Does your child ignore every consequence you give him? James Lehman can help with 10 specific ways to make consequences work—even for the most resistant child.

When kids are faced with something unpleasant, they’ll often act like it doesn’t matter to them. When your child says, “I don’t care,” or seems unaffected when you give him a consequence, what he’s really saying is, “You can’t hurt me.”

That’s because receiving a consequence makes kids feel powerless. Their sense of self almost requires them to respond by shrugging and saying, “Whatever,” simply in order to feel in control again.

Focus on what you want your child to learn from the consequence—not whether or not he’s going to care.

Personally, I don’t think parents should worry too much when their child appears not to be affected. Instead, I think you should focus on what you want your child to learn from the consequence—not whether or not he’s going to care.

In fact, I think trying to get your child to care is a misdirected goal. Don’t put so much weight on making him “hurt” that you’re not thinking about trying to get your child to learn a new behavior. If your child can stop you in your tracks by saying “I don’t care,” you’re giving him way too much power.

To put it another way, if you’re looking for your child to surrender, forget about it. A consequence is not designed to make your child say, “I’m sorry, Mom, I was wrong.” Rather, it’s there to help your child change his behavior.

Think of it this way. The consequence for not following the speed limit is that you might get a speeding ticket. You may shrug and say, “Whatever,” to the police officer when he pulls you over, but that won’t stop him from giving you that ticket. And if you say, “I don’t care,” he’ll say, “Well, here you go, sir. Have a good day.” He won’t argue with you. He’ll simply hand you the ticket and walk away.

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In my opinion, you have to be like that police officer when giving your child a consequence. Don’t get sucked into an argument when your teen says, “I don’t care,” because that argument brings you down to his level—and that’s what he’s looking for. Instead, just say:

“All right, fine, but you’re still going to lose your cell phone for 48 hours.”

Then simply turn around and leave the room.

Again, if you’re trying to get your child to care about the consequence you give him, that’s like trying to get him to like you. You shouldn’t try to control his emotional life. Just say:

“These are the consequences.”

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And even if he says he doesn’t care, let him know that he will encounter them again if he breaks the rules.

Here are 10 tips for how to give consequences that work—even when kids say they don’t care.

1. Use Consequences That Have Meaning

It’s almost never effective to give your child a consequence in the heat of an argument. Often, parents will be either too harsh or too lenient, because nothing appropriate comes to mind immediately.

I advise parents to sit down and write a “consequences list.” You can think of this as a menu of choices. When compiling this list, keep in mind that you want the consequence to be unpleasant, because you want your child to feel uncomfortable. It’s also important to think about the lesson you want him to learn—and this lesson should be attached to the consequence.

If, like most teens, your child’s cell phone has meaning for him, don’t be shy about using it as leverage. So let’s say your child curses and is rude to his sister, and you want him to learn how to manage his feelings. I think an effective consequence might be that he would lose his cell phone until he doesn’t curse and isn’t rude to his sister for 24 hours.

In those 24 hours, he might also have to write a note of apology to his sibling stating what he’ll do differently the next time he gets frustrated. If he fails to write the letter, he doesn’t get his phone back—and the 24 hours starts all over again.

2. Don’t Try to Appeal to His Emotions with Speeches

Remember, your job is not to get your child to love his sister or to appeal to his emotions with a speech because all he will hear is, “Your sister looks up to you, blah, blah, blah.”

Your job is to take his phone and say:

“Hey, we talk to each other nicely around here. And if you can’t do that, then you can’t use the phone. We’ll talk about giving it back to you after you talk nicely to your family for 24 hours.”

3. Make Consequences Black and White

When you give a consequence, the simpler you keep things, the better. Again, you don’t want to get into details and long speeches. What you want to do is lay out your consequences for your child’s inappropriate behavior very clearly.

It’s often helpful if he knows ahead of time what will happen when he acts out. The consequences for your child’s behavior should be clear to him. Tell him:

“If you talk nastily to your sister, this is what’s going to happen from now on.”

And whenever you’re going to introduce an idea to your child that may be unsettling, anxiety-provoking, or frustrating to him, do it when things are going well, not when everybody’s screaming at each other. Wait until a calm moment and then lay out the consequences simply and clearly.

4. Talk to Your Child About Effective Problem-Solving

I think it’s vitally important to have problem-solving conversations with your child after an incident has occurred. When things are going well, you can say:

“If you get frustrated with your sister in the future, what can you do differently, other than to call her names? Let’s make a list.”

You might help generate some ideas by saying:

“Instead of calling her names, how about going to your room and listening to some music for a few minutes? Could you do that?”

And try to help your child come up with his own ideas. He might say, “If she follows me around the house, I’ll go to my room.”

You can then say:

“All right, why don’t we try that? For the rest of today, if your sister bothers you, pick one thing that you’re going to do from this list and see if it’s helpful.”

Conversations like these are how you get your child to think about alternative solutions other than yelling at his sister, name-calling, or acting out.

Look at it this way: we all get frustrated, we all get angry, and we all get anxious. But everyone has to learn to deal with those feelings appropriately. And a problem-solving conversation is the most effective way to talk with your child about change.

5. Don’t Get Sucked into an Argument over Consequences

Don’t accept every invitation to argue with your child. Understand that he wants you to get upset so he can drag you into a fight.

Your child also wants to show you that he’s not hurt by the consequence you’ve given him. Believe me, I understand that it’s annoying and frustrating as a parent. Kids will try to push your buttons by saying: “Who cares. Whatever.” But don’t get sucked into it. Just say:

“All right, it’s too bad that you don’t care. That means it’s just going to happen more often.”

Then go do something else. And remember, while you don’t want to get sucked into a power struggle, you also don’t want to destroy your child’s pride by demeaning him. You just want him to stop talking poorly to his sister.

6. Don’t Teach Your Child How to “Do Time”

Many parents get frustrated and ground their kids for long periods of time in order to make the punishment stick. Personally, I think that’s a mistake.

If you simply ground your child, you’re teaching him to do time. And he won’t learn anything new. But if you ground him until he accomplishes certain things, you can greatly increase the effectiveness of the consequence.

I always say to make your consequences task-oriented, not time-oriented. So if your child loses his video game privileges for 24 hours, he should be doing something within that time frame that helps him improve his behavior. Simply grounding him from his video games for a week will just teach him how to wait until he can get them back—not how to behave more appropriately. Many parents believe the key to making consequences effective is to get a bigger hammer, but that’s not a sound teaching method. And it’s ineffective.

Think about it, if you ground him for 30 days and then he does something wrong tomorrow, what are you going to do? Ground him for 40 days? It won’t be effective at that point. And you probably won’t stick to it anyway. You are basically out of grounding ammunition!

But, if you ground him for 24 hours, then if he misbehaves again later in the week, you can ground him again. Again, we want consequences to be learning experiences. A consequence that doesn’t fit the crime will just seem meaningless to your child, and won’t get you the desired result.

Remember, you don’t want to be so punitive that your child simply gives up. And you don’t want to use up all your consequences ammunition all at once. It’s ineffective and doesn’t translate to better behavior. And better behavior IS the goal.

7. Engage Your Child’s Self-interest

Learn to ask questions in ways that appeal to your child’s self-interest. So for example, you might say:

“What are you going to do the next time you think Dad is being unfair so you won’t get into trouble?”

In other words, you’re trying to engage his self-interest. If your child is a teenager, he won’t care about how Dad feels. Adolescents are frequently very detached from the feelings of others, particularly their parents. They might feel guilty and say they’re sorry later, but you’ll see the behavior happen again.

So learn to appeal to their self-interest, and ask him the question:

“What can you do so you don’t get in trouble next time?”

Put it in his best interests. Say to him:

“Understand, if you’re going to talk to your sister meanly or curse at her, things are only going to get worse for you, not better. I know you want to keep your phone, so let’s think of ways for you to be able to do that.”

8. Learn to Know If a Consequence Is Working

Parents often say to me, “My child acts like he doesn’t care. So how do I know if the consequence I’m giving him is actually working?”

I always tell them, “It’s simple—you’ll know it’s working as long as he’s being held accountable.” Accountability gives you the best chance for change.

Think again about the police officer who gives the speeding ticket. Does he actually believe that a single speeding ticket ensures that a driver never speeds again? Of course not. But, the officer knows that if he holds the speeder accountable every time that even the worst offenders eventually learn to slow down.

9. Don’t Take Away Important Events

In my opinion, there are certain things that should never be taken away from kids. For instance, you should never prohibit your child from going to the prom. Not ever. That’s a milestone in your child’s life.

Personally, I think that milestones should not be taken away. Your child is not going to learn anything from that experience. He’s just going to be bitter.

I also believe that sports should not be taken away. I have no problem with kids missing a practice if that’s part of a consequence, but taking away the sport entirely is not a good idea.

10. Don’t Show Disgust or Disdain

When giving consequences to your child, be consistent and firm, but don’t show disgust or disdain.

In my opinion, you should never be sarcastic with your child because it’s wounding. What you’re trying to do is raise someone who can function, not somebody who feels they’re a constant disappointment to you.

It’s very important to shape your behavior so that your child knows you’re not taking his mistakes personally. Remember, the look on your face and the tone of your voice communicates a lot more to your child than your words do. Positive regard is critical for getting your message across.

A Final Thought

I think it’s important to remember that life is really a struggle for many kids. Going to school is difficult, both academically and socially, and there is tremendous pressure on children and teens to perform today.

Personally, I think that kids should be recognized and respected for that. Think of it this way: what you’re really trying to do is work on your child’s behavior to get him to try to do different things.

So if your child misbehaves and you ground him from everything indefinitely, you’re losing sight of all the other things he did right. And he will, too.

Instead, we want to look at inappropriate behavior as a mistake your child makes. Parents often wonder why their kids make the same mistakes over and over, and I say, “Well, they do that because they’re kids. They’re not pretending. They perceive things very differently than adults do.”

We want our kids to learn, so we use the things they enjoy as leverage to teach them better behavior. After all, giving your child a consequence until he shows you he can do better is an effective tool you have at your disposal at all times—even if he tells you he doesn’t care.

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

About

James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

Comments (22)
  • Afmom

    None of this worked. My 12 year old isn't allowed on the internet (never has been). He has some games that are online, but no surfing the internet. So, someone at school told him about a youtuber and this game stream he does. The kid made it sound really cool to him and he came home and downloaded youtube to his ps. It's been a constant battle ever since.In the 18 months he's started getting into more and more trouble at school as a result. We tell him no delete the app and take away the ps for a few days (between 2 and 5 days depending on how long it shows he's had it). The same kid tells him we're too over protective and need to get a life.

    We've tried just banning the show. taking away the ps. Rewarding him for days he doesn't have the app. Talking to him about why he can't have it. Doing group punishment were his little brother receives the same. Physical punishments. Nothing works...nothing. In just a few days he redownload the app and we start all over. We are now moving into a phase were both child will only be allowed 30 minutes on the ps for the entire day and have to give up their controllers once the time has elapsed, but I dont think this will work either.

    Help

  • Carolyn
    My son is homeschooled due to anxiety etc at school. He makes friends relatively easily but lately he has not been responding well to parents of other children who give him discipline or consequences (i.e. remove a toy that the kids were arguing over). He literally shuts down and won'tMore talk to the parent and often the child either, even if I'm present. I'm really not sure what to do about it as I worry that he won't have many friends if he continues this way. As I said we have met several new kids this year already and he is great with them but when something doesn't go his way it goes downhill fast. He responds very well to a reward chart (i.e. points or something for doing things) and step ladders so thinking something like this might work with friendships too but we are currently in the middle of tweaking his behaviour at home which has also been a bit off the rails in the last few months.
  • Chris
    After reading this article and comments below this describes my son. He lies non stop about EVERYTHING! He disobeys and does things that he knows is wrong. When asked why he does this stuff all he says is "I don't know." He doesn't stop to think about his actions orMore the consequences that come with them. It's like a thought pops in his head and he instantly does it without thinking about it. We just don't know what to do anymore. :(
  • I agree with most things in this article . I have a 14 year old daughter who is just terrible. She has been physically violent towards me, stollen money from us, ditches class, poor grades, and just defiant. I'm not sure where the line is to give her punishments. Her behavior is unacceptable. I need help. Any suggestions?
    Mom of 2
  • redster

    I agree with almost everything in this article. We have a very defiant 13 year old, but most of these techniques are very effective. One of my favorites is making them earn back what they lose in the way of privileges with out just "doing time". i.e. He has to clean up his room and keep it clean for so many days if he wants access to a play room where the TV is.

    But one that's kind of a "maybe" for me is this one:

    "In my opinion, there are certain things that should never be taken away from kids. For instance, you should never prohibit your child from going to the prom. Not ever. "

    I sympathize with the reasoning behind this. I really do. A teenager may have a moment of stupid bad behavior, and taking away something like the prom is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that he would miss out on and never be able to enjoy for the rest of his life.

    The problem, however, is that children quickly figure out when certain privileges are "Holy Grails" - they are so important, so once-in-a-lifetime, or so ingrained in the family lifestyle that there is no way they will be taken away. And a truly defiant child will capitalize on this, taking advantage and being a maximum jerk on the eve of these events, because they know they cannot be taken away.

    At moments like this, you *must* do away with sentiment and family tradition, and take away the privilege. A defiant kid must know that NOTHING is really ever "off the table" if they are going to push hard enough.

  • Renae
    I am having issues with my 10 year old daughter. She was diagnosed with ADHD and cannot seem to get her behavior under control. She is constantly stealing a cell phone or a tablet within the house. We have tried to take away the electronics. She lies aboutMore everything and is too quick to tell a lie rather than to tell the truth. We have tried everything from taking things away all the way to spanking when deserved. Doctor says to talk to a behaviorist for other ideas. But I have a feeling that they are going to tell me to do things that we have already tried.
  • KimHardly
    Nice article,
  • AshleyAid
    I don't know what to do with my 11 yr. old. We've tried everything for several years and nothing gets through to him. He lied to his father and I, deceived us for an hour stole more than once without thinking or caring about consequences. It's like he chooses onlyMore to care about himself and no matter what type of punishment.. short or long of all methods, he just doesn't get it. Or refuses to care, I don't know which. On top of that it's always anyone and everyone/everything else's fault as to why it happened. It's impossible to have him take any responsibility on anything he does. I just wish I had an answer of what to do about it.
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      AshleyAid I hear you.  It can be so frustrating when you have a child who doesn’t seem to care about consequences or the impact of his actions.  It’s actually pretty normal for https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/kids-and-excuses-why-children-justify-their-behavior/ as a way of avoiding responsibility for their actions.  After all, if it’s someone else’s fault, orMore you are just giving him consequences because you’re mean or unfair, then he doesn’t have to change his behavior.  Something else to keep in mind is that consequences by themselves do not change behavior, because they do not teach a child what to do differently.  In order to help your son change his behavior, it could be useful to assist him in developing more appropriate skills.  You might find 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/, helpful as you continue to address your son’s behavior.  Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family.  Take care.
  • Clairelcoaker

    What do I do? my daughter is 6 and was only 6 in July. I have problems with her behaviour at home and the teacher also do at school. She just doesn't listen and she is very angry and negative. I feel so drained and it's effecting us all as a family as her older brother and sister just say why is she like this!!! I have also contacted a family link worker which didn't solve anything. I just don't know what to do.

    Kind regards Claire

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      Clairelcoaker 

      I’m sorry to hear

      about the challenges you are experiencing with your daughter, and I’m glad that

      you are reaching out for support, both here and in your local community. 

      It can be very draining when you are around someone who is constantly angry and

      negative, and this doesn’t change simply because it is your child.  We

      have many articles and other resources which address these topics here on our

      site.  Here are some you might find useful to start with: https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/defiant-young-children-and-toddlers-5-things-not-to-do/ and https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/negative-children-how-to-deal-with-a-complaining-child-or-teen/.  Please be

      sure to let us know if you have additional questions; take care.

      • Clairelcoaker
        Thank you for your reply but your links keep taking me back to the teens links. Every morning I struggle to get her ready for school with an attitude and when I collect her from school, teachers always says not had a good day today then the afternoon/ evening isMore stressful taking about what she's done at school and not done her work. I'm really worried as I don't want her to fall back at school and she should be doing more for her age. Thank you Claire
        • Caroline

          Hi Claire,

          I hope you don't mind me responding. I just thought on the off-chance this could help you I couldn't leave it. I have a 9 year old who we have had similar issues with for years. In fact both of your comments struck a chord with me as you could be talking about my son. We have always followed a positive parenting style but we got to the point where nothing was working. I have four kids and it works fine with them. It was tearing out family apart. I recently found out he has the MTHFR gene mutation and very high Pyrolle levels. Since getting his biochemistry right, which we've done through a holistic doctor and naturopath (we are still working on it but 3 months in and we are seeing great changes) we are able to coach and parent him in a positive way and see results, for the first time ever. I can't tell you how much this is changing the dynamics of our family. He is still by far the most challenging in our household but he is SO much better! He still has his massive 'episodes' but they are shorter and fewer. We are re-training him to deal with things and its sticking because he has the ability to process it now.

          I don't know if this might help, I really hope it does. Good luck and hang in there mumma xx

        • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

          Clairelcoaker 

          Thank you for

          responding, and I recognize how stressful it can be when it feels like most of

          your interactions with your daughter are either arguments or addressing poor

          behavior.  Something that can be helpful is to prioritize all the issues

          you are facing with your daughter’s behavior, and only focus on the top one or

          two.  In this way, you can prevent becoming overwhelmed, as well as

          building some positive interactions with your daughter.  Sara Bean offers

          more tips in her article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/in-over-your-head-how-to-improve-your-childs-behavior-and-regain-control-as-a-parent/.  Take care.

  • Deby Overgly

    Thank you so much!

    I had no ideia what to do with my son...

     He is driving me nuts. 

    You help me so much..

    .thank you!

  • ErickaL
    My daughter started pushing me around as soon as I took away her phone, and now is demanding it back, even though I am not giving in, she is now threatening me by not wanting to go to school so that I can get in trouble for truancy! That ifMore she can't have her way, then I'm going down!
  • clhunter15
    What happens if the teenager is genuinely sorry for what he's done, should the consequences be withdrawn?
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      clhunter15

      You ask a great question. Truthfully, the purpose of a

      consequence is to

      hold a child accountable for his behavior while also offering him the

      opportunity to learn how to make better choices in the future. Therefore, it’s important

      to follow through with any consequence once it’s given. With that said, there

      may be times when a parent gives a consequence in the heat of the moment that,

      in hindsight, may be extreme. In those situations, a parent can go back after

      things have calmed down and revisit what the consequence will be. Janet Lehman

      gives tips for how to do this in her article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/child-discipline-consequences-and-effective-parenting/. I hope this helps to

      answer your question. Take care.

  • PEVERELHOUSE

    My 14 year old son acts in the way you describe. He also acts this way with his teachers resulting in him being suspended. If we ground him he leaves the house regardless. He often goes to friends houses where we don't know where they live and the parents are unaware of his behaviour, or In some cases, are led to believe is being mistreated at home. He comes home When he wants.

    My wife and I feel totally powerless

    • Saratc

      My daughter is doing the same thing. She got into trouble and was grounded from her phone and fun. So she just left and I don't know where she goes. No amount of punishment, understanding, talking, etc has helped. She just wants her way, to do what ever she wants.

      She blames everything on me.

  • knife700
    But, what if your child REALLY does not care about consequences, for instance a ten year ol who has has, at separate times, video games, cell phone, seeing friends, etc. Taken away for 24 to 48 hoir periods, with carious tasks to complete in that time, and after nearly aMore year, does the same bad things, and when told of the consequences, just sneers at you, follows through on the tasks you set, rides out the lost privilege, and does it again, to the point where he is withoit the games and phone almost all the time.  He really seems not to want ANYTHING, except to prove he cannot be made ro do anything or change at all.  It is actually worrying that he cares so little aboit what most ten year olds LOVE to do, or xant do withoit, and would sooner spend ALL his time doing things he hates just to prove we cannot make him change hia behavior.  He is not ...usually...severely defiant about accepting the consequences, oddly enoigh, he just rides it oit and foes back to gis old ways IMMEDIATELY, exactly as jf he WANTS to be disciplined again just to prove he can "take it". What can make a child SO defiant that he seems to WANT discipline just to prove it cannot effect him at all.  It honestly feels like MASOCHISM, for want of a better word.
    • Mimi
      My 11yo old is the same exact way! I am over my he's and just don't know what to do anymore. Have you found anything that has helped?
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