What's the Difference between Discipline, and Abuse?

Written by
Michael Wells

What's the Difference between Discipline, and Abuse?

Written by
Michael Wells

What's the Difference between Discipline, and Abuse?

Written by
Michael Wells

Today I responded to this question on Quora.

Where is the line drawn between discipline and abuse? My mother and father strangled me, pulled my hair and kicked me while I was down, they say they are disciplining me, are they?

... Holy crap.

Definitely abuse - zero question whatsoever.

But for a lot of parents, understanding where that line is can be confusing. How much is not enough? How much is too much? What kinds of discipline are effective? What kinds are not?

Let's review the basics.

Discipline 101

The idea of disciplining a child, even harsh discipline, is to create a consequence which is less appealing than the offense.

The parent is trying to create a useful psychological association for the child- if I do X, then Y will happen, and Y is worse than X.

So, a small child steals a cookie, and (yum) that has obvious “win” attached. But the kid happens to be diabetic, so this is actually dangerous- and the parents decide that strict discipline is necessary to protect their child.

They quarantine their child’s favorite toy for several days, and they help the child find an alternative, safe favorite snack. Maybe they keep some dried fruit handy. 

Good discipline achieved.

They’ve created a reasonable, non harmful consequence that the child understands and can attach to the act. The child can learn that if they steal a cookie again, bye buy to their favorite toy. 

And the parents have presented an alternative, so the kid has a different way to react more positively to that dopamine cookie-craving.

Here’s the Key

All good parental discipline is an expression of love. 

It’s 100% about improving the life, the mental strength, and future of that child. It is never about retribution, anger, resentment, harm, or pain.

Abuse is exactly the opposite. 

It has zero to do with improving the life of the child, and is 100% because the abuser can’t control their own own mind and emotions, and they then go on a wicked power trip.

The Society Factor

To this I want to add one thing-

Culture and social influence are a very powerful modifier in human psychology. 

Depending on what culture you’re from, both at the macro-level (society), and at the micro-level (family & partner), parents may feel that abusive discipline is expected and required of them by their society, partner, parents, or peers.

This is definitely not a justification for abuse. But it's a factor worth understanding when you meet an abusive person. Social context is an aspect of free-will that needs to be considered in each person's behavior. 

If you have abusive people in your world, then maybe you’re in the wrong society, for your personal values. Or maybe it’s just the wrong family.

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Does Time Heal All Wounds?

I used to think so, but... it seems time doesn't help as much as you'd expect with mental trauma.

Except when you die, of course, we assume.

I recently coached a man who was still missing his girlfriend from high school. They dated for only 2 months. He last saw her 34 years ago, and has not had contact with her since. 34 years... mind-blowing.

The mind reinforces what you choose to think about consciously, and it surfaces memories and imagery attached to what it wants & needs emotionally.

When you experience trauma, I see people heal much faster and more completely if they approach it the same as, say, a broken leg. Get it set right, attended too, care for it. Don't walk on it for awhile, then once it's sound, re-strengthen it and rebuild the muscles with exercise. Done right, it will be stronger than it was before it was broken.