When your child acts out or breaks the rules, it’s normal to feel your authority as a parent slipping away. If you’re like most parents, you’ve tried everything: you’ve taken the car away, locked the video games in a cabinet, and have even considered cancelling Christmas or a birthday party.
You’ve probably also seen that these things haven’t worked.
“The most effective way to change a child’s behavior—and assert your authority—is through clear, consistent consequences that are tied to that behavior.”
It’s very tempting to deliver a harsh punishment when your child has broken a rule. If for no other reason, you might feel compelled to do it to send a message: “I’m your parent. You need to listen to me.” Unfortunately, punishments are not an effective way to change behavior, nor are they a constructive way to reassert your parental authority.
Parents who have an authoritative style set clear rules and have realistic expectations that those rules will be followed. This doesn’t mean they act like a dictator, randomly doling out harsh punishments for any and all infractions! On the contrary, the authoritative parent’s goal teach and coach their child to better behavior. And they know that the most effective way to change a child’s behavior—and assert your authority—is through clear, consistent consequences that are tied to that behavior.
The reality is, you can’t punish your child into better behavior for two main reasons: there is no incentive for your child to improve; and they don’t learn how to behave any differently. (That’s why it feels like nothing ever changes, no matter what penalties you hand out.) By contrast, an effective consequence requires that your child learns that in order to get what they want, they need to improve their behavior.
The Three Elements of Effective Consequences
Simply stated, an effective consequence is one that is task-specific, time-specific, and related to the behavior you want to see change. So, what does that mean?
- Task-specific means that there is something your child needs to accomplish or practice related to the original problem. This is a concrete behavior, like meeting curfew or not swearing. Otherwise, your child is just “doing time”—waiting out the time period until their privileges are restored instead of spending that time engaging in the type of behavior you do want to see.
- Time-specific means that your child has a certain length of time by which they need to accomplish these tasks. The length of time should be long enough that your child has to stretch, but not so long that they lose interest or give up. For instance, no swearing for a week is just long enough that they have to work at it, but not so long that it feels impossible. And if her reward for a successful week is getting to use her video games again, you’ve also gotten her attention by placing “currency” that she values within her grasp.
It’s just not effective to remove privileges for vague or long stretches of time. If you take something away for six months, that is like an eternity in the life of your child; she’ll feel like the whole thing is pointless. Plus, as a parent, it’s SUPER hard to stick to a long term consequence. You lose your resolve, you get distracted, or you simply forget.
- Related to the original behavior means that the consequence is connected to the behavior you want to see your child change or improve. For example, if they’ve been breaking curfew, they need to show that they can come in at an earlier time for 7 days in a row before you will raise the curfew to a later time.
The Pitfall of Using Special Events as a Consequence
Cancelling an important holiday celebration or a party to teach your child a lesson is not going to result in improved behavior. Effective consequences require a child to show improvement in order to earn a privilege. Once a special event has passed, there’s no way for your child to earn it back.
If you’ve tied a consequence to a particular special day or celebration, like Christmas, the prom, or a birthday party, I encourage you to reconsider. These special moments in your child’s life can’t be recaptured. They will never have another 16th birthday or another senior prom. Besides, your child isn’t the only one who would miss out on these occasions; these are special events that you want to enjoy as well.
But I have already given him a consequence. How do I change it without losing my authority?
Now, what if you’ve already decided to take away Christmas, or you’ve already banned your son from using the car for the next year? How can you shift directions without losing your authority?
Look, your authority as a parent is not rooted in you sticking to a badly thought-out consequence. Your authority as a parent is a long-term investment; you build and maintain it by remaining calm, clear, and consistent. If you have to go back and change a consequence, try this:
I know I told you that your behavior cost you access to the car for the next 6 months. Here’s what I’d like to do instead. I want you to earn that car back. If you can be home by your curfew for 7 days in a row, I’ll give you the car for three hours on a weekend day. When you show me you’re responsible enough to return the car within those three hours, then we can talk about extending that time.
In this example, the parent used all three components of an effective consequence: it’s tied to the original behavior (breaking curfew), and it is both task and time specific.
It’s important to note that an authoritative parent does not argue or debate goals or consequences with their child. However, the authoritative parent is unafraid to review consequences they’ve given in the past in favor of repeatable, attainable, goal-oriented rules and expectations.
Establishing Short Term Goals towards Long Term Behavior Change
Say, for example, your child is engaging in unsafe behaviors, such as driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Not only would it be okay, it would be necessary, to bar access to the car for a long stretch of time.
I won’t even discuss returning your driving privileges until I’ve seen you consistently follow the house rules for 6 months. That means no drugs or alcohol and coming home by curfew. At the end of six successful months, we will discuss what needs to happen before you can drive again.
But within that long stretch, you can establish short-term task-oriented goals (think “small steps in the right direction”) so that your child has a consistent opportunity show improvement.
But She’s Just Not Getting the Message
What if your child doesn’t seem to get the message? Doesn’t the consequence need to be harsh, in order to get them to take it seriously? No! Remember, this isn’t about punishing your child. This is about encouraging improved behavior. “Harsh” consequences are simply not effective; task and time-sensitive consequences are. Besides, harsh punishments for the sake of getting a child’s attention often lead to power struggles, resentment, and more headaches—definitely not the results you’re looking for.
Your goal is to produce a child who can respond to limits, meet responsibilities, and demonstrate age-appropriate behavior. You want to help your child learn the skills they’ll need to be successful adults. Using your parental authority and establishing effective consequences will help get them there.