Consequences for kids don’t always work. See common mistakes parents make and how to give consequences to stop your child’s behavior.
We’ve all felt that panic: trying to come up with a consequence fit for the behavior.
In trying to turn this chaos into a teachable moment, you scanned your brain for a good enough consequence. One that would get your child to stop, to convince her this is serious, and that you’ve had it with her antics.
You know, one that would teach her a lesson.
Certain types of consequences have even become common language, from the “time-out” for the toddler to the teen “getting grounded.”
But what if I told you we’ve got consequences all wrong? That what may seem effective at the moment isn’t serving them—or ourselves—best?
Why consequences for kids don’t always work
We can all agree we need to correct our kids’ behavior. That they can communicate better besides throwing temper tantrums, or that hitting others isn’t right.
But we often rely on discipline strategies that…
- Are based on fear. As the parent, it’s easy to tip the power dynamics in our favor. We’re the “boss,” the one who knows better, the one who, at the end of the day, wields more control in the relationship. And we do that through fear. We threaten punishments bad enough to convince our young children to stop behaving a certain way, never mind that there may be deeper reasons they’re doing so.
- Don’t encourage long-term change. Consequences as we typically know them can “work” because they can convince kids to stop negative behavior, but only at that moment. We lose the opportunity to teach valuable lessons about how to self-regulate big emotions, or why others might feel hurt when we hit them.
- Stem from our anger. How often have we yelled at our kids to go to their room when we couldn’t take it anymore? I know I have, and no one—neither myself nor my kids—got anything positive out of that kind of interaction.
And the real reason typical consequences don’t work? They’re not natural consequences—they don’t tie to the behavior we’re trying to correct.
Let’s say you’ve been underperforming at work. Your boss isn’t going to not let you go to the holiday party, keep you isolated from your coworkers, or take away your snack privileges. She’s going to give you natural, “real-life” consequences.
She can talk to you about her expectations and what you can do better. She can let you know what can happen if you don’t improve and the consequences of your actions. If it gets bad, you might even have to look for another job.
You see, the world works on natural consequences, where our choices have a direct tie to what happens after.
How to give consequences for kids
You don’t have to constantly police your child, doling out punishments and hoping that can teach her a lesson. You can also have better control over your own emotions—and a better relationship with her. It all starts with changing your mindset toward natural consequences.
The more you rely on natural consequences, the more you can see that typical punishments are ineffective and exhausting. Sometimes, an effective consequence isn’t a punishment so much as a conversation, or learning moment, for both of you.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of how you can apply a logical consequence to the behavior:
1. Give a deadline
I let my kids watch television at the end of the day, but only after they’ve cleaned up their toys. At one point, one of them started to dilly-dally about the process, lying flat on the floor and whining about cleaning up.
I’d already shown empathy (“It’s hard to stop playing when you’re having fun—I’d feel sad, too”). And I explained why we needed to clean up, but he remained rooted to the floor.
Rather than sending him to his room or yelling at him to clean up already, I set a timer.
I told them I’m starting the show at the same time I usually do (when the timer beeps), but I’m not turning on the television until they’ve cleaned up. If they didn’t clean up before the timer went off, they’ll miss the first few minutes of the show.
Deadlines hold kids (and adults) accountable for their actions. Their choice to do or not do something by a period of time can mean a natural loss they’re not willing to sacrifice.
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2. Have your child clean the mess
Did your child spill a water cup or throw a bucket of blocks all over the floor? Instead of sending him to his room or confiscating a beloved stuffed animal, have him clean the mess.
Whether out of anger or by accident, messes offer her a chance to see the consequences of his behavior. He won’t learn this if you wipe the spills or scold him for throwing toys. Instead, part of learning about the effects of his behavior is dealing with the consequences.
Then, praise him for cleaning up the mess. This can direct his attention his positive behaviors like being responsible and accountable instead of only on bad behavior.
3. Have your child say or do it better
“Where’s my water?!” my son scowled, first thing in the morning. We all wake up grumpy from time to time, but I also didn’t want him to think that talking this way to others was fine. Or worse, to think that other people would agree to his demands.
So, I asked him to say it again, but in a better tone of voice. I modeled saying “Where’s my water?” in a kinder, more positive way and asked him to repeat it that way before I was willing to answer his question.
Sometimes kids behave in ways they don’t even know are wrong. Let’s say you asked your child to close a cabinet door, but instead of closing it quietly as you normally do, she slammed it shut. Even if she didn’t mean to do it, it was still enough to make you lose your patience.
Instead of scolding her about slamming the door, acknowledge that she may not know how to close the cabinet door correctly. This can help her feel understood. Then, simply open the door and have her do it again more gently this time.
You don’t always need a “punishment” for every wrong move she makes. Sometimes what’s needed is modeling good behavior correctly for her.
4. Revoke privileges that tie to your child’s choices
It’s tempting to revoke privileges as consequences when kids are willing to do just about anything to keep a special toy or treat.
But a loss of privileges only works if they tie to your child’s choices. With consistency, he learns that natural consequences happen based on the decisions he makes.
For instance, if he’s dragging his feet about doing homework, don’t take away story time at night or electronics or video games the next day. Reading books before bed has nothing to do with his choice to whine about homework.
Instead, rely on natural consequences. You could say that taking too long to get ready means you won’t have time to play at the park after errands.
Or let’s say he threw a fit about taking a nap—he didn’t want to go to sleep and cried the whole time. Don’t say, “If you don’t take a nap, you can’t play with your toys this afternoon.” Instead, you might say, “We’ll need to put you down for an earlier bedtime tonight to make up for you being so tired.”
You can take away a toy, but only if it ties to the behavior. Maybe he refuses to stop throwing a toy car in the air, even though you’ve asked him not to and even explained why.
You can then say, “It looks like you’re not ready to take care of this toy yet. I don’t want anyone to get hurt, so I’m going to store it for the rest of the day.”
5. Explain how others feel
One of the most common times we enforce consequences is when kids don’t behave well with others, especially other children. We force them to share or say sorry when they fight or hit.
The problem is, your child could have valid points for feeling what he does, even if he isn’t showing appropriate behavior. For instance, hitting is wrong, but he may have done so because the other child wouldn’t stop grabbing his toy.
One of the best consequences for kids is to explain how their behavior problems affect others. Teaching empathy starts with encouraging your child to imagine what it must be like to be on the receiving end of his actions.
Acknowledge how he felt (“I know you were mad when he grabbed your toy…”), then explain how the other child feels (“…but hitting hurts. You would feel sad too if he hit you”).
Or let’s say he said hurtful things to you. You could say, “That makes me feel sad when you say that.” Help him see the consequences of his actions so he’s less likely to do it again.
You could even remove him from the situation, especially if he still feels compelled to hit or needs to calm down. Say “I won’t allow you to keep hitting your brother” or “It looks like you’re not ready to play with others just now” so he knows his removal is tied to his behavior.
It’s easy to assume we need to come up with a “punishment” on the spot, one bad enough to fit our kids’ behavior. We might even be so upset that we react and abuse our power, not thinking about what’s best for them.
Instead, enforce natural consequences that curb misbehavior and help your child think better next time. Give her a deadline and have her clean up her messes to hold her accountable. Have her repeat what she said or did in a better, more effective way so she knows what’s acceptable or not.
Revoke privileges, but only if they tie naturally to her actions. Finally, explain the consequences of her behavior, especially related to how others feel. This can help her develop empathy toward others and think critically about the choices she makes.
Avoid enforcing consequences based on their severity or on how angry you feel toward her. Instead, let the natural, “real life” consequences do the work—they’re likely to teach her a lesson more than anything else.
Get more tips:
- How to Stop Being the “Bad Guy” with Your Kids
- Why You Need to Follow Through with Consequences (and How to Do It)
- 5 Useful Tools to Teach Impulse Control for Kids
- What to Do When You’re Dealing with 1 Year Old Tantrums Already
- 5 Unusual Ways to Deal with a Defiant 3 Year Old
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