Does Health Psychology Relate to Fear and Discipline?

The way people discipline their children has long term emotional effects

There are many unhappy adults in this world, but the most unhappy ones are those that were frightened by a situation or an adult in their life when they were children. I am including all significant adult figures, parents, siblings, teachers, preachers and any significant figure that is associated with creating a traumatic event. These adults would undoubtedly call this behavior discipline, stating “I was only trying to teach them…..”

Adults who were treated badly as children often wisely choose safe and caring partners, but most find it hard to trust these partners even after many years of being treated well.  In the adult years the trust issues continue to exist.  It is no surprise that frightened or angry children become frightened or angry adults, just waiting for the next person (or event) to attack. We will now explore the basic connection between fear and discipline.

What is the Connection between Fear and Discipline?

by Marg

by Marg of flickr


Discipline instills fear which is a powerful and primitive human emotion as it alerts all of us to the presence of danger and was critical in keeping our ancestors alive.




Fear can be divided into two components, biochemical and emotional.

  1. The biochemical response to fear is universal to all of us, and happens when we are confronted by anticipated danger. Our bodies respond in distinct ways which include rapid heart rate, sweating, and increasing adrenaline levels. This biochemical reaction is likely to be an evolutionary development and is an automatic response that was crucial to our survival centuries ago.  This reaction is known as the fight or flight response, in which the body braces itself to enter into a fight mode or run away.
  2. The emotional reaction to fear is remarkably individualized. Although the physical reaction is the same, fear may be viewed as either positive or negative by a child. We all know people in our lives who are considered to be “adrenaline addicts” flourishing on extreme sports and other fear-inducing thrill environments. The repeated exposure to high risks situations leads to familiarity and it is called acclimation or adapting.  This acclimation greatly reduces both the fear response and the resulting elation. This adjustment to high levels of stress leads adrenaline junkies to seek out ever new and bigger thrills.  This can be a socially acceptable way to adapt to the fight response. Other people have an avoidance reaction to the sensation of fear, escaping fear-inducing environments at all costs and this is an example of the flight response.

The Adults Role in Relationship to Fear and Discipline

The role of the adult is NOT to control the child. Rather the role of the adult is to protect the child by keeping them safe, and, to prepare them for entering the adult world. Many would say that discipline has gone by the wayside in recent years.   However there are many ways to discipline a child and under no circumstance should this entail fear.   Discipline should only be used when the child understands it. In other words, children need to know what they did wrong, otherwise they are going to enter into the fight or flight mode, and they may not learn anything at all. Fear and trust are related. Where there is fear, there will be less trust. If adults want to create trust, then reducing fear is an important activity.

Take for example, the child who fails to look both ways before crossing the street, and the adult places the child in a time out, gave a firm warning saying that they might be hurt by a car, and explained how they did not want this to happen because they would feel sad.  This is something the child can understand, and they realize the importance of learning this behavior and how to prevent a time out.  The child also learns that the adult might be hurt.  And most if not all, very young children do not want to hurt the adults in their life.

But on the opposite end of the spectrum, if an adult were to hit or severely punish the child they would most certainly become fearful,  not understand, and attempt to learn all the ways to resist punishment.  The learning part about self-injury and how this would also hurt important figures is missing!   Looking both ways before crossing the street preventing potential injury is not in any child’s instinct, it has to be learned. Emotional abuse is commonly defined as the systematic tearing down of another human being. Like most forms of violence, emotional abuse is based on power and control over another person. It is probably the least understood type of abuse, although it is the most prevalent and most destructive. The victim or child in this example comes to view him or herself as being unworthy of love, respect and affection. And cannot trust.

Behaviors can be forced on a child, of course, but they will not understand why and they will just feel the fear of the discipline and want to learn how to cope with that fear, this is instinctual and has a physical component. A child matures during puberty, and if important adults terrified them into behaving, the serious behavioral and emotional problems will begin at this time. Often the severe emotional damage to abused children does not surface until adolescence or even later, when many abused children become abusing or fearful young adults.  Learning how to cope with the fear, may lead to resistance later on down in the child’s life, because now the child is big enough and mature enough to prevent, resist and protect. As adults the point is to teach the child something, but it is not to teach them how to cope with fear and how not to trust.  An adult who was abused as a child often has trouble establishing lasting and stable personal relationships. These men and women may have trouble with closeness, touching, intimacy, and trust, to name just a few.

by woodleywonderworks

by woodleywonderworks of flickr

Learning Lessons from Life

I would like to mention that there are real world consequences for every single behavior. And with that being the case, adults may not need to pay to much attention.   One example would be the typical bully situation. For instance if a young child is being a bully, he or she will discover at some point that they are disliked, and therefore undesirable. Having no friends in itself can be a punishment. The lessons learned from living will in fact work as long as adults do not try to teach their child through unnatural consequences (fear and abuse). Simply put, if a child is very young and being a bully, it is not wise to hit or instill fear in that child. Rather explain to him or her that no one will like them if these behaviors continue and, of course intervene if you witness the event, by removing them from the situation.

Fear and discipline only confuse the young child therefore; first look for the real world consequences.  When adults want to teach a child something, explain to them the reasoning in words that they can comprehend.  I have discussed a few ways adults can teach children how to learn and follow rules and do not want ignore the hundreds of other techniques.   However the purpose of this article is to discuss fear and discipline.  Scaring and hitting a child are two different behaviors, but they are both abusive and unnatural.  Remember frightened children will become the frightened adults who have great difficulty trusting others because they are in fear and waiting for the attack.  Do not use fear and discipline as a tool to get them to do what you want them to do because at this point you are being the bully, and severely damaging the ones we love.  This is the relationship between fear and discipline. Children will learn the lessons required to move into adulthood as long as we are there to offer our guidance.

If more adults only understood this concept, more children would become happy, emotionally healthy, respectable adults, and I would have less work! Health Psychology for Everyday Lifethe book.

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© Dr. Cheryl MacDonald

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Cheryl MacDonald, Psy’D.
Health Psychology of San Diego

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Cover Image: canstockphoto|xilius

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