My 8 year old step-son is still rather sensitive for his age, and sometimes takes being disciplined very hard. When he genuinely feels bad about something he's done wrong and we tell him off, he will sometimes "punish" himself by giving us his favourite toy, his latest dose of pocket money, or deciding not to go outside / to the next family outing because he "doesn't deserve it".

My response to this is always the same - I say

we have punished you for X by doing Y / have decided not to punish you, so it is dealt with. We decide what you don't deserve, and we haven't taken away Z so you keep it. I understand that you genuinely feel guilty about X, hopefully you will learn why you shouldn't do X in the future.

However his response is usually to insist to the point of dropping the item on the floor in front of me and running away to his room. Sometimes my response works but not all the time.

I understand this may come under normal behaviour but I wanted to know if my response here is the best I could be giving. I also have a (possibly unfounded) niggle that he is stepping on my toes as authority to punish is solely mine and my partner's.

How should I respond to a child attempting to punish themselves?

Edit: prompted by comments - "telling off" here means a lecture essentially - an explanation of what they did wrong, why it was wrong, how it made others feel, any consequences involved and what can be done to put it right.

We mostly use natural consequences as punishment, with occasional imposed ones such as grounding or taking away videogames, etc. We don't use corporal punishment.

  • 3
    It's not necessarily typical behavior, but it's not unique.
    – user11394
    Jul 17, 2015 at 17:38
  • @CreationEdge that is a good read, thanks for the link. Self-esteem is probably one of the reasons for this - his is quite low at times but he has been coming out his shell in the last couple of years. I'll look into ways I can help more with that.
    – nurgle
    Jul 17, 2015 at 17:57
  • Can you please expand on this? "When he genuinely feels bad about something he's done wrong and we tell him off..." Does he feel bad before you address it? What do you mean, exactly, by telling him off? In AmE, that's a phrase used to describe putting someone in their place in a somewhat harsh way. It might help to know what style of punishments you employ as well. It sounds like something is going on here for sure, but it's hard to determine what. They would require different approaches. Jul 17, 2015 at 18:43
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    @anongoodnurse my use of "telling off" is basically verbally discipline - explanation of what he did wrong, why, how it made others feel, and what he can do to put it right, along with whatever consequences there are. My usage might be local to where I am. In these instances I think he does feel bad before I address it - it's difficult to tell though, he can be blasé about other things even while / after we address it. Our style of punishment is mostly natural consequences, with some imposed ones (like no videogames for a day, etc). We rarely do more than that and don't use corporal punishment
    – nurgle
    Jul 17, 2015 at 18:55

3 Answers 3


The ultimate goal of any punishment or discipline method ought to be discouraging a repeat of that behavior in future. It sounds like he's more focused on the part where he's done wrong and deserves punishment — not making the next leap of logic to the part where he's learning from mistakes.

My daughter frequently sneaks junk food into her room late at night, and nearly as frequently gets caught (and gets in trouble). Once she came to me, very subdued, and handed me a list of escalating punishments that she thought would help discourage her in future. For the first infraction: No books for a week. No dessert for a week. Bedtime half hour earlier. For the second: Cut up library card. No dessert for a month. Bedtime one hour earlier.

We had a long, long talk about whether any of that would really help, or just stress her out and make her feel unappreciated (both emotional states that tend to trigger her junk food binges). It helped in a few ways:

  • coming up with some self-discipline ideas (talk to a parent or friend before you turn to the cookies)
  • coming up with ideas for realistic, proportional punishment (she has to buy a replacement food item, especially if she steals a sibling's treat, from her own money)
  • it helped her focus on the underlying cause of the problem (craving a quick way to feel happy)

The last was the most important part for her, in my opinion. It changed her outlook from "I'm a hopelessly bad girl who can't stop stealing candy bars" to more like "sugar is just a substitute for being happy" — this is something she can grapple with, unlike "hopelessly bad."

It sounds like you've already got a lot of building blocks for that (based on your comment that you provide "explanation of what he did wrong, why, how it made others feel, and what he can do to put it right"), but your step-son needs to be more engaged in the conversation and get to the point of self-analyzing.

At the same time, I think that concern over who makes the ultimate decision about a punishment is somewhat misplaced. It's legitimate to negotiate a punishment somewhat: more commonly the child declares something is totally unfair....

This is totally unfair!
What I'm trying to show you is that you did something really wrong. Do you have an alternative suggestion?
I should only lose computer time for a day, not a week!

And at this point I get a chance to calm down, reconsider, think about consequences and so on; was I overreacting out of anger, or am I justified? (Usually I was justified. Occasionally, not.)

But this can also go the other way as well.

I deserve to lose my favorite toy forever!
I get that you're feeling really guilty about this. I think that [our alternative] is a more proportional idea, though.
No, definitely take the toy.
I'm glad to see you feel bad, but will this really help you keep from doing X in the future? How?

And this should be his moment to calm down, think about it, and ask if that loss will really change things or it's just punishment for the sake of punishment.

This is something that is tough for kids to do when they're already upset, and he's also fairly young still. It's worth a shot, and he should get better at it over time.


I'm focusing on the concept of him stating "I don't deserve it" especially in an instance where the self-imposed punishment isn't directly related to the "crime" in question.

So far the only punishment I impose is to send my children to their room to figure out what they did wrong and then, after a short time, to apologize to me or their sibling for what they did.

Whenever I lose my temper and bark at one of them I'll be sure at some point in the day to tell them, perhaps when I put them to bed, that they should never imagine how I feel about them changes based on my mood and that even if I happen to be angry about a behavior at some point that I still and will always love them very much.

The reason I mention all this background is that the statement of not deserving a toy, or an allowance, suggests that for some reason there may be a reduction in self-value based on a mistake or lapse of judgment. If possible it would be nice to undo the loss of self-value as part of punishment.

If you run into an issue where different households have had different modes of discipline, then perhaps work to develop an understanding that "this is how we do things in this family" and perhaps keep it at that.

As you have suggested it does not seem clear that the self-punishment will have an impact on behavior any more than the understanding of the wrong itself and its impact on others would. You could express a positive opinion of the child and state that you are sure they understood what they did wrong and that you are confident that they have learned a lesson and will do better without the need for additional self-punishment.

If they insist on self-punishment, perhaps put what they gave up in an accessible place and tell them to retrieve it whenever they want to? This removes having you be involved, by them, in applying their self-imposed punishment.

Hopefully, this helps you develop comfort on their part that their worth, in your eyes, never changes with short term behavior. It expresses confidence in their ability to do the right thing and grow. And, potentially, it might work to insulate them from the impact of different disciplinary regimens whether ongoing or prior.

  • Good advice. Welcome to the site, btw. :) Jul 18, 2015 at 20:06

Discipline is tricky with sensitive children. On the one hand, you want to give negative feedback, in order to discourage the unwanted behavior in future; on the other hand, you don't want his self esteem to suffer. It can be helpful to make it clear that his behavior was bad, but he isn't bad -- and you still love him. If you notice that his self esteem is fragile, you may want to adjust the way you speak to him after an incident to be more gentle. It's possible that the words or the tone you or your partner sometimes use is overwhelming for him. You can figure out whether this is the case, if you watch for it.

If you notice that he has figured out what he did wrong, and regrets it, you can show him that you see that, and appreciate it. You might even be able to skip the scolding entirely, if you see that he really understands already.

When he chooses an additional consequence, as long as he's not questioning the consequence you determined, I don't think what he's doing amounts to questioning your authority. Would it feel okay to thank him for his expression of regret, and allow him to assign himself an additional consequence if he takes that initiative? With a sensitive child, it can be helpful to grab every chance you can to show him what a special person you find him to be.

A non-overwhelming consequence might be that the child doesn't get to come along to the grocery store (if that's something he enjoys), or to give him a couple of extra housework chores, etc.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that a sensitive child may beat himself up about his mistakes much more than any consequence you may apply. His attempt to apply an additional consequence of his own choosing might be a window into what's going on inside him.

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