Twerking Pre-Teen’s Public Punishment: Why It May Backfire

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It was one thing for Miley Cyrus to do it on national television, but a California mom warned her daughter before a school dance that it wasn’t okay for the 11-year old.

When Frances Hena learned that her daughter had defied her and twerked anyway, she punished her pre-teen with a two-hour stint at a busy intersection wearing a sign that read ‘I was disrespecting my parents by twerking at a school dance.’

While the woman wanted to embarrass her daughter into realizing that twerking was not acceptable, she told ABC News that she also hoped the public exposure of her daughter’s scolding would deter other young children from doing the suggestive dance moves.

But the humiliating punishment is drawing as much attention and controversy as Cyrus’ performance. While some parents supported her unusual strategy, child development experts say that such punishments are inappropriate and likely to backfire.

Studies consistently show, for example, that children whose parents used humiliation to discipline them grew up to be less confident and more prone to mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.  And shaming connected with an issue related to sexuality — liking making your daughter stand in public with a sign related to a racy dance move — may lead to even more damaging effects.  While repeated and blatant humiliation is the most dangerous, experts say that even rare or minor humiliations can do harm.

“Unequivocally, it’s a bad thing  to do and certainly has negative long term consequences,” says Dr. Claudia Gold, who runs the early childhood social and emotional health program at Newton Wellesley hospital in Massachusetts.

According to a recent study, children who had parents with restrictive parenting styles and were shamed into submission were less able to resist temptation in lab-based tests — and presumably that could translate into less self-control with regard to food, alcohol and other drugs in real life as adults.

MORE: Being Ashamed of Drinking Prompts Relapse, Not Recovery

Other research found that when it comes to dieting and addictive behavior, shaming doesn’t deter or alter people’s actions. Alcoholics who displayed more shame about drinking, for example, were more likely to relapse. Other research documented similar effects related to embarrassment- or humiliation-based strategies for helping obese people to avoid overeating.

Gold doesn’t question Hena’s concern for her child, but worries that the scolding might actually lead her daughter to rebel more: “The mother was probably terrified that something was going to happen to her child because she was doing this sexualized [dance],” she says. “But then she unwittingly  goes and does exactly the kind of thing that will cause [more of] that kind of behavior.”

By shaming children, Gold says, parents tend to trigger a sense of despair and a feeling that they are already immutably damaged. Instead, parents can establish structure and enforce rules by using predictable and proportionate consequences for breaking those rules. Most important, mom and dad should explain why such behavior is inappropriate and by discussing these issues, model the type of mutually respectful relationships they want their children to have.  Embarrassing children may not be the best way to keep them from embarrassing themselves later.