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

By Megan Devine, LCPC

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!”

“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.”

Even just reading that story, I feel myself getting overwhelmed! Sometimes, parenting is so hard.

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 can agree on the same underlying cycle: My kid acts out. I give him a consequence. Nothing changes. I give him another consequence. Nothing changes. Now he’s even more resistant, and we’re even more annoyed. He gets another consequence. Nothing changes.

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

Stop adding consequences.

James Lehman 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,” or to simply wait out his consequences, rather than actually follow any rules.

It’s also true that when you stack up too many consequences, or ground your kid indefinitely, they see this as a hole from which they will never escape. 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.

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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. 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.

Here are  five things you might do to start seeing some real progress in your household:

1. 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 that is 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.

2. 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 tacking on additional punishments, try taking it day-by-day. To stick 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 James Lehman always tells us, “There’s no excuse for abuse.” We’ve written a lot about this on EP, and you can read more about verbal abuse by searching the EP archives.

Regardless of the behavior you’re trying to change, giving your child a chance to succeed — every single day — is more effective than stacking consequences. Remember: punishment does not change behavior.

3. Break it down! Chances are there are a lot of things you want your child to do differently. 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. 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.

4. Don’t double up. Related to focusing on just a couple of behaviors at a time, you want to match each behavior with one consequence, and don’t double up. Let’s say that he’s working on cleaning his room, and getting home by his curfew. So if your child earns internet time by cleaning his room each day, don’t take away his internet access if he breaks curfew. Match a different consequence to that rule. It 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. Choose something your child wants, and match one consequence to one behavior.

5. “But wait! My kid doesn’t care what we take away!” Ah, the feigned indifference of childhood. Look, kids do this all the time. If they know you will restrict, or make them earn, something they really, really want, why would they let you know what that thing is? If they pretend not to care, then maybe you won’t bother taking it away. Pretty smart, when you think about it. The way to find consequences that matter to your child is  you know your child best. Don’t listen to what they tell you they care about, look at what they actually care about. You know what they value. 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.

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.”

Related: EP Downloadable List of Age-appropriate Consequences for Kids

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; it keeps everyone in your family on track.

The truth is, you are all in this together. You create an environment of success, together.

You can do this. One behavior at a time, taking each day as it comes, things will start to change.

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About Megan Devine, LCPC

Megan Devine is a licensed clinical therapist, former 1-on-1 Coaching Advisor, 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.

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