How to Use Consequences

“She doesn’t care!” That was the main problem presented to me by one of my clients. We’ll call her Jane.

“When I speak, she doesn’t care. It’s like talking to a wall unless I’m up close and yelling. That’s when she finally does what I ask her to do”, Jane told me.

Of the many concerns that Jane had, the biggest one was the relationship between her and her daughter. Jane feared that if things continued this way, the relationship with her daughter would continue to be strained for years to come. This is not at all what she had envisioned for her and her daughter. Jane was searching for answers and was relieved to hear that she could start making changes right away to turn her daughter’s disrespectful and defiant behavior around.

The fastest and easiest way that Jane saw changes is when she had a calm conversation with her daughter. When they were speaking, Jane started to use eye contact and there were no other distractions. Jane and I outlined key talking points for the conversation such as behavior expectations and what would result based on her daughter’s choices. Those results are what we are going to refer to as consequences.

Consequences are truly a delicate topic to explore. I think that it is because many people think of consequences as punishment. However, this isn’t entirely accurate. Consequence occur as a result of any action (positive or negative) and are most effective when given immediately and consistently after a behavior occurs.

Types of Consequences

The following are three consequences that work together to create positive learning experiences:

  1. Natural
  2. Positive
  3. Negative

We all earn natural, positive and negative consequences each day. For adults these are generally handed to us in the form of natural consequences (things that happen naturally as a direct result of our actions such as getting a cavity because we didn’t floss. No one gives you that consequence, it just happens.), or by an authority figure such as our boss (could be positive or negative).

Natural consequences are automatically part of positive and effective discipline. They occur without your intervention. For example, if your children do not eat breakfast they will be hungry before lunch. If they refuse to wear a heavy coat when it is cold outside, they will be cold. If children run in flip-flops, they might fall and get hurt. These are considered natural consequences because the consequence happens on its own without you having to give a consequence.

Natural consequences are truly the most effective way of learning because it happens all on its own. You however, are there to be the hero who reflects on the situation with your child, to give plenty of praise for a job well done or to plan for a different outcome in the future. This is an example of a perfect system. So perhaps your child will wear their coat tomorrow, right??

But what do you do when it is not perfect? Is that even possible when using natural consequences? It all seems to make sense and flow easily. However, we know that learning doesn’t only consist of natural consequences. You will need to use positive and negative consequences as the basis to your family’s behavior plans and as a compliment to the natural consequences that occur.

Positive consequences result from your children obeying your requests, rules and expectations. Creating and using positive consequences are fun for everyone. You and your children should sit down together in order to talk about their interests and to decide what they would like to work toward. Including them in this process gives them motivation to do well since earning the chosen rewards will contain many of their ideas.

Be aware that kids commonly ask for tangible things like toys or other items. These are fine things to work toward; however, if you choose to have other options available I encourage you to think outside of the box and offer things like an extra snack, a sleep over with a friend, extra television or video game time, no chores for two days and so on. These examples are what are considered non-tangible incentives. Check out our list of positive consequences!

Write the agreed upon rewards down in a behavior plan that includes what expectations need to be met in order to earn the rewards. You can use a charting system, a journal, or whatever works best for your children. Whatever you two decide, they need to be able to refer back to what they are working toward and what they need to do in order to earn their positive consequences.

I want you to know that for children who strive and succeed in making positive choices each day, they are exposed to many positive consequences. This is wonderful news for them and for you. These are the children who have a secure self-esteem and who are confident in their choices. These children typically do not need to resort to misbehavior in an attempt to get their needs and wants met. Positive consequences such as verbal praise, privileges, freedoms, treats, prizes, and so on come frequently enough that they have a clear understanding and motivation to make positive choices. What a fantastic place to be!

Negative consequences occur in response to your children misbehaving. Just as was the case with positive consequences, you need to have negative consequences pre-established within your children’s plan prior to using them when possible. Make the negative consequence fit the misbehavior. In other words, use a consequence that is related to the behavior that you are trying to change.

For example, if your child knows that they will serve a time-out and will need to write an apology letter for pushing a sibling, they will be less likely to push because that they know what the consequences will be. This will be true ONLY if you follow through on the consequences every time the pushing occurs. As an added bonus, serving a time-out allows your child to be removed from the situation in order to make a plan with you for better behavior choices in the future. Check out our list of negative consequences!

Important: NEVER, EVER give a negative consequence that includes you hitting or name calling. These behaviors serve as an unintended teaching tool. Unfortunately, this teaching is the opposite of what we are going for here. Let me explain: if you use hitting, yelling, or name calling to address your child’s misbehavior, they will likely follow your example to hit, yell and call others names to solve their problems. Your children learn that these are acceptable behaviors because they are following your example.

This is bad news all around!

The Secret Ingredients

By far, the best way to use consequences requires you to be timely, consistent, and to hand over some control to your child. Does that sound scary to anyone? Stick with me on this one…

Timely. The minute you child’s actions could result in a consequence, give it. The sooner the better!

Consistent. Use consequences every time your child’s actions deserve it (positive and negative).

Control. Teach your child that they are in charge of themselves. Help them understand that the choices they make are connected to consequences. It is not you as the parent who make consequences a reality, it is solely your child’s actions that dictate what consequences will be experienced. Ultimately, your goal is to help your children see the connection between making positive choices in order to get what they need and want.

When your children are able to admit that they have made poor choices and state that they need to make changes, they have taken a HUGE step in the right direction. When this happens, you should feel incredibly proud of your children. If they have not yet come to this realization, it is okay. Continue to support them in recognizing that they are in control of their choices and of the resulting consequences.

Regardless of your children’s level of understanding of this concept; the best thing you can do is to remind them of their choices and show them how their actions and consequences are related at every opportunity.

The most common question…

Over the years my clients, including Jane, have asked me questions about how to best use consequences. Probably one of the most common questions that I have received has been about giving warnings. Should warnings be given when my child is misbehaving? My answer: That depends. Specific, I know…..haha!

Let me explain:

For misbehaviors that have to do with violence or safety I recommend that no warnings be given. For my kids, an immediate negative consequence is given if they hit each other. Although it doesn’t happen often, they know that they immediately go to time out and must apologize for their actions. No questions asked.

For most other behaviors such as Jane’s concerns of her daughter not listening and showing respect, I believe that it is okay to give one warning or reminder of what is expected and what might happen if the behavior isn’t corrected. Any more than that is too much. More than one warning sends the message that your child really doesn’t have to listen the first, second, or even third time you remind them.

This is where it gets ugly….

When this happens I know that most of us (myself included) are losing our cool and our children are still being non-responsive to our request.  So frustrating….

My hope is that it helps to know that this ongoing defiance isn’t necessarily being done on purpose. Rather, your children are more likely to have gotten used to receiving several warnings which is creating their choice of non-compliance to continue. We call this learned behavior. Jane was in this situation and so was I until I made changes in my home!

Read on…

A bit on learned behavior….

Learned behavior is serving a need or a want for your children. This need/want is likely being reinforced by YOUR behavioral reactions. For example, if your children frustrate you to the point of yelling at them, they may have met their need for your attention. If you go to the store without them because they refused to get ready, they may have met their desire to stay home.

For Jane, we discovered that her daughter was content having screen time and didn’t want to stop. 

Each child has a unique set of preferences that they crave in order to meet their need and wants. These could be preferences for attention, escape from chores, or continuing with play time. During the times that Jane gave up trying to get her daughter to comply with her requests, her daughter’s behavior was reinforced because she got to keep playing her screen. Of course once Jane become timely, immediate, and gave some control to her daughter; things got better and the misbehaviors dramatically improved! In fact, her daughter was able to earn screen time as a positive consequence. Brilliant!

This isn’t just great news for Jane; you too can reinforce desirable behavior and decrease your children’s misbehavior. Truly, this is great news for us all.

*Sometimes it is helpful to remember that humans are motivated to do things their way. If you can use incentives unique to your child, you can encourage them to achieve the results that they (and you) are looking for.*

The Second Most Common Question…

On the surface of wanting quick changes, parents want to know what to do in the moment of misbehavior and how to make positive choices more and more common. Because this the main goal of many of the families I work with, my desire is to elaborate on this even more.

So here it is, “Now that consequences have helped my child to improve their behaviors, how can we make sure this last?” Such a great and necessary question!

Just as Jane found out, her daughter needed to learn more than just what would happen based on her behavior choices. She needed to learn how to use problem-solving and coping skills to find the most success.

The best way to make this a reality for your child is to work with them to review and update their positive incentives (a.k.a. positive consequences), and appropriate negative consequences.  Then tie consequences into replacing your child’s need to tantrum by giving them incentives to use their new skills.

But wait…

Take note – Take the time to teach your children the skills that you expect of them. For example: teach them how to take deep breaths, show them how to use their words to solve problems, and practice walking away from a stressful situation. Once these skills are learned, encourage your children to continue using them regularly by being a positive example, regularly practicing the skills with your children, and giving positive consequences!

Take a 2nd note – Negative consequences can be given for failure to use these skills only after they have been learned, practiced, and used by your children. This is because it would be unfair and very frustrating for your children to receive a negative consequence for something that they do not understand or lack the ability to do. Your job is to make sure your children are able to be successful with the expected skills prior to talking about and using negative consequences for failure to follow through.

Here’s some tips to make it easier:

  1. Give direct instruction of the desired skills.
  2. Demonstrate how to use the skills.
  3. Practice the skills with your children by role playing and then using them in real-life settings.
  4. Give feedback to your children first on what parts they were successful in and then what they could do to further improve.
  5. Remember that learning skills is life-long. Refine and continue to build desired skills with your children.

Tying it all together

Okay, so you now have this knowledge of the types of consequences available, how to use them, and why they are effective, but now what? Here are a few things to remember as you strive to improve your children’s behavior.

  • Knowing ahead of time what will naturally happen, what positive things will happen, and what undesirable things will happen gives your children a good sense of their boundaries and what to expect from daily life. The best way to accomplish this is through open, regular discussion with your children.
  • When a negative consequence is used, you and your child should plan to start over again with a clean slate after the consequence is served. Be ready to move on and be done with the misbehavior after the consequence is done. We all make mistakes and everyone deserves a fresh start!
  • It is best to have a clear beginning and a clear ending to every consequence. For example, if the consequence is a time-out, your children need to be told when it is starting and when it will end (by the way, time out does not start until your child is sitting quietly and still). If the consequence is loss of screen time, your children need to be told beginning and ending times/days. Do not keep these details a mystery.
  • It is very hard, if not impossible, to plan for all types of natural consequences. However, your child should know that you will not rescue them from their learning opportunity. The same is true with positive and negative consequences. Do not rescue or spare your child from consequences (unless it is an issue of safety). This is how they learn. What you must do is set forth possible positive and negative consequence and then stick to them!
  • Consistency must be in place. Testing to see if the consequences are here to stay or if they will occur each time is common; especially in the beginning of a new plan. You must be consistent in order to gain the most positive results for your family, yourself included. This consistency will help to decrease the amount your children will test and, before you know it, testing the limits will begin to occur less frequently.

Of special note: Children who act out for the purpose of receiving attention will test the limits and the consequences even more so than others. This is due to their overwhelming need to gain attention. In their minds, negative attention is better than no attention at all. If they can ruffle your feathers and get a further consequences, their testing behavior has just paid off (in the form of your attention being given to them) and they will be likely to do it again in the future.

Remember that throughout this whole process, the goal is to teach your child, not to punish.

The Right Thing:

I long to empower you to stand up and to do the right thing by being the parent who consistently recognizes their children’s positive choices along with delivering consistent negative consequences when needed.

When you do, your children will have deeper respect for you! As a bonus, the younger your children are when you begin this, the easier time you will have raising them as they get older.

Start today by using our handy:

behavior plan examples,

positive consequences examples, and

negative consequences examples  as tools to get you started.

Wanting more? Check out our behavior plans and see your communication, consequences, and positive behavior flourish with your kids!

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In Empowerment,

Barb Roba, LMHC, CPC, Ed.M, CAS

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