in an unpleasant consequence. The goal is to decrease the likelihood that the unwanted behavior will happen again in the future.

This approach may be effective in certain circumstance, but it’s only one part of the equation. Guiding your child toward alternative behaviors that are more appropriate to the situation are also needed.

Let’s take a look at positive punishment and how it compares with negative punishment and positive and negative reinforcement.

All actions have consequences. Positive punishment can simply be a natural consequence of a certain action.

For example, if your child eats whipped cream that has spoiled because they hid it under their bed, they’ll get a stomachache. If they touch a hot stove, they’ll burn their hand.

These experiences are unpleasant at best. On the other hand, they serve as valuable teaching moments. Just as you would, a child might be inclined to alter their behavior to avoid the consequence.

When choosing a punishment, think about punishing the behavior, not the child. Punishment should be tailored to the child.

“Positive punishment is based on what’s aversive,” says Elizabeth Rossiaky, BCBA, clinic director at Westside Children’s Therapy in Frankfurt, Illinois. “What’s aversive for one might not be aversive for all.”

With that in mind, here are some examples of common positive punishments:

  • Scolding. Being reprimanded or lectured is something many children would like to avoid.
  • Hand slapping or grabbing. This may instinctively happen in the moment. You might lightly slap the hand of a child reaching for a pot of boiling water on the stove, or who’s pulling their sibling’s hair. You might forcefully grab or pull a child who’s about to run into traffic.
  • Writing. This method is often used in school. The child is obligated to write the same sentence over and over, or write an essay about their behavior.
  • Chores. Many parents add chores as a form of punishment. A child who scribbles on the wall or smears peanut butter all over the table might be forced to clean it up or perform other household tasks.
  • Rules. Few people crave more rules. For the child who frequently misbehaves, adding additional house rules might be incentive to change a behavior.

Most children instinctively understand the concept of positive punishment. Witness the toddler who ends a tantrum only when demands are met. The same thing can be observed happening among siblings.

Positive punishment can be effective when it immediately follows the unwanted behavior. It works best when applied consistently.

It’s also effective alongside other methods, such as positive reinforcement, so the child learns different behaviors.

One of the most contentious examples of positive punishment is spanking.

In a 2010 study, researchers argued that spanking can raise the risk of increasing aggressive behavior. It can send the message that aggression can resolve problems.

It may suppress some bad behavior without providing alternatives. Results may be temporary, with the unwanted behavior returning once the punishment is over.

A 2016 review of studies of 50 years of research suggests that the more you spank a child, the more likely they are to defy you. It may increase antisocial behavior and aggression. It may also contribute to cognitive and mental health problems.

“In general, positive punishment is the least preferred teaching method due to low generalization. But in a safety situation, it will be the most successful in maintaining safety,” Rossiaky says.

It teaches avoidance behavior but not replacement behavior, she explains.

“If you have to deliver the punishment multiple times, it’s not working. You may want to consider a different method. And you have to make sure punishment is not just to vent your own frustrations,” Rossiaky advises.

When it comes to spanking, hitting with a ruler, or other forms of physical punishment, they’re not recommended.

Rossiaky cautions that kids are pretty good at finding loopholes. They tend to find equally inappropriate behaviors unless you teach alternative ones.

In behavior modification, “positive” and “negative” don’t mean “good” or “bad.” It might help to think of them as “plus” or “minus”: Positive means you’re adding, and negative means you’re subtracting.

Punishment is used to discourage a certain behavior. Reinforcement is meant to encourage a particular behavior.

Positive punishment is when you add a consequence to unwanted behavior. You do this to make it less appealing.

An example of positive punishment is adding more chores to the list when your child neglects their responsibilities. The goal is to encourage your child to tackle their regular chores to avoid a growing chore list.

Negative punishment is when you take something away. An example of negative punishment is taking away your child’s favorite toy because they refuse to pick up after themselves.

The goal of negative punishment is to get your child to pick up after themselves to avoid having toys taken away. Timeout is also a form of negative punishment.

With negative reinforcement, you remove a stimulus with the goal of increasing an appropriate behavior.

For example, you consistently call your child back to the kitchen to clear the table and carry plates to the sink. In time, they learn to perform this action without prompting to avoid the inconvenience of being called back.

You might consider negative reinforcement a teaching tool rather than a method of punishment.

Rossiaky believes that, in general, reinforcement is preferable to punishment.

Positive punishment adds an undesirable consequence following an unwanted behavior. If you make your teen clean the garage because they blew curfew, that’s positive punishment.

Positive reinforcement is adding a reward when the child behaves well. If you give your child an allowance for performing certain chores, that’s positive reinforcement.

The goal is to increase the probability that they will continue the good behavior.

Early 20th-century psychologist B.F. Skinner is known for expanding on the theory of behaviorism. His focus on consequence manipulation is known as operant conditioning.

In a nutshell, operant conditioning revolves around teaching strategies. Positive and negative punishment are used to discourage inappropriate behaviors. Positive and negative reinforcement are used to encourage good behaviors.

Used together, these strategies are designed to help the child form associations between behaviors and the results of behaviors.

Positive punishment is a form of punishment in which you add something to the environment to deter a particular behavior.

On its own, positive punishment may not be a good long-term solution. It may be more effective when combined with positive and negative reinforcement.

Ultimately, strive to teach your child how to replace unwanted behaviors with more acceptable ones.