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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Putting "Nasty Tastes" in Child's Mouth: A Charming Idea, I'm Told

Well, gentle readers (and belligerent readers too), there’s just no telling what you’ll find in your morning’s e-mail, is there? This morning I received this link:  It was sent by one Debbie Denard, who said she thought my readers and I might find it “charming”.

The post is just exactly what it says. It recommends the use of lemon juice, vinegar, Tabasco sauce, soap, pepper, and other substances, inserted into a child’s mouth as punishment (not discipline) for thumbsucking, nail-biting, biting other people, and general disobedience. The author notes that some people think “hot-saucing” with Tabasco is child abuse, but she thinks it’s okay if you don’t do it “too often” or with “too much” hot sauce (appropriate frequency and amounts undefined). She also refers to the use of most of the items as addressing biting or “bad word” problems, but Tabasco as a general treatment for disobedience. She believes such treatment is a better idea than spanking.

Guess what. There are few things I find more un-charming than this kind of advice being given in cold blood and the apparent conviction that these are normal and desirable ways to treat children.

I don’t deny that people--  even those who ought to know better—use these methods. The day care center at a Pittsburgh area YMCA was investigated a few years ago because staff had punished young children by putting alum powder in their mouths ( In addition to using hot sauce or similar noxious substances, others have forced children to eat or drink as a punishment for disobedience--  a box of Oreo cookies coated with hot sauce, or a large amount of water, the latter of which figured in the death of Cassandra Killpack in Utah some years ago. (Cassandra was receiving Attachment Therapy, by the way, and this method was said to have been advised by her therapist).

I do say, however, that it’s time to stop these dangerous and ineffective practices, and especially to stop suggesting them to people looking for advice on line. (Ms. Denard, I’m talking to you.)

Why stop? Why is this method worse than spanking with the bare hand, which I’ve argued is not necessarily the root of all evil?

Here are some reasons:

  1. You might be able to slip something noxious into the child’s mouth the first time without resistance, but after that it will take a fight to accomplish. That means that there are in fact two major parts to this action: the child’s fear and distress when driven to fight back against an adult attack, and the real discomfort caused by the substance. Both parties become angrier and more distressed as the struggle goes on, and as feelings run higher neither will be able to focus on what is being taught or learned. (Note the post author’s glee over the fact that putting pepper on top of lemon juice makes it very hard to get free of the pepper.) Or is the idea that one person will hold the child while the other puts the hot sauce in? Yet, you know, I’ll bet many people who do this consider themselves authoritative rather than authoritarian.
  2. Adults like a bit of hot sauce with food, and some even make it a bit of a contest who can eat the hottest food. But the fact is that a little hot sauce with food is interesting because it gives a sort of controlled burn. The undiluted sauce on a child’s tender mouth and tongue causes actual burns, which will take a while to heal. And, what would you think would be the result if a thrashing child inhaled some of this stuff? This is not just an unpleasant taste.
  3. Are bad words really so bad that pain is necessary to stop their use? And can’t you think of any other method?  Children use “bad words” as imitation of adults, because they’ve never been instructed about what words to use and when, or because they don’t have vocabularies to express themselves. You can work on all those without putting soap in their mouths.
  4. When the post author recommends “nasty tastes” for biting other people, the implication is that the children are toddlers or young preschoolers. At that age, children bite out of frustration and the lack of social skills to work out conflicts with other children. Guide them to use words and take turns, and watch carefully so you can intervene before tempers get to the biting stage; you’ll see that biting incidents diminish. If the child is older than preschool age and has some handicapping condition, the same suggestions apply. If  the child is older and has no physical handicaps, but still bites people, there may be a need for psychological or psychiatric care.
  5. The post also recommends “nasty tastes” for thumbsucking. Until the permanent teeth come in, thumbsucking is not a problem. When they do come in, and if they are being distorted by the pressure, dentists can provide a device that breaks the suction and takes the “oomph” out of thumbsucking, usually to the gratification of the child, who would like to stop.
  6. A general issue about the use of punishment is that when caregivers see that their punishment is unsuccessful in changing behavior, they often can think of nothing but how to escalate the punishment. This is highly counter-productive. For both punishments and rewards, the best learning occurs with small doses. Intense punishments cause so much anger, fear, and distress that the child’s ability to learn is lessened, and he or she remembers the bad experience--  but not the desired behavior change.
  7. A final point: are you going to be the person to give the child medicine? How easy do you think that will be when you’ve taught her to associate you with painful and scary attacks on her mouth?

No, charmed I’m not. And I hope that people training to be nannies are not taking this kind of advice from


  1. Let us not forget the "Hot Sauce Mom" who was convicted of child abuse.

  2. I thought nasty tasting things where used to prevent thumbsucking or biting nails, by being put on the children's fingers so they'd taste something they don't like and thus stop putting their fingers in their mouths... using that as a punishment is somewhat bizarre. Is perhaps this more "sophisticated" method chosen so the parent doesn't feel guilty about spanking? Because the article says "it’s a better tactic than hitting your child". So hitting a child=bad, putting soap in a child's mouth=acceptable. It seems like it might be really a matter of perception.

  3. By "a matter of perception", do you mean that there's no good reason to choose one over the other? I don't think that's quite true here, for the reasons I outlined in my post (and in previous posts about spanking).

    Also, are you saying that giving nasty tastes to stop nailbiting etc. is not punishment? Surely punishment is the administration of any noxious or painful experience following an unwanted behavior, with the purpose of reducing the frequency of that behavior? Nailbiting etc. are unwanted behaviors; the bitter paint gives an unpleasant experience; the goal is to reduce nailbiting. Are the two things then different?

    Or do you mean that in your opinion punishment is used for some other purpose? Or that punishment is in some way caused more directly by the adult? You may want to read more of what has been written on this subject.

  4. I would say the two things are different. The idea of the nasty taste on the nail is old-fashioned aversion therapy. The point is to make nail-biting no longer pleasurable.

    Regarding the matter of perception - presumably this is the perception of the punisher. The adult can pretend to themselves that they are not in fact assaulting the child because they are causing pain with substances that burn rather than striking a blow. From the childs point of view it may well feel even more intrusive and assaultative than a slap on the leg or something.

  5. Presumably aversion therapy begins with the same pattern as punishment, and the child can avoid the unpleasant experience afterwards in the same way he can avoid being punished-- by not doing the unwanted action. The big difference with the nail-painting seems to be that no one needs to be directly involved in causing the experience at the time when it actually occurs, and therefore it doesn't make any difference whether anyone notices, or is too busy to act, or is just in the mood to cut the child a little slack. But some aversion therapies do involve monitoring and implementation by a human being.

    The difference between punishment and aversion therapy would probably be more obvious if we were talking about punishing someone for something he did NOT do.

    But I think your point about why these "nasty taste" methods are rewarding to the parent is very well taken. Probably no parent has been completely above a sense of inner satisfaction when they've told and told a child, "don't do that, you'll get hurt" and the child does it and gets slightly hurt! Tipping the chairs backward at the dinner table (until they fall over)is a case in point. Parents using anti-nail-biting stuff may feel the same, and as far as I know it's not really harmful. The use of Tabasco and so on is quite a different matter, is potentially harmful, and doesn't happen without the direct intervention of the adult, so it may take some self-argument of the kind you've outlined to make it seem all right to do this.

  6. Yes indeed, I meant the perception of the punisher. Because spanking is less and less tolerated nowadays, to some hitting a child could be seen as an abuse while using nasty tasting things would be considered an acceptable method, even when more dangerous than a mere spanking.

  7. Since when is giving someone vinegar in any way hurting them. If you do your research you will see that vinegar has many healthy benefits to them. Giving it as a consequence is a deterrent. While I agree with spanking too, does this not hurt? The idea is not to hurt but to teach that for a bad choice comes a consequence. You may think that taking away a little tv time will do the trick but you have to consider the situation. Any kind of punishment is wrong if not done with love. If any of these are done out of anger then they are wrong.

    1. Adam-- In the next few days, I am going to write a post addressing your comments.