How to Discipline Your Child: Effective Consequences for Children Who Don’t Listen

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Do you have a kid who doesn’t care about consequences? If so, this dad’s story probably sounds more than familiar to you:

“I’ve done everything I can think of to get my teen to follow just the simple rules. I took away his Xbox. I unplugged the TV and removed the cord. The internet was shut off indefinitely (thank goodness I still have my phone!). He’s lost privileges, time with his friends, and even the door to his room, but nothing matters and nothing fazes him at all. He says he doesn’t care about any of this stuff, so what am I supposed to do? It’s not like I can take away his bed and all his furniture or take the door off his room— though, trust me, we’re considering it at this point!”

Even just reading that story, I feel myself getting overwhelmed. Parenting is hard. And it’s often frustrating.

When your child refuses to respond to consequences, how else are you supposed to get them to change their behavior? When nothing works, how are you supposed to get them to follow the rules?

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Certainly, every family is unique. Your situation may look different on the surface, but I bet lots of parents experience a vicious cycle that looks something like this:

  1. My kid acts out.
  2. I give him a consequence.
  3. Nothing changes.
  4. I give him another consequence.
  5. Nothing changes.

Now he’s even more resistant, and we’re even more annoyed. He gets another consequence. And still, nothing changes.

Fortunately, there is a way through this seemingly never-ending conflict. And the answer might not be what you think.

Stop Stacking Consequences

James Lehman in The Total Transformation® Program tells us that you can’t punish a kid into better behavior. So while it’s certainly tempting, taking everything away from your child is unlikely to be effective in changing behavior.

James goes on to say that “stacking” consequences—adding one after another—only teaches a child to “do time,” and simply wait out his consequences rather than actually follow any rules or change behavior.

In addition, when you stack up too many consequences or ground your kid indefinitely, they see this as a hole from which they will never escape so they stop trying and stop caring as a natural reaction.

Think of it this way: if everything is taken away and there’s no chance of earning anything back anytime soon, why would they bother to try?

If they’ve lost access to their Xbox for six months, what good is behaving better today?

By stacking your consequences, you remove any impetus for your child to change. It becomes a game, a deeply entrenched power struggle, rather than an effective parenting tool.

Once kids feel like there’s no way they can get their stuff back, it’s almost like their best “defense” is to stop caring.

And as a parent, there is nothing more frustrating than working up a consequence, only to hear your child tell you they don’t care about what you’ve taken away.

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Change the Dynamic

So here’s the thing: if you’ve come to a place where you’ve taken almost everything away, and it’s still not working, know that trying a different approach can change the whole dynamic in your family.

Keep in mind that parenting is a work in progress, and we want to keep looking for what’s effective. Below are some of our most effective tips when dealing with a child who won’t listen or doesn’t seem to care.

Tie Your Consequences to a Specific Behavior

Remember, you’re giving your child a consequence because you want them to change what they’re currently doing. You want your child to learn something, whether it’s learning to clean their room, abide by the house rules even when they don’t want to, or come home on time each night.

To use a common example, if they routinely get a consequence for not cleaning their room, then they need to show that their room-cleaning skills are improving. A consequence tied to this behavior might be: 

“When your bed is made, your dirty clothes are put in the wash, and the dirty dishes are put in the dishwasher, you can have access to the internet. If these things aren’t done, you don’t get internet access that day.”

It’s sort of a combination encouragement-consequence: show me you’re improving, and you earn something you want.

Give Them a Chance to Succeed

When you’ve taken everything away, kids see no escape. It’s a bottomless pit of punishment. Instead of stacking on additional punishments, try taking it day-by-day.

To continue with our “clean your room” example, you might say:

“Your room needs to be clean by 4 pm each day. When it’s clean, you can access the internet. If you don’t get it clean by 4 p.m., there’s no internet that day. You’ll get to try again the next day.”

Do you see how that might work more effectively? Rather than that bottomless pit, you give your kid a new chance, every single day.

But what if it’s not something as simple as cleaning his room? What if you’re dealing with abusive language or disrespectful behavior?

First, remember that there’s no excuse for abuse. Never. If you are the target of verbal or physical abuse, you need to act. The article below is a great starting point for dealing with behavior that becomes abusive.

Related content: When Kids Get Violent: “There’s No Excuse for Abuse”.

Regardless of the behavior, giving your child a chance to succeed every single day is more effective than stacking consequences. Remember: punishments do not change behavior effectively and often backfire.

Focus on One or Two Behaviors at a Time

Chances are there are many things you want your child to do differently. But just focus on one or two behaviors at a time. Once they’ve shown improvement in those areas, you can use their success (and yours) to build future success.

If you focus on too many things at once, your child will get overwhelmed with all the things they’re supposed to be doing. Not only that, but you will get overwhelmed with trying to remember what consequence goes with which behavior.

Remember that you give a consequence because you want your child to do something differently.

One and Only One Consequence Per Behavior

Match each behavior with one and only one consequence. Let’s say that your child is working on the following two behaviors: (1) cleaning his room; and (2) getting home by curfew. Set a specific consequence for not cleaning his room and a separate consequence for not getting home by curfew.

Let’s say the consequence for not cleaning his room is losing internet access until his room is cleaned. Then don’t use losing internet access as a consequence for breaking curfew. Choose something else. Keep the behaviors and their consequences separate.

This technique makes things clear and straightforward for everyone involved. Plus, you want your child to succeed, which means he needs to know that a privilege already earned stays earned. It can’t be taken away by something unrelated. If he cleans his room, he gets his internet access regardless of whether he breaks curfew.

“My Kid Still Doesn’t Care About Consequences!”

Kids will pretend they don’t care—they do this all the time. They pretend they don’t care to discourage you from using a particular consequence. They want you to believe that it will be ineffective.

Pretty smart, when you think about it. But you know your child. You know what she cares about. Don’t listen to what they tell you they care about, look at what they actually care about.

The trick to effective consequences is to choose something they value, tie it to a specific daily behavior, and make them hungry for more of it by giving them a taste of success, every single day.

Be sure to give the consequence some time to work. They may be able to go without a privilege for a few days and act like they don’t care, but eventually they find it is just better to comply with the rules. Think of it like speeding tickets—the first one might be tolerable, but after two or three most people will decide it is just better to slow down.

If you’re not sure what your child values, choose a calm, relatively quiet time to sit down and talk with them about it. You might even ask them:

“Is there something you’d like to have more of or have more time with? We’d like to give you an opportunity to earn those things, every day.”

Having this discussion with your child makes sure everyone understands the expectations, privileges, and consequences. Not only does this simplify the whole process (no more coming up with a consequence in the heat of the moment), it makes your child feel like part of the team: you want them to succeed, and you’re going to help them get there.

Related content: How to Create a List of Consequences for Children (With Downloadable Consequences and Rewards Menus)

Be Consistent

Once you’ve chosen the behaviors you want your child to improve, and you’ve matched them with a specific consequence, the most important thing is to stick to it. Consistency is important. Consistency keeps everyone in your family on track.

The truth is, you are all in this together. You can create an environment of success, together, one behavior at a time.

About

Megan Devine is a licensed clinical therapist, former Empowering Parents Parent Coach, speaker and writer. She is also the bonus-parent to a successfully launched young man. You can find more of her work at refugeingrief.com, where she advocates for new ways to live with grief.

Comments (26)
  • Taz

    My 11 year old son just continually lies about everything and is deceitful. I am at my wits end and it's always silly little things he lies about. Then he wakes up super early and will go on his iPad and go on YouTube which I recently banned him from because instead of doing his school work effectively he was listening to YouTube (he has dyslexia and concentration/memory is a massive issue for him so I feel like the distraction of music is worse). I spoke to him about it and how his behaviour upsets me and that if he just chose to the do the right thing then there would be any opportunity to lie.

    My partner doesn't get on with him very well currently because of the lies and deceit (if he was an adult he wouldn't be someone my partner would choose to associate with because of his behaviour) and currently is unable to see his own son and finds it hard living with a child who is disrespectful when he is desperate to see his own.

    I just don't know what to do. I've tried all forms of punishment and tried not punishing him but talking to him and rewarding good behaviour but just nothing seems to work. It seems like he doesn't care about anything but himself and getting to do what he wants and even if that gets taken away from him, it makes no difference.

    • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach

      Lying is a big button issue for a lot of parents, so you're not alone in your distress, It can help to recognize that lying isn't a moral issue or a character flaw, but a reflection of your son's poor problem solving skills. You can read about effective ways of addressing this frustrating behavior in these articles: https://www.empoweringparents.com/article-categories/child-behavior-problems/lying/

      Thank for reaching out and sharing your story.

  • Kristen Fay
    I'm a single mother of an almost 5 year old boy, we recently moved in with my sister and her kids and boyfriend, a very big change. My sister has a 12 yo and a 5 yo (only 5 months older than my boy). I am having such a hardMore time with his behavior and attitude that it's effecting our living situation with my sister and the other boys are beginning to not want him around. I know it's a lot of change, things are different living with other kids, but his behavior isn't improving very much and I don't know how to handle this. Please I'll take any suggestions that might help because I'm losing my mind over here!
  • MomOfBBE
    I'm lost and at my wits end. We have 3 children and we are a blended family. My son is 6, husbands kids who are with us 80% of the time are 10 girl, almost 13 boy. I feel like none of them listen no matter how we've talked toMore them, asked questions, grounding, etc. They refuse to lend a helping hand on anything and all they care about is what's going to be done for them. I had a huge back surgery almost two weeks ago. Last night, I asked step daughter to put her gym mat up when she's done using it. Asked 13 YO to pick up pieces of this ball he and our big dog were playing with and dog started chewing it up. Told my son to bring his shoes in when they come in. Asked them to fold the load of towels. Told step daughter to please put her chair up out of the living room and the stuff in it. Wake up this morning to see that NONE of its been done. And have asked multiple times. My 6 yo son is pretty good about doing what is asked and maybe having to be reminded once every now and again but he is improving and that's what I want to see. The other two are older and to me they shouldn't have to be asked 3-4 times to do something and sometimes for consecutive days. I'm just lost. How do I go about fixing this? I've taught them, I've helped them, I have even tried to use fun systems as far as chores and responsibilities and nothing entices them. There is zero initiative, responsibility or respect to us or their belongings. My youngest is getting better because that is something his dad and I are on the same page about and he's learning and improving. The other two never had this growing up. I came into their life at 6 and 9 and their biomom, well, she didn't teach them anything from respect, to hygiene, morals, etc.
  • MomKelly
    Can you give some insight on how to implement this technique in the moment or after a bad choice? For example, my daughter went into my husband's studio and trashed it out, breaking things. (Quick background: she has ADHD, missed a perfect IQ score by one point, and we suspectMore she may have ODD.) How do you find consequences for a kid that says "so what?" to everything. Her biggest hangup is asking before she does something. She goes full force with reckless abandon, then listens to my husband and I scream, which doesn't work. I know, because her and her sister fly off the handle at the smallest things. They are getting that from watching us. When she's misbehaving right then and there in public, or I discover it after I come home from work, I just don't know how to give her effective consequences for her actions. We desperately need to change our family dynamic.
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      MomKelly We hear from many parents who struggle with finding and implementing effective consequences for their child’s actions, so you are not alone.  We actually don’t recommend giving consequences in the moment when misbehavior is happening.  Many parents believe that giving kids consequences in the moment will bring a childMore to her senses, and she will “pull it together”, and start behaving.  What ends up happening most of the time is the opposite: the child’s behavior usually escalates, which often leads to more consequences and power struggles.  Instead, what tends to be most effective in the moment is https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/tired-of-yelling-at-your-child-stop-screaming-and-start-parenting-effectively/ from the situation to allow everyone to calm down.  Once everyone is calm, you can talk about what happened, and hold your daughter accountable for her actions.  You can find more information on how to give effective consequences in https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/how-to-get-your-child-to-listen-9-secrets-to-giving-effective-consequences/.  Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family.  Take care.
      • MomKelly

        RebeccaW_ParentalSupport Ok, I know it's only been a couple days, but we have seen a DRASTIC improvement! I think the things that stuck out the most is the time limits, both in punishment and in objectives, and the power struggle. "I need your room clean in 30 minutes. If it's not, X punishment will happen." It works like a charm. And the currency is key. Not only the obvious currency, but the ones that just pop up. For example, my daughter wanted a stuffed animal she left in another room before she went to bed. I got it for her, but told her she couldn't have it until she brushed her teeth. The teeth were brushed without quarrel, and everyone was happy! That stuffed animal wouldn't have worked for a tantrum in the middle of the grocery store, but it worked in that moment. The other article referenced was one about yelling. Although I think I subconsciously knew this, the idea of, if I'm screaming she knows I'm not in control and therefore thinks she has to be really hit home. That's why we fight, because she doesn't respect me. All because I'm not in control. I've also been using the line, "we are not going to scream anymore unless someone is about to be hit by a bus". 

        Incredibly awesome stuff you guys have here. I've already shared it with friends and family! Thanks so much!

  • MatthewKelch
    I leave for work at 4am every morning and my son (10 years old) won't listen to his mom about anything including going to school. He will sit and scream and cry all day long and fight with his 12 year old sister and 2 year old brother. I amMore about to deploy in two weeks and need to know how to fix this. Any suggestions? I have tried taking video games and putting him in his room and nothing seems to work.
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      MatthewKelch I hear you.  It can be so frustrating when your child is constantly acting out, and yet you feel helpless to stop it.  Something to keep in mind is that inappropriate child behavior is often linked to poor problem-solving skills.  That is, your son might be solving the “problem”More of not wanting to follow the rules by screaming and fighting with his siblings instead of complying with the rules anyway.  Thus, giving him consequences and taking things away isn’t likely to change this pattern if he is not also learning more appropriate skills to use in these situations.  You might find some helpful information in our article series https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/why-consequences-arent-enough-part-1-how-to-coach-your-child-to-better-behavior/ and https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/why-consequences-arent-enough-part-2-making-child-behavior-changes-that-last/.  Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family.  Take care.
  • Helen
    My 5 year old child has been showing some very defiant behaviour lately, and also has the issue of 'not caring' about requests or consequences. I feel I have been a fair and understanding parent the majority of the time, but currently feel that I am not getting a goodMore response from my child. I ask her to do something or to stop doing something, and her focus simply does not change. I ask her nicely, then I ask her firmly. I say: "when you have put your clothes away we can go to the park". Each time I give her an opportunity to fulfil the request. Each time she either refuses, does not even attempt to do the thing, tells me that the circumstances are not right for her ("But I wanted to fold them!"), and continually gets distracted and tries to get my attention for all the other things she is doing. Or she keeps telling me how bored she is. We have currently been doing the "Put your clothes away" thing for 2 straight hours. I have got to the point where I have taken some of her special toys away and said: "When your clothes are away you can have them back". She's crying, but is she putting the clothes away? No. She is fully capable of doing so, and this is the only request I am currently making of her. What can I do??
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      @Helen 

      I hear you.It can be so frustrating

      when your child is becoming defiant, and you are spending more of your time in

      power struggles with her.As Megan

      points out in the article above, adding on more consequences and taking away

      her toys in addition to not going to the park is likely to escalate the power

      struggle more, rather than motivating her to comply.In addition, I also encourage you to try your

      best not to engage in an https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/avoiding-power-struggles-with-defiant-children-declaring-victory-is-easier-than-you-think/ with your daughter.Ultimately, you cannot “make” her care, or comply with your

      directions.You can only control your

      own actions and responses.Our article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/defiant-young-children-and-toddlers-5-things-not-to-do/, outlines some more

      effective steps you can take when your daughter is becoming defiant.Please be sure to write back and let us know

      how things are going for you and your family.

  • Ttifa
    My kid has a problem on copying his lessons in school and not even listening to his teachers which results to low grades.. keep on telling him to copy and listen to his teacher , even gave him consequences, but everytime he went home and i'll check his notes heMore is always incomplete and seems like his not doing what his teachers told him to do.. How will i discipline him or encourage him to copy his lessons?
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      Ttifa

      This sounds like a frustrating situation. One thing you might

      consider doing is establishing a reward or incentive plan aimed at getting your

      son to copy his lessons. This could be set up as a daily incentive, or it could

      be more long term. For example, you could link one of his daily privileges to

      him copying his lessons. Or, you could give him a check mark or point each time

      he copies his lessons. Once he’s earned a certain number, he would then earn

      the reward. For more information on how to use behavior charts, check out this

      article: https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/free-downloadables-child-behavior-charts-how-to-use-them-effectively/. Good

      luck moving forward. Take care.

  • kjet2003
    My 12 year old keeps on watching TV even thought he is grounded he still finds a way.
    • Shreenk

      kjet2003   Grounding is a punishment, not a consequence.

      Full Definition of consequence

      1:  a conclusion derived through logic 

      2:  something produced by a cause or necessarily following from a set of conditions <the economic consequences of the war>A consequence follows logically, not imposed by some higher power.  That's a punishment and is often counterproductive.  It is based in fear and damages relationship.  Your relationship with your son is much more important.  Coach him through the needed behavioral changes from the perspective of being on the same side, not his adversary.  Love (the opposite of fear) builds relationship which allows for influence rather than control.  Control doesn't work when you're not looking.  Influence is internal and goes with your child no matter where he goes.  Consequences, a form of control, will have no effect when your 12-year-old becomes a 16-year-old and is spending even more time outside of your reach.

  • Aviya
    I am not like this ! My mom always tells me how I am not like other kids . Even my other siblings are not like this! Not even my 11 year old sister!
  • johnnyb96
    What about a child who just not just refuses to do what you say, but also defies you and does things you've told them not to do. When something is taken away, nothing changes. My child is 11 and is becoming disrespectful, angry and bold about it. I don't wantMore to spank her at this age, but all I get in return from her is fury when I try to correct her, ask her to do something, restrict her, or anything. Every part of me wants to spank the heck out of her, but that won't do any good in the long run either.
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      johnnyb96 

      You ask a great

      question: what do you do when a child refuses to comply with the consequences

      she is given?  Something to keep in mind is that the most effective

      consequences tend to be time-limited and task-oriented, as Megan explains in

      another article, http://www.empoweringparents.com/authoritative-parenting-consequences.php.  What this means is

      that if your daughter chooses not to comply, she is also choosing to have her

      consequence last for a longer period of time.  We do not recommend

      spanking or other physical punishments as form of discipline, mainly because it

      is not going to be helpful to your daughter in the long run because it is not

      teaching her how to behave more appropriately in the future.  Please let

      us know if you have any additional questions; take care.

  • SabrinaKaylee
    I was doing an activity with my mom involving old coins and I didn't want my daughter to be involved because it's old coins and she has a bad habit of sticking her hands in her mouth. So out of revenge, my 6 year old daughter kicked the bedroom wall andMore down came a small mirror. Luckily she's not hurt but the act that she committed was horrible. She did do that on purpose. What would be a good punishment for her??
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      SabrinaKaylee

      Many parents ask us what an effective consequence might be

      for one situation or another. In many cases, there isn’t one “right”

      consequence. What can be helpful is to ask yourself “What do I want my daughter

      to learn here?” as James Lehman suggests in the article Kids Who Ignore Consequences: 10 Ways to Make Them Stick. In your situation for

      example, you might want your daughter to learn how to take accountability for

      her actions. In that case, you could utilize an amends, or, having your

      daughter do something to make it up to the person she wronged. So, she might do

      a small chore or other task to “make up for” the mirror she broke. What’s going

      to be more important than consequencing the behavior is helping her develop the

      skills so there’s less a chance the behavior will happen again. Most likely,

      your daughter was disappointed she wasn’t able to handle the coins, and,

      lacking the appropriate skill for dealing with that frustration, she kicked a

      wall. Problem solving with her, or talking about what happened and making

      suggestions for ways she could handle her frustration more appropriately, is

      going to be worthwhile. For more information on problem solving, you can check

      out this article by Sara Bean:  The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: “I Can’t Solve Problems”.

      I hope this answers your question. Take care.

  • Denny
    I liked your article about consequences - parents need more info about how to do this well! But your graphic is about "The Teenage Brain" and your article didn't touch on this at all.
  • susananderson051714
    My son has an issue when he doesn't listen. At all. He is 6. You tell him stay where I can see you. He runs as far as he can. Don't get close to the grill you could get hurt he tries in every way to get as close asMore he can. Don't climb on the porch you could fall (it's really high? And you have to tell him100 times and he doesn't stop. These are examples.... from litterally the past hour. Time out, loss of privilege, loss of allowance (gets change for chores completed) And his response to any discipline is I don't care. He will put himself in time out and says he likes it. The root of the issue is he lives with his biological mother and there are no,rules and no consequences. How do I fix this at our house? I seriously need some help here.
    • Marissa EP

      susananderson051714  

      I can understand how frustrating these types of situations

      must be for you. One of the first things we often talk about when speaking to

      families in divorce situations is to focus on the rules in your own home,

      because you can’t control the rules and consequences that happen (or not) in

      your son’s biological mother’s home. It can be helpful to make a short list of

      just 3-4 of the most important rules in your home to review them with your son at the

      beginning of each visit and remind him of them, as needed, during the visit. It

      can also be effective to limit the number of times you are giving directions.

      As Megan Devine states, in her article Ask Once and Your Kid Does It: 5 Ways to Make it Happen, “If you’re in the habit of saying something 4 or 5 times

      before your child does as you’ve asked, why should he do it the first time?”

      Once you have established clear rules and limits with your son, it can be

      helpful, especially with younger children, to use incentives to increase the

      desired behavior, rather than taking privileges away, as they may not yet be

      able to connect the behavior to loss of the privilege. You can do that using

      our free printable Free Downloadables! Child Behavior Charts: How to Use Them Effectively to help motivate your son. Good luck to you and your family as you

      continue to work on this, and let us know if you have any more questions.

  • I was wondering would it make a child behavior better if you say. Honey if you get all good faces at school this week you can have a new toy worth 5$ or is that a bad idea to do?

    • TamaraB_ParentalSupport

      @audrey 

      You ask a great question.
      Finding what motivates your child to meet expectations is really helpful for a
      few different reasons. First, it allows you not to get involved in any power
      struggles about whether or not you can make your child do anything. Second, It
      keeps it simple.  If your child does whatMore they need to do the privilege
      will be earned. If he or she  makes the choice not to do it, the privilege
      will not be available. One thing to keep in mind is how long it will take to
      earn the privilege. Depending on the child’s age and ability, if it takes too
      long to reap the reward it will become frustrating, feel unachievable, and the
      young person may give up. Also keep in mind that rewards don’t always have to
      be things you buy, they can also be activities or access to things you already
      have. This article http://www.empoweringparents.com/Bribing-Kids-Vs-R... by Erin
      Schlicher may help you continue making a plan that works for you and your
      child. Thanks for writing.

    • Shreenk
      @audrey You risk setting up a situation where a child expects a reward for appropriate behavior.  Praise for good behavior is a good idea, but not as effective as praising a child for who they are.  The goal of any intervention should be to build the relationship.  Rather than "bribing"More the child, surprise them with a relationship-focused activity.  "I'm so proud of you!  You did great!  How would you like to go get ice cream?"  Your tone of voice is critical.  An excited, giggly voice takes deep root in the child's heart, as does special time together.  A $5 toy is here and gone.  Your child craves special time and attention from you.  Also, they need to learn that they don't get ice cream every time they behave as desired.  In those cases, a response like, "Oh Sweetheart, I wish we could have ice cream every day!  Wouldn't that be fun?  I am still very proud of you and I love who you are, but we are going to have to skip the ice cream this time.  I sure would enjoy a hug, though.  How 'bout you?"
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