How to Get Your Child to Listen: 9 Secrets to Giving Effective Consequences

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Do you ever feel like the consequences you give your child aren’t working—and that he’s just not listening? Giving consequences is more difficult than people realize sometimes, so don’t beat yourself up if you feel like you’ve been missing the mark. There’s really no perfect way to do it—some consequences are simply more effective than others.

I think it’s important to understand that the consequence you give your child is also a consequence for you, as well. It’s not pleasant—and it can often be hard to follow through. A consequence requires you to set limits that make your child uncomfortable. You also frequently have to monitor him more closely and endure pushback in the form of backtalk and bad attitude. Sometimes the bad behavior even escalates temporarily, leading you to question the consequence you chose in the first place. So if you want your child to listen, your role is to not only set the consequence in a clear, direct way, but also to make sure that your child follows through and that a lesson is learned. It’s no picnic.

“The consequence you give your child is also a consequence for you, as well. It’s not pleasant—and it can often be hard to follow through.”

Here are 9 tried–and–true “secrets” to giving consequences. I used these techniques when managing tough teens in residential treatment centers for decades, as well as with my own son.

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1. Connect the consequence to the behavior

The consequence you give should be as closely related to your child’s misbehavior as possible. For example, if your daughter comes in late for curfew on Friday night, set her curfew 15 minutes earlier the next weekend. If she is responsible and succeeds in coming in on time, she can have her old curfew back. Here’s another scenario. If your thirteen–year–old child curses at you or calls you names, you might take away his video games or cell phone and tell him he can have them back after he’s been civil to you (and everyone in the family) for two hours. If he slips up, the two hours will start all over again. That way, your child is practicing good behavior and working toward the goal of better behavior. And just like with anything else in life, practice is how your child will learn to make better choices when he’s upset or angry.

2. Avoid giving “never–ending consequences.”

The consequences you give should have a definite beginning and end. You don’t want to make them so long and drawn out that your child can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. When consequences are too harsh or have no end, he’ll start to feel like it’s hopeless and he’ll just give up. Just like the rest of us, kids have to feel like they’re capable of following through on whatever the expectation is.

3. Give your child achievable consequences

Along the same lines as the above, your child needs to be capable of doing what you ask. For example, if you say that his consequence is to fix and paint the wall he damaged, but he has no idea how to do that, you’ll both end up frustrated—and the bad behavior will probably escalate.

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4. Make the consequence uncomfortable for your child

Make sure the consequence you give your child makes him uncomfortable. It would be meaningless to take away a video game from a child who doesn’t like them very much, for example. Rather, look at what we might term “goodies.” What are the things your child values? What is his “currency?” What are the things he does when he avoids his responsibilities? Your child might be watching TV or texting friends instead of doing homework or chores, for example. An effective consequence would then be related to that TV or cell phone usage. As my husband James always said, “You can lead a horse to water and you can’t make him drink—but you can make him thirsty.” So find the thing that your child will feel uncomfortable losing temporarily, and then use it as a consequence to help him work toward better behavior.

5. Give consequences that have an impact on your child’s thinking

When your child misbehaves, you always want to ask him this question afterward: “What will you do differently next time?” Have him come up with some examples. (If he can’t, you can help him with a few of your own.) You can say, “When you wanted to watch your show, you grabbed the remote out of your brother’s hands and pushed him down onto the sofa. What will you do differently next time so you don’t get in trouble?” That way, when you give the consequence, (“No TV until you can get along with your brother for three hours straight.”) there’s a lesson embedded inside of it.

6. Don’t yell or get emotional when delivering consequences

If you’re wondering how to get your child to listen, one way is to avoid yelling, screaming or arguing when giving a consequence. Don’t debate—it will only make things worse and result in a power struggle. Rather, speak clearly and in a matter–of–fact tone of voice. If you start yelling, it makes it more about you—and the argument itself—than your child’s behavior and the lesson you’re trying to teach him. Remember, if you’re out of control it reduces your authority.

7. Give yourself time to think things through

For many of us, it’s hard to stay calm and give an effective consequence when your child has misbehaved. If you’re feeling frustrated or angry, you might say, “Let’s talk about this when we’re both calm. I’ll get back to you later in the day.” Or, “We’ll discuss this in an hour.” There are times when you as a parent need time to think about what consequence would be most effective. Often it’s useful for your child to have time to think about what he’s done, as well. It’s uncomfortable for kids to have to wait and hear what their parent is going to say—and taking that time will help you come up with a more effective consequence.

8. Match the level of the consequence to the level of the misbehavior

Don’t overreact or under–react. Parents can often be too intense or too permissive. It’s easy to fall into the trap of under–reacting, and neglect to follow through on giving a consequence, for example. Or they overreact and make the consequence too long or difficult. Both of those stances are ineffective. If your child kicks a hole in the wall, taking away his video games for a day isn’t going to really do the trick. But on the other hand, if he teases his sister at dinner, grounding him for two weeks is too harsh. Remember, a consequence is intended to teach a lesson and should be connected to the misbehavior.

9. Create a menu of consequences

When you have a moment to yourself, come up with a menu of consequences for your child. Sit down and write a list of consequences and rewards that might be of value to him. You can even ask your child for his own ideas for rewards. In fact, rewarding good behavior is just as important as giving consequences. A reward could be a trip to the mall, a movie rental, or extra video game time after school. When you see your child behaving the way he should, take time to notice and then say something about it. The old adage of “Catch your child being good” is true for a reason—it acknowledges good behavior and inspires him to keep trying.

When I worked in residential treatment with troubled teens, we had a menu of consequences and rewards and matched them to each individual kid. We also asked them for ideas for consequences for themselves. When they came up with their own consequence and imposed it, it worked very well. Let’s say your ten–year–old child breaks his younger brother’s toy. He may come up with a consequence like, “I’ll pay for a new toy out of my own money.” You also want kids to start making that match between their behavior and making amends when they’ve hurt someone or broken something—this is also part of the lesson they need to learn.

What if the consequences you give still aren’t working?

Does your child seem to shrug off your consequences? Believe me, over the years I’ve met a lot of kids who have said, “Whatever. I don’t care.” It’s easy to believe your consequences aren’t working when you hear those words. This is often a way for your child to bluff or withhold compliance because you’re caught in a power struggle. The consequence may be an effective one, and your child may in fact be uncomfortable, but he’s not going to show you that, no matter what. If it’s a really meaningful consequence, he might be angry and lash out. The key is to pay attention to your child’s behavior and not his words. For example, if you send your 12–year–old son to his room and he complies, mumbling under his breath all the way, then he’s really following through even though his words don’t sound that way.

If you still find that the consequence you’ve given isn’t effective, there’s nothing wrong with going back to the drawing board. If you’ve assigned too harsh of a consequence, you may need to rethink what you’ve said and come back with something else. Or, you may need to change the consequence because your child isn’t taking it seriously. Let’s say your teenager is so distracted that he’s not getting his homework done. You might decide to take his cell phone away for one night and say something like, “You may have your phone back after you’ve completed your work.”  He’s working toward a reward (the phone) by doing his homework. But when you find he’s still not completing his assignments, you might have him work at the kitchen table so you can make sure he’s not on Facebook or chatting with friends when he’s supposed to be studying for his math test. You can say, “It seems like you get really distracted in your room. I’d like you to do your homework here for a few days until I see that you’re able to be responsible on your own.” Again, remember to make sure the consequence has a beginning and an end.

How “Writing It Out” Can Help Your Child

One technique that works very well after a child has misbehaved is to have them sit down by themselves and “write it out.” For the child who gets so upset he can’t tell you why he did what he did, this can be an extremely useful tool. Basically, your child should record what happened from start to finish. Then, he should write what he will do differently next time. This removes any emotion from the situation and lets kids calm down and gather their thoughts. For younger children, (age 3~6) you might have them draw a picture. When kids are a little bit older (first to third grade, for example) you might ask them to write one paragraph, and so on.

The interaction you have with your child after you read his explanation also will give you a way to come together calmly and talk about what he learned—and also bring some closure. The conversation might go like this: “It was wrong for you to hit your sister when you were mad at her. I read your note about what you could do differently next time and you said ‘When she annoys me, I can just tell her to stop or I can leave the room.’ I think that’s a good plan. And I’ll try to help you do it next time, too. Just let me know if you need my help.”

It really is important to have closure on the situation if you can. Then, when it’s done, it’s done. Try to acknowledge to your child that if he’s met the consequence, it’s over, and you’re moving on together.

Let’s face it, it’s hard to give consequences: our kids don’t like to get them and they let us know about it—loudly. But our job is not to be friends with our kids, our job is to be their parent. As much as children may complain, kids whose parents set limits feel safer. And when you follow through on consequences, you’re teaching your children life lessons that they’ll carry with them into adulthood.

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

About

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. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.

Comments (15)
  • PM
    I worked at a residential treatment facility for s.e.d. youth as well, and I was always the push over staff,.. now my 11 , soon to be 12 yr old , wants to act disrespectful and entitled anlongwithnot listening, and not taking me serious. . I'm raisingMore him solo... No father figure bit I'm working on that, anyway all I want to tell u is THANK YOU FOR REMINDING ME OF HOW I WAS TRAINED TO HANDLE DIFFICULT CHILDREN. WHEN I WORKED at the group home I hadn't had my son yet so I was hesitant to stick it to the kids when they role the rules ... But thank u , reading this was a godsend.
  • Eye for an eye
    My 12-year-old son will not accept consequences. He has high functioning autism and is very intelligent. If I were to take away his phone, he would take away MY phone and hide it. If I even try to take away his computer, he will go to my computer and hideMore my keyboard and mouse. He says if you take something I love, I will take something you love. When I try to explain parental authority, that I'm trying to teach him something about life, that I'm trying to help him in the long run... he doesn't care what I say. His anger overwhelms him. It started when he was young. I spanked him for the first time at age 2. He then spanked me. He said, if you can hit me then I can hit you. At age 2! I didn't spank him again. My approach is to praise him when he does the right thing and tell him my disappointment when he does the wrong thing. I would love to hear some thoughts!
    • Same boat!

      My 9 year old behaves exactly the way you describe your 12 year-old as behaving. EYE for an EYE. Also started when I tried to spank him at 2 or 3. I never did it again because he also hit me back saying the same thing your son said. I came across this site because my son just now took my phone because I took away his book (because he wasn't doing his homework). He said he will give me my phone back once I give him my book back.

      Did you ever find a solution? We just threatened to take away his baseball practice this afternoon if he didn't give me my phone back within 5 minutes (after he'd already had it for an hour and I'd been calm the whole time and encouraged him to calm down and reconsider his poor choices). He loves his baseball practice so we figured this would work, but he's so incredibly stubborn that he won't budge.

      HELP! He still has my phone.

  • Despondent
    My 14 yr old son is the most stubborn kid I've ever met. he's always been a strong student and a decnt athlete but something changed in 7th grade and now by end of 8th we are at wits end. His grades have dropped to C's in his core subjectsMore because he doesn't turn in assignments or homework mainly although he still tests ok. He's dropped out of every sport he does. I forced him to get back into a previous sport he did swimming, and he swam at snails pace on purpose before just outright refusing to go. (He's a blue ribbon swimmer.) all he wants to do is stay in his room and play video games even though weve always had rules around that and even installed Tether to assist controlling. The final straw was his report card with the C's and dropping out out of his sport the same week. We said we'd take away his gaming computer for two weeks and confirm he was turining in assignments and attending a twice weekly sport and then we'd give it back. It's been a week and it's worse than ever. Now he's definitely not turning anything in at all and not even trying on tests. At home he just stays in his room listening to music. For hours on end and All day on weekend. Barely eats but only what we make for him. Won't talk to us. Says he can't wait to move out when he's 18. Says He doesn't care about computer anymore. Missing the bus on purpose each morning so I have to come back and drive him. That grades don't count in middle school so why should we take away his computer. He'll do well in high school he says and still wants to go to college. Help!! Should we readjust the consequence or stand firm??
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      I hear you. It can be so frustrating when you give a child a consequence and he responds by acting out even more. At this point, it might be time to reassess your consequences, as they don’t seem to be effective in motivating your son to change hisMore behavior. We typically recommend giving time-limited, task-oriented consequences to hold kids accountable for their behavior. For example, you might let your son know that if he does homework and studies for tests for an hour, then he can earn an hour on his gaming computer. If he refuses, then he doesn’t get it that day, and has another chance to earn it the next day. You might also consider having a problem-solving conversation with him about what he’s going to do differently to bring up his grades moving forward. I recognize how difficult this must be for you, and I hope that you will write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family. Take care.
  • Nicola Moore
    I need some help my nearly 7 year old is getting into trouble at school especially when in the playground, she is lashing out all the time and this ranges from kicking to smacking others and then isn't fazed by being told off and gives attitude. I'm not sure whatMore triggers this off usually but she did open up to me on one occasion saying someone kicked her so she went to kick back and got the wrong person. But im just presuming she's trying to stick up for herself but I have spoke to her and said if anyone hits you you need to talk to a teacher. But saying that I really feel like shes the target in regards to other children blaming her or teasing to get a reaction which then gets her into trouble and I feel that she gets told off to much now she isn't bothered and knows what to expect. At her school also they are given report sheets as warnings and my daughters not bothered by these one bit and she's also been banned from the school pantomime on Friday so I have to pick her up from school early. This hasn't bothered her either. I have also removed everything she enjoys doing out of her room and placed them in the car and said if you can behave at school for the next two days for when your dad's home she can have them back. I'm really at the end of my tether being told that my daughters constantly misbehaving at school. She is sometimes hard work at home with not listening but not half as bad as at school really need help I've tried to liase with school but nothing else is being done other than her being punished all the time
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      Nicola Moore I hear you.  It can be so upsetting when your child is acting out in school, and doesn’t seem to care about the consequences.  While it is not OK for your daughter to be kicked or teased by other kids, she is the one in charge of howMore she responds and her own behavior.  I’m glad that you have been talking with your daughter about what she can do instead of becoming aggressive toward other kids.  You might consider having ongoing https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/the-surprising-reason-for-bad-child-behavior-i-cant-solve-problems/ with her about specific steps she can take if she gets upset with her classmates. I’m also glad to hear that you have been trying to work with the school to address this behavior. If you are not seeing your daughter acting this way at home, you might also consider talking with her teachers about what kind of approach tends to work with her as outlined in https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/acting-out-in-school-when-your-child-is-the-class-troublemaker/.  I recognize what a difficult situation this must be for you, and I hope that you will write back and let us know how things are going for you and your daughter.  Take care.
  • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

    Hanna50371 

    I appreciate you

    writing in to Empowering Parents and sharing your story.  I recognize how

    frustrating it can be when a child repeatedly ignores you and doesn’t follow

    directions. Because we are a website aimed at helping people become more

    effective parents, we are limited in the advice and suggestions we can give to

    those outside of a direct parenting role.  At this point, it could be

    useful to talk with their parents about the lack of compliance you are

    witnessing, and see what suggestions they might have to address this.  You

    might consider using our article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/ask-once-and-your-kid-does-it-5-ways-to-make-it-happen/, as a starting point

    for this conversation.  I wish you all the best moving forward.  Take

    care.

  • artteacher2010
    Please help. Our 11 year old son will yell back, argue, be disrespectful, and blame others for his actions. When he has an incident we take away everything that he loves for a certain amount of time and has to earn back with acceptable behavior. The problem is whenMore he finally earns everything back or get close to it within a few days he blows up and loses everything again. We've tried talking it out, having him write out his feelings and how he can change his reactions, being nice, being mean, and it's like nothing works. He continues to repeat the same behavior over and over. He is now seeing a therapist. Is there anything you can recommend?
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      artteacher2010

      Many parents face similar frustrations when it seems as

      though consequences aren’t having an effect on behavior. It can be helpful to

      know that consequences are only part of the solution. In order for behavior to

      really change, the child needs to develop more effective coping or problem

      solving skills. Sara Bean explains how to help your child develop these very

      important skills in her article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/the-surprising-reason-for-bad-child-behavior-i-cant-solve-problems/. A

      parent also wants to be sure they are setting their child up for success. One

      way of doing this is by using task oriented consequences, as described in the

      article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/using-consequences-to-maintain-your-parental-authority/. Part of this involves

      picking one behavior to focus on at a time. It may also be more effective to

      pick one privilege to link to that behavior instead of taking away all privileges

      at once.  A child who has lost everything has nothing left to lose. In

      that way,  taking everything away may end up being counterproductive

      because when a child loses everything, he will often give up trying to earn the

      privileges back. I hope this information is useful. Take care.

  • SueLew
    So what do I do, when my 15 year old daughter refuses to hand over her phone, or laptop; and refuses to attend a doctors appointment! And shuts herself in her room!!
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      SueLew

      I understand where you’re coming from. As a parent, it can

      be frustrating and, quite frankly, exhausting, trying to hold your child

      accountable when they don’t want to be held accountable. One thing we have

      found to be effective is using what we call “fail proof consequences” –

      consequences you can and will follow through with that won’t result in a power

      struggle. For example, instead of trying to take your daughter’s phone, you

      might instead have the service suspended. Or, instead of taking her laptop, you

      can disable the Wi-Fi access by shutting off the router or changing the

      password. Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner explain fail proof

      consequences in greater detail in their article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/parenting-odd-children-and-teens-how-to-make-consequences-work/. As far as motivating

      your daughter to go to doctor’s appointments or other necessary activities, you

      might consider implementing a reward or incentive where she earns something she

      wants by going to the appointment. I hope this information is useful for your

      situation. Best of luck to you and your daughter moving forward. Take care.

  • tiredoftude
    We are having such an issue getting our 12 year old to go to school! We have tried it all..even a truancy officer talk to her..she feels better for a bit then next morning..well here we go again! We have taken her phone,tablet...so I am now at the end ofMore the rope..also she is hateful and just doesn't care see she failed 6grade and about to fail her second year because of all her absences..what can we do?? Plz help
    • Sherre
      tiredoftude is she being bullied?
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      tiredoftude

      This sounds like a very challenging situation. I can hear

      how concerned you are that your daughter may end up not passing again this

      year. One thing I think is important to keep in mind is the reason most kids

      act out or refuse to comply is because they are faced with a situation they may

      not have the skills to cope with any other way. It may be productive to sit

      down with your daughter at a calm time and talk with her about what’s going on

      at school. Is there work she finds challenging? Is there bullying going on?

      Having a conversation with her is the first step to trying to help her figure

      out a more productive way of coping with the difficulties she may be facing.

      For more information on ways you can address this frustrating situation you can

      check out this article by Sara Bean: https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/i-hate-school-what-can-i-do-when-my-child-refuses-to-go-to-school/. We

      appreciate you writing in and sharing your story. Best of luck to you and your

      family moving forward.

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