Going Postal: The Common Denominator

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The common denominator in cases of people “losing it” suggests that something may be amiss in in our understanding of the role and value of punishment when attempting to instill discipline in our children.

It seems every week we’re confronted with another shocking example of someone “going postal.” The term derives from a rash of violent shootings by disgruntled, stressed-out post office workers in the 70s, 80s and early 90s. From the most recent Navy Yard shooter to the teen who stabbed several classmates at his school, to the athlete who, acting “on instinct,” (see “A “Sportsman’s Instinct””) unleashed a barrage of bullets that killed his girlfriend, folks seem simply unable to restrain themselves when stressed. Instead, they “lose it” and unleash unspeakable horror on the unsuspecting. While there are many theories about what might drive a person to commit such horrific acts, there’s one common denominator in all of them: the person lacks the internal controls necessary to modulate their anger and rage and allow them to deal with their conflicts in a more rational, non-destructive way. This prompts the question of why so many people these days appear to have failed to develop such controls. Even normally well-adjusted appearing folks seem to be buckling under pressure and going berserk when stressed enough. All this suggests at least the possibility that something is amiss in the ways we’re attempting to instill discipline in our children.

Acquiring self-control is one of the primary goals of of discipline. In recent years, several more “enlightened” approaches to this age-old task have been promoted that advocate the use of “teachable moments” about consequences as opposed to punishment and “providing attractive alternatives” as opposed to both issuing and enforcing a simple “no.” All of this sounds almost poetically beautiful in theory. On the surface, it certainly seems an advance over merely whipping a child any time he or she does something that might annoy. But it seems quite possible that we’re still missing the mark when it comes to equipping our young folks with the internal resources they need to accommodate life’s many irritations and disappointments and to manage both their emotions and their impulses in an effective manner when stresses mount.

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All too many times I’ve seen the weaknesses in what I will call (for lack of a better term) the “new discipline.” I’ve consulted to classrooms and other venues where the children initially impress as being extremely mature and well-managed — that is, of course, until something really stressful happens to a child and they have a total “meltdown.” It’s something akin to a total systems failure or breakdown. Everything is going along beautifully and then something “snaps” inside (or, more accurately, an already tenuous but unknown restraint gives way), and then all hell breaks loose. The aftermath is often as tragic for the child who lost control it as it is for all those who happened to be adversely affected in some way.

I’ve made the point before that socialization is a process (see “Disturbances of Character, Part 2: Socialization is a Process”). Some individuals, because of certain predominant traits in their personality structure, present a greater challenge when it comes to the process of socialization. Some have strong aggressive predispositions and are prone to resisting society’s attempts to socialize them. They fight the process that leads to the internalization of controls. Others have a diminished capacity to inhibit their impulses, so acquiring the internal “brakes” necessary to modulate their behavior is a most arduous task. And of course, discipline becomes particularly challenging when a person is both aggressively inclined and lacking in inhibitory capacity.

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It’s quite possible that a major shortcoming of the new discipline is the perspective it offers on both the role and value of punishment. It’s no secret that reinforcement is a much more effective motivator than punishment. So it’s not surprising that the use of both positive reinforcement (making something desirable contingent upon behavior) and negative reinforcement (removing something desirable — especially in the form of “time-outs”) has become the more prevalent form of discipline. But the now popular notion that punishment has no value whatsoever is, I think, erroneous and based largely upon misunderstanding. True, the dangers of harsh corporal punishment have been fairly well established by ample research. But punishment, not necessarily of the physical variety, does have some power to inhibit behavior, so it has value, especially when used as a shaping tool early on in development when all-important neuronal connections are being made in a child’s frontal cortex. The real problem with punishment stems from the fact that for it to be truly effective, certain conditions have to be met, conditions that are rarely, if ever, heeded in common practice.

The effectiveness of punishment depends on two characteristics:

Immediacy of consequence is the key factor in establishing inhibition, with the optimal time interval between behavior and consequence being a mere one-half second.
The child has to know that any time, any place, in a wide variety of similar circumstances, an adverse consequence will reliably follow the commission of an undesirable action and be of sufficient adverse nature to deter.

Whatever the punishment is, it must be of a character to make the person really think twice before doing what they might be sorely tempted to do. Therein lies the rub. It doesn’t take much honest reflection on the ways in which society typically punishes to realize how miserably we fail when it comes to utilizing this form of discipline. This failure only reinforces the notion that punishment is worthless, which is perhaps a major reason we’ve largely abandoned it in our more popular rearing methods.

I think we also err when we think teachable moments are sufficient to adequately guide and control behavior. Sure, it’s great when a young person can come to “see” and appreciate the natural and logical consequences of dysfunctional behavior, but there are times and circumstances (and most especially certain ages) in which reasoning is both relatively impossible and futile. Sometimes, “No!” must simply be the answer, and in some instances, it’s essential for a person to accept a “no” without question. I’m well aware of how much debate there is about this issue, but my experience has taught me that embracing a “no” and fully submitting oneself to it establishes an internal boundary of sorts — a line that’s not likely to be crossed during later times of temptation.

Now I’m not at all advocating that we simply return to the days of whipping kids into shape. Far from it. But I am making a case that there’s likely to be something significantly inadequate about our current yet widely accepted practices of discipline, so I think we need to give them greater unbiased scrutiny. In the end, even the most pleasant, well-behaved child can become a serious nightmare if they suddenly “go postal.” Without the power to instill both the resources and the controls necessary to cope effectively with stress in the brains of our children, no method of discipline — however wonderful an advance it might seem over the methods of old — merits our blind endorsement.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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