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Child Discipline: Consequences and Effective Parenting

by Janet Lehman, MSW
Child Discipline: Consequences and Effective Parenting

Remember how you felt when you brought your baby home from the hospital for the first time? When your child was an infant, you probably acknowledged that you were anxious and unsure of what you were doing at times—most new parents are. In my experience, those kinds of feelings continue as we raise our kids—we just stop expressing them to others. But let’s face it, none of us went to school for parenting, and often we’re really hard on ourselves: we think we’re alone and that we need to come up with the “perfect solution” or consequence when our child misbehaves. Here’s the truth: it's not a matter of finding a perfect solution. Rather, it's a matter of finding a consequence that will mean something to your child. The good news is, it can be done.

Giving the right consequence can feel much more like a life and death situation than it actually is.

In the thirty years I’ve worked with kids, I’ve seen a lot of parents get very panicky around the concept of consequences. I think we get nervous because we believe we need to have the right response to stop our child’s bad behavior immediately—and when that happens, giving the right consequence can feel much more like a life and death situation than it actually is.  That feeling of panic has more to do with your anxiety in the moment than it does with effective parenting. Consequences can take multiple attempts before kids learn to behave differently—it’s simply a matter of trial and error.

Related: Learn how to give consequences that really work.

How do you give effective consequences?

Here are four tips I used with my son and the children I worked with that I believe will help you give more effective consequences to your child.

1. Calm yourself down. Stepping away from the situation (as long as your child is at least four years of age) is the best way to calm yourself down and disengage from a developing power struggle. When you are caught up in the heat of the moment, you definitely need to take a timeout. By the way, when you do this, you don’t have to let your child know what you’re doing. Just send him to his room and tell him you’ll be back to talk with him later. It’s okay for your child to be anxious about what the consequence might be. Remember, that waiting period can be a useful period. This is also a perfect example of a time when parents need to be good actors. Try to keep your face and tone as neutral as possible when you speak to your child, even if you’re steaming mad inside.

Look at it this way: if you only react in the heat of the moment, you won’t be thinking clearly and chances are you won’t be effective. You might be anxious or scared or confused about setting limits and ultimately end up losing control. When you do that, it becomes about you and not about your child and his behavior. Remember, you want to keep the focus on your child’s behavior.  So be matter of fact and neutral, even if you’re not feeling that way; it’s not going to teach your child anything productive at this point to know that you’re anxious or upset. Instead, he needs to be focusing on his behavior and the consequences for that behavior.

2. Come up with a list of consequences ahead of time: In a calm moment, sit down and come up with a menu of consequences you might use with your child if she should misbehave in the future. You can even enlist her help in this endeavor and use some of her ideas for rewards when her behavior is good. (For example, the consequence for not turning off the T.V. when you ask might be an earlier bed time—the reward for complying several nights in a row might be letting her stay up fifteen minutes later.)

Think about the problem and the behavior associated with that problem. Try to get as specific as possible about your child’s behavior, because you want to attach the consequence to the act.

3. Consider what would naturally happen because of the misbehavior. Don’t discount the teaching effect of natural consequences. For example, if your child breaks a toy, he won’t have that toy to play with. If he refuses to do homework, he’ll get a bad grade. If he shoplifts and gets caught, he’ll probably have legal problems. These are the logical consequences for the misbehavior. Let your child experience them.

4. Give clear, brief direction. When you’re telling your child what his consequence is after he’s misbehaved, be as brief and clear as possible. It can completely undo the lesson you want him to learn if you repeat yourself or get in a long discussion about it.  This is because it’s easy for you as a parent to start negotiating or minimizing, or to get drawn into an argument with your child. Again, when this happens it becomes more about you than about your child’s behavior—and it takes away the importance of the consequence.

When your child says, “I don’t care.”

Many parents tell me that their kids don’t care about consequences. Understand that all kids will say “I don’t care” at one time or another—and they can say it in many different ways. In fact, when I worked in juvenile residential care, I found that the children and teens responded this way most of the time! It was really just an attempt at manipulation in order to avoid the consequences they were given. So when your child does this, realize that it’s simply a way to throw you off, to try to save face, or to get their own way. Most importantly, it’s a way for your child to try not to take responsibility for his actions. The answer for parents? You just need to tune it out. If your child says, “I don’t care,” you can even calmly respond, “I understand that you don’t care. But the consequences stay and that’s that.” Just stick to whatever it is anyway.

Related: Does your child ignore consequences?

By the way, I think there are very few kids who really don’t care on some level. They may not care a lot, but even if they care a little, it matters. If you think your child really doesn’t care, and the consequence seems to be having no effect, you might want to retool what you’re doing. This is where the trial and error comes in. If whatever you’ve taken away or imposed isn’t having an effect, try something else. Have a discussion with your child when he’s calm and try to come up with a better consequence for next time.

Some kids are very good at convincing the adults around them that they don’t care, but at some level I usually find that they really do—especially if their parents are staying consistent with consequences.

Note: If nothing seems to be working and your child truly doesn't seem to care about anything at all, work with a local health care professional to find out if other issues are at play, such as anxiety or depression.

Kids who get enraged when given consequences

It’s really tough when you worry that somehow your consequences are contributing to your child’s bad behavior. Just remember that this is about your child’s behavior—that’s why you’re setting consequences in the first place. I’ve seen kids get furious when given a consequence; they become enraged and confrontational. Let me be very clear here: do not pick consequences based upon how your child may react.  If his behavior escalates when you set limits or discipline him, as a parent you need to take some time away and calm yourself down. Kids who scream and get angry are really trying to intimidate their parents so that they won’t set limits.  When this happens, you need to stick with the consequence and remain as calm as possible. Don’t get sucked into your child’s anger and his reactionary mode.

Related: Does your child fight with you over everything?

Instead, be very clear and say, “This is the consequence for your behavior.” If your child starts raging, you can just turn around and leave the room (as long as he is not a toddler or younger). If he makes the situation more problematic by breaking something or swearing at you, you might give him additional consequences later. But again, you can only really do that as a parent if you’re calm. Otherwise, you’ll just get into a power struggle with your child—and again, it becomes about you and not about his behavior.

In fact, here are four “Don’ts” to live by when it comes to giving consequences:

  1. Don’t give in to your child’s misbehavior.
  2. Don’t get embroiled in a fight or argument if you can help it.
  3. Don’t let your child make the consequence into a power struggle.
  4. Don’t give consequences when you’re upset.

Why giving consequences when you’re upset usually backfires

Why does it usually backfire when you give a consequence to your child when you’re upset? When you get anxious and angry, you’re likely to say something that’s either ineffective or that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Here’s an example: As a teenager I was once grounded “for the rest of my life.” I knew it wasn’t going to happen, of course—the punishment had much more to do with my mother being really angry at me than anything else. When you’re angry, it’s easy to throw out absurd punishments because you’re so upset by what’s going on. The message you’re sending your child is, “I’m out of control.”

If you ever get to that point as a parent and say something totally absurd (and let’s face it, most of us do from time to time) talk with your child about it after the fact. Come back when you’re calm and say, “Okay, I was really angry at you because you broke curfew again. Of course you’re not grounded for the rest of your life. Here’s your real consequence.” And stick with that. That way, you’re still in charge and your reaction is not solely based on being upset at your child’s misbehavior.

Related: Learn how to maintain your parental authority and stay in charge.

Parenting is a tough job at times and our kids aren’t supposed to make it any easier. In fact, their behavior often makes it harder. Just remember that consequences are not about us as parents—rather, they’re about our children. We often take our child’s behavior personally and see it as a reflection on us. But our job is to teach our children about good behavior. How we teach is by managing their behavior and actions. In a sense, our parenting work is to “civilize” our children so that they can be responsible, caring, loving adults.


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Janet Lehman, MSW has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years and is the co-creator of The Total Transformation Program. She is a social worker who has held a variety of positions during her career, including juvenile probation officer, case manager, therapist and program director for 22 years in traditional residential care and in group homes for difficult children.

READER'S COMMENTS

My son is 21 , so my parenting days are minimal. My sister however faces serios parenting issues daily as a single mother with 2 children that are out of control. I read your articles fro this reason... andf also pass them onto her. But I am in disagreement with your third statement regading letting things occur naturally. Unfortunately my niece and nephew could care less about the "natural consequences". Poor grades, even fines, seem to have little or no impact on their behavior. Ex. How does a child truly understand how poor grades may impact their lives until much later on when the reality finally sinks in that they cannot get a good job due to their poor performance in school? I personally prefer to avoid the natural consequences albeit it may have it;s impact on some, whereas others it may not matter at all.

Comment By : jcinsdca

I completely agree - what a great encouragement to struggling parents.

Comment By : Cornerstones for Parents

If parents followed your suggestions and calmly gave consequences for not listening or making bad choices, they would be amazed at how much calmer and happier everyone in the household would be. Believe me, it works!!!

Comment By : Colio

My son's grades started to fall, we told him until his grades were up to a "B" there was not sleepovers, now there is a party and the class he needs to get his grade up in has no homework to even get him to the "B" before the party. Should we let him go since he grade came up and he is only 10 points away from the "B"? I hate to be the mean one, but I don't know if this would be the best for him.

Comment By : Margchef

Thanks great advice. I agree. Thanks for the affirmation.

Comment By : Maureen

How do i get my 13 yr old to properly floss and brush his teeth without being reminded every night, he always tries to fake it or do a really poor job and i always have to send him back to do a better job

Comment By : corinna

thank you for this article....First off, it reminded me, that I give out ridiculous consequences that I know I will never stick to when I am irrational....as an adult, I have natural consequences..i.e, if I speed I get a ticket...there are natural consequences that kids will have, granted, I do try to minimize them for my kids...& am seeing I do them a disservice. How will they ever be able to make good decisions if someone else is making them for them, & they are never "tested" in it? I have found A LOT in parenting is change! If one thing doesnt work..change it-but stick to that until it doesn't work, & it doesnt work when I DONT stick to the conequence! Thanks again

Comment By : darndittly

* To ‘Margchef’: Thank you for your question. James Lehman didn’t recommend using birthday parties as consequences because they can’t be earned back. Additionally, losing the privilege of going to a party won’t help your son learn the new skills he needs to improve his grades, and is likely to just cause him to feel resentful. In your case he might have been able to achieve that B, except that the class isn’t structured in a way that will enable him to do that. We would recommend praising your son for his hard work and allowing him to go to the party. In the future, it might be better to set shorter range goals. For example, suspend his electronics each day until he spends a certain amount of time working on his school work. Once he has completed his study time, he gets his free time on the electronics and the next day you start over again. Here is a link that will explain this type of homework structure more for you: End the Nightly Homework Struggle 5 Homework Strategies that Work for Kids. I hope this helps.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

* Corinna: This is a tough situation. Sometimes the more we push as parents, the more our kids fight back. What might be helpful is to focus on him brushing his teeth period, versus how he brushes his teeth or how good of a job he does. James Lehman says to start where you child is and coach him forward. Try establishing an incentive system for him to simply brush his teeth. When he has brushed his teeth, he earns extra time on a privilege or something of that nature. Understand that he will try to ‘fake it’ so to speak, as kids often do in these types of situations. If you do find he has ‘faked it,’ calmly tell him he needs to go back and really brush his teeth in order to get his incentive. Also, don’t underestimate the power of natural consequences, either. If his friends tell him his breath has an odor, or his next trip to the dentist is unpleasant, he might be more motivated to do a better job on his own. Right now you’re taking on a lot of his responsibility and he isn’t able to experience these natural consequences because of that. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

Great article full of information I need as a future step-mom (we are getting married this year). Thanks so much!

Comment By : jennyfur90

I have a 14 yr old boy who talks back and argues about most decisions. I realize I have been avoiding this issue because I hate the conflict...but it is time to be brave! So, what would be an appropriate consequence for talking back and for being disrespectful. Also, he can be very persistent if he doesn't get his way. Would you take away his cell phone (and electronics?) for 2 hours or until he can speak respectfully? Thank you for your help! I love your articles

Comment By : jane

* Jane: Thank you for the kind words—we’re so glad you find our articles helpful, and I can tell you’ve really been paying attention and learning a lot. Taking away one privilege until your son talks respectfully for 2 hours is certainly an appropriate consequence, and it’s one we recommend often on the Support Line. It is not necessary to take away all electronics, though—just pick one. It will be helpful for you to be clear with your son about what disrespect and backtalk mean to you and remember: it’s most effective to work on one specific behavior at a time. You might ignore backtalk for now and focus just on other kinds of disrespect such as name-calling or saying “shut up.” Another thing to remember is to set firm verbal limits with your son and walk away from him when he tries to argue. You might say, “Arguing with me is not going to change my answer. I’m going to take a break now. You need to go calm down on your own,” and then walk away and take care of yourself. We wish you luck as you start working on this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

What would an appropriate consequence be for a 5 year old who hit a classmate in school? I've read a lot of these articles that suggest they write a letter, but he doesn't know how to read or write just yet. This is the 2nd time this has happened...HELP!

Comment By : mkd

* To “mkd”: Thank you for writing in. You ask a great question. It can be difficult to know what the best response is for a behavior that happens in school. We do suggest having the child write an amends letter when they hurt another child in school. Since your child is too young to read or write, we would suggest instead focusing on problem solving with him what he can do differently next time. Keep in mind it isn’t unusual for young children to act out in this manner. At 5, your son has a low frustration tolerance and very limited problem-solving skills. So, when he gets upset or frustrated, he tries to solve that problem by hitting the other child. It’s not ok, but, it isn’t unusual either. Here is a great article that discusses how to problem solve with your child that you might be interested in reading: The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems". You might also consider reading some of the articles by Dr. Joan Simeo Munson that focus on younger children. Here are a couple that might interest you: Young Kids Acting Out in School: The Top 3 Issues Parents Worry about Most & Hitting, Biting and Kicking: How to Stop Aggressive Behavior in Young Children. I hope this information has been useful. We wish you and your family the best as you work through this troubling issue. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

My 8 year old has been repeatedly tardy to school. This morning, out of frustration, I told him if he had to be checked into school this morning, he could not go trick or treating this evening. Do I give him the ability to earn back the trick or treating? Bedtime is a struggle already, so imposing an earlier bedtime is not a viable natural consequence. I need to send the message that I mean what I say, but I know taking away the trick or treating is more a punitive measure and not likely to improve the morning routine. Help!!!!

Comment By : sassyking

* To “sassyking”: Thank you for writing in and asking a great question. From our perspective, it is usually beneficial to allow a child to earn back a privilege. Taking away something without giving the child an opportunity to earn it back doesn’t teach the child how to make better choices. You’re right that it is important to say what you mean and mean what you say. Unfortunately there are times parents say things in a moment of frustration that isn’t going to be effective in the long run. At these times, it’s OK to go to your child after things have calmed down and say something like “I was upset this morning and didn’t handle things as well as I would have liked to. If you sit down with me and talk about what happened, then you can earn back trick or treating tonight.” At this point, if your son sits down with you and talks about what happened, then he can go trick or treating. You can also use this time to script what’s going to happen from this point forward if he is late to school. We advise having him earn a daily privilege by being on time for school. For example, may be he earns his computer or video game time when he gets to school on time. This is preferable to a one time sort of consequence since getting to school on time is a daily expectation. When you use a one-time sort of privilege, there is little incentive to change his behavior tomorrow since he’s already lost the activity. I hope this has been helpful for your situation. Here are a couple of articles I think you might find helpful: How to Give Kids Consequences That Work and How to Discipline Kids: The Key to Being a Consistent Parent. We wish you and your family the best. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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