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.
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.
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.
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:
- Don’t give in to your child’s misbehavior.
- Don’t get embroiled in a fight or argument if you can help it.
- Don’t let your child make the consequence into a power struggle.
- 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.
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.
About Janet Lehman, MSW
Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. In addition, Janet gained a personal understanding of child learning and behavior challenges from her son, who struggled with learning disabilities in school. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.