Punish Bad Behavior? (Old Psychology)

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Last week, I hosted an interview on Tools to Equip Parents & Support Healing in Children.

My conversation with Melissa Wetterlund, MA, LP, LMFT, RPT-S was fabulous but sadly the recording didn’t take. 

If you are looking for information on what works – and what doesn’t – in the family services field, here’s a written version of our discussion.  

[Samantha asked the Q’s.  Melissa provided the A’s.] 

Q: How did you start in your field? 

& A: I started as a marriage and family therapist with phenomenal, caring mentors but they really didn’t know how to directly work with and support the little people within a family system. 

Q: What were traditional ways of thinking that you noticed didn’t work for families? 

& A: Old psychology!  The belief that if we punish a behavior, it gets smaller and when we reinforce a behavior it gets bigger.  Therefore, I learned “don’t reinforce bad behavior” by giving it attention.  Do not nurture a child who is having a tantrum. 

Samantha: Yikes, so do not seek what is beneath the behavior.  Just punish it or ignore the child.  This is obviously not a brain-based or trauma-informed approach to present-day situations of children. 

Q: What did you do about this problematic framework? 

& A: I thoroughly studied the power of play and how to engage children in a way that gives their big feelings a voice and action.  Play allows kiddos to first tell the story as it did happen (the trauma) and then to tell/demonstrate the story that they wish would have happened.  In the new ending they get to activate the protective response that never got to happen originally. 

Q: So, in play therapy, a child has permission to act how they feel deep down without fear of punishment? 

& A:  Exactly. As they work to externalize their fight or flight they can do so with very few limits.  They often demolish, destroy, kill, and attack in the playroom and they are allowed to do so in almost any way their body needs to.  Their everyday behavior changes after getting to do this repeatedly over time that we work together.  That repetition discharges the inhibited fight or flight response and heals their nervous system.  I get to create the space to work on healing a child’s nervous system and their heart. 

Q: What is the process like for the parents? 

& A:  Well, a child’s everyday behaviors get worse before they get better because we’re tapping into their fight response.  It’s a healthier state than inhibition/repression because children are empowered to feel their feelings.  My work with parents is supporting them with skills to cope with the day-to-day behavioral stuff.  I teach them:

  1. Behavior is how a child expresses pain/needs- not manipulation or them being a butthead.
  2. The importance of grounding themselves during their kiddos' pain and behavior.
  3. To validate and reflect children’s emotions and pain.
  4. How to co-regulate and help discharge nervous system energy (fight or flight response) appropriately at home. 

Q: I know you’re passionate about helping children heal.  Is there anything about play therapy that doesn’t work so well…? 

& A:  I developed the Bethel play therapy certificate and I train and supervise lots of others – so obviously I love the field.  When a therapist understands kiddos in the way I described above, I get to see light bulbs going off.  Therapists who have been striving to create change for a very long time see HUGE change when they learn play-based and trauma-informed techniques.  But when it comes to our work with parents, our field isn’t set up to do in-depth work with parents.  We meet with parents once a month but it’s not enough to deep-dive into their whole parenting approach.  We give parents a report on what’s unfolding and do our best to offer tips but we aren’t taught about the framework you have for partner with parents and guiding them step-by-step.  

Q: What’s your next undertaking? 

& AI love this parent stuff so much that I’m also moving into Mad to Glad Parent Coaching as well.  Getting to work with parents who expect change – in their approach -- and are voluntarily enrolling themselves excites me! 

Samantha: Knowing how to articulate what’s happening beneath a child’s behavior and mapping out specific tools parents can implement to create more peace at home is the greatest joy of my work as a Certified Parent Coach. 

I whole-heartedly believe in collaboration between fields -- when both children and parents have a skilled professional to support their journey and their healing … with practical tools … progress and contentment begins shining through. 

If you are a Play Therapist or family professional, I want to invite you to my next online training (with CEUs!!). 

Click image for full details.  Save $20 with coupon CESAVE20

I hope you join us! 




Samantha Moe, M.A. SLP
Certified Parent Coach
Creator, Mad to Glad Blueprint ™
Professional training to support intense kids and their families


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P.S. If you want a guided framework to simplify conversations with parents you should join my June 24 live, online class (with a certificate to submit for CEs).  You’ll learn how to talk about children’s behaviors and what parents can do differently – in a way that creates partnerships.  No more worrying about stepping on toes or offending!  RSVP here

P.P.S. Remember to enter CESAVE20 for a $20 coupon!

Continuing education, advanced training, and parent coach certification for professionals who support intense kids and their families. View my mental health Ted Talk on helping families heal from stress here.