Picture this scene: Your teen’s curfew is 11:30 p.m. and you stay up waiting for her. When she doesn’t come home on time, you pace and worry, your mood alternating between fear and anger. When your daughter finally waltzes in well past midnight, she disrupts everyone in the house and makes excuses when you ask, “Where have you been?” Part of you is furious. But there’s another part of you that thinks, “Well, she’s been doing a good job lately with her school work. And at least she’s not sneaking out and smoking anymore… maybe I should just let this one slide.” And maybe the truth is that sometimes you give consequences for breaking curfew and other times you don’t. The behavior continues because your child knows she can get away with being late sometimes.
When your child gets the message that you don’t mean what you say, what you say starts to lose its meaning.
You know that what you’re doing isn’t really working, but you’re not sure how to make things better. That’s okay—you’re not supposed to know all the answers. Many parents have a hard time being consistent and struggle because of guilt, self-doubt, or just sheer exhaustion.
Related: Are you exhausted and overwhelmed by your child's behavior?
Here’s the good news—you can overcome the obstacles you face. Even if you think you’ve been inconsistent up to this point with your child, it’s never too late to change. Let’s take a look at why it’s important and how you can start being more consistent right away.
Why Consistency is Important
No one can be 100% consistent 100% of the time, but what happens when you’re frequently inconsistent? You’ll find that your child’s behavior will get worse—and you’ll be more tired and worn down as a result.
Why is consistency important for kids? Children need to know what to expect because it helps them make informed decisions. As they grow, they learn that certain behaviors lead to certain outcomes. This shapes whether your child will repeat that behavior in the future. The best way to illustrate this is with the classic slot machine example: You put your money in the machine and pull the lever. You don’t know what images you’ll see when the spinning stops. Will you get cherries? Sevens? Lemons? But you know what you want—the jackpot, or at least some kind of monetary gain.
We are like slot machines and our kids are like the hopeful gamblers that stand before us, repeatedly pulling the lever. They know they may not get anything as a result—you might say “no” or give them a consequence. They might get some money back if you don’t follow through with your consequence. Or, if they’re really lucky, they’ll hit the jackpot and get exactly what they want with no uncomfortable consequences at all. If your response often varies, your child will keep pulling the lever, hoping for a favorable outcome. This is an example of what is called a “variable interval reinforcement schedule”— the most powerful type of reward system in behavioral psychology. Just like it works with gamblers, because the frequency and size of the reward varies, it works with your child. And it becomes very difficult for your child to stop playing the slot machine—which is you, the parent!
Related: Tired of being a doormat? How to establish parental authority.
To make matters worse, there’s a good chance you’ll be seen as less of an authority when you’re not consistent. This is because you might say one thing, like “Don’t swear,” but fail to consistently back that up with actions that show you mean it, such as providing a meaningful and effective consequence each and every time. When your child gets the message that you don’t mean what you say, what you say starts to lose meaning.
4 Ways to Be More Consistent
Being a parent is hard work—there’s no mistaking that. Life in general is chaotic and messy, and the simple fact that we’re human makes us prone to making mistakes. We forget things, we get confused, we lose track of time, and sometimes we get so tired that we just don’t have the energy to handle our child’s challenging or obnoxious behavior. It’s not easy to stay on top of things all the time, let’s face it. So we think, “I’ll let it go, just for today.” Here are some ideas that will help you start to improve your consistency as a parent:
1) Choose one thing first. One of the no-fail rules to follow when you’re trying out new parenting techniques is to choose just one behavior to start with. On the Parental Support Line, we talk to parents all the time who are “biting off more than they can chew” and getting really frustrated, confused, and worn out. When you try to tackle all the behavior issues you’re experiencing with your child at one time, you’re not likely to be very successful. So choose a specific high-priority issue to start with like stealing, swearing, homework completion or bedtime, for example. Once you get more consistent in setting and enforcing limits in that one area, then you can branch out and start working on another. Slow and steady wins the race, right? Right!
2) Use positive self-talk. Be kind to yourself and talk to yourself about what you want to see happen. What do you want your child to learn? Ask yourself what will likely happen if you let the behavior slide ‘just this one time’ as opposed to taking a deep breath and just doing what you know you need to do. Think about your long-term goal and what might happen over time if you don’t stay consistent on the issue you’ve undertaken. Debbie Pincus, creator of The Calm Parent: AM & PM, recommends that parents come up with slogans or mottos they can use to keep themselves on track and in control, emotionally and otherwise. Your motto might be, “I am the leader here, and I need to let my child know what my bottom line is. I can do this.” Find one that works for you and use it.
Related: How to stay calm and stick to your bottom line.
3) Try something new. When I was a school counselor, I did a weekly classroom lesson with students about skills that would help them be more successful in school. One phrase we revisited regularly in my lessons was, “If what you’re doing isn’t working, try something different.” This goes along with James Lehman’s idea of realization—parents need to be able to acknowledge something isn’t working and change it, because things will not just change on their own. You, as the parent, are the change agent. James advocates teaching children better problem-solving skills in the Total Transformation program, and I think this works for adults, too. If you are having trouble being consistent, figure out what is at the root of that—is it fatigue, guilt, confusion, forgetfulness? Get to the root of the problem and come up with a specific plan you can use to help yourself stick to the limits you’ve set and give consequences more consistently.
4) Take care of yourself. Taking care of yourself means two things. First, allow yourself a short break or time-out when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Give yourself time to come up with a response if your child is in your face begging, arguing, fighting, or complaining. Let your child know you can’t answer them just yet and walk away. Take some time to calm down and think about what you want to do next. Also, if you’re feeling exhausted or overwhelmed, make room for at least 15 minutes for yourself each day with the purpose of doing something you enjoy that helps reduce your stress level. Taking care of yourself also means asking for support from others. You might talk to your spouse and come up with a subtle way you can remind each other to be consistent. It might also mean finding someone in your local area whom you can talk to about what’s going on—someone supportive who can help you manage the stress and demands of parenting more effectively. Either way, taking care of yourself is a way to be an empowered parent. You don’t have to give in to the pressure that your child’s behavior puts on you—and you don’t have to do this alone.
When Parents Change, Kids Push Back
The number one thing you will notice in your child as you start to be more consistent is “pushback.” Pushback is your child’s way of saying, “Wait a minute, I don’t like what’s going on here!” Pushback comes in a lot of different forms. It can appear as complaints, such as “I hate you! You’re mean! You don’t love me!” or it can appear as arguing, pleading, or negotiating. Some kids will push back by passively resisting you or pretending they didn’t hear you ask them to do something. You might notice that your child appears a bit angrier or more emotional at first, too. We talk to parents every day on the Parental Support Line who are experiencing this usually temporary escalation in behavior issues that can occur when you change your parenting style. What we’ve found is that if parents continue to be consistent and walk away when their children are pushing back, things will start to settle back down.
Related: How to disengage and walk away when your child is pushing your buttons.
Keep in mind it’s not necessary to give consequences for complaining, arguing, or bad attitude. If the pushback leads to verbal or physical abuse, destruction of property, or other safety issues such as running away or sneaking out, there are the really important examples of pushback for which you’d definitely want to give consequences or call the police. Otherwise, as long as the behavior isn’t blatantly abusive or unsafe, it’s most effective to ignore it and remove yourself from the situation.
The Real Importance of Consistency
James Lehman says that the rules shouldn’t get more—or less—strict because you’re tired, or frustrated about something at work. And your rules shouldn’t be more lenient because you’re enjoying yourself and having a good day. “The rules are your structure,” he explains, “They’re your guidelines for power.” Being consistent with your rules, values, limits, and consequences is a crucial part of establishing a culture of accountability in your home—the structure that upholds you the parent as the authority that your child answers to. When you are not consistent in these areas, you undermine your own authority because the boundaries aren’t clear—and what you say doesn’t match up with what you do. Figure out what obstacles are preventing you from being more consistent, focus on what you’d like to change, and start working on it. It’s never too late to start—and the rewards for both you and your child are huge.