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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.