Many of the questions we receive on the Parental Support Line involve consequences and incentives. Parents wonder how to set them up effectively, and how long to give them. Another frequent question we receive is simply, “What am I supposed to use as a consequence—or a motivator?”
A great way to start is to sit down during a calm moment and create a list, or “menu,” of consequences and rewards for your child. (The best part? Your child can give you some of the answers.) We created these examples to answer that question and to help you get started in structuring the consequences you give in your house. These menus are grouped by age and developmental level so they will be most effective with your children, no matter what stage they’re in.
In addition, keep the following four tips in mind:
1. Use these Consequences Menus as a starting point for your ideas. Included in the menus are some of the most common suggestions we give to parents who are looking for ideas of what to use for consequences and rewards for their kids. We find that these particular things are usually motivating for most children in that age range. That said, you know your child best—and what will motivate him or her. If you know that your child doesn’t care about electronics, for example, feel free to use something else instead. It can actually be helpful to sit down with your kids, and ask them what they would like to work toward for a reward, for example.
Free Downloadable Consequences & Rewards Menus
Menu of Daily Consequences and Rewards for Ages 5–9
2. Consequences are most effective if they are “time-limited and task-oriented.” What this means, in the simplest form, is that if you take something away, your child should know what specific behavior he or she needs to show over a specified short-term period of time in order to earn that privilege back. Let’s say your teen daughter is verbally abusive to you. As a consequence, you decide to withhold her cell phone until she can go for two hours without swearing or calling anyone a name. During that time, she will be practicing the desired behavior, and is then rewarded when she is able to carry it through for the entire two hours. (If she can’t, the two hours starts again from the time she misbehaves.)
Remember, as James and Janet Lehman tell us, the goal here is to teach your kids what to do differently next time. If you simply ground them or take something away for long periods of time, you’re simply teaching them how to do time.
In general, we do not recommend withholding a privilege for more than three days, because after that time period, the privilege can start losing its motivational power. (The exception would be if there was a safety issue involved; for example, if your teen was driving under the influence.)
3. Use only one consequence at a time. We recommend picking one consequence or incentive to go with the behavior you are focusing on. Ideally, you will have had a chance to let your child know ahead of time what that consequence or reward will be. In this way, your child knows exactly what he or she will lose or gain as a result of the choices they make. Sometimes when parents are in the middle of a heated power struggle with their child, they feel tempted to give multiple consequences for the same behavior to “make” their child comply, but this is almost always ineffective. We call this “consequence stacking.”
What this might look like: The parent says, “That’s it—you’ve lost your phone. Okay, you want to keep it going—you’ve lost television, too!” Or, “No video games for a week. Now it’s two weeks! Three! Nice going, you’ve lost them for a month now!” The trouble with consequence stacking is that it ultimately undermines your authority, because you are bringing yourself to your child’s emotional level by giving a knee-jerk punishment them rather than a well-thought-out consequence. In order to avoid this temptation, we recommend waiting to give consequences until everyone is calm and then picking one thing that will be an effective motivator for your child.
4. Don’t forget about problem solving! Many times we hear from parents, “I keep giving consequences, but my child’s behavior isn’t changing! What am I doing wrong?” James and Janet Lehman point out that “consequences alone do not change behavior.” If that were the case, you could take away a privilege and your child wouldn’t act out anymore. Problem solving with your child about how he or she will act differently in the future is the key to lasting behavior change, and giving consequences and rewards is a tool you can use to keep your child to his or her word.
We encourage you to download copies of these menus as needed with your child. We hope that this will be a helpful resource for you as you work on your child’s behavior. Feel free to leave us a comment and let us know how it’s going—or if you have suggestions to include that work with your child!
Rebecca Wolfenden is a loving Momma to her son and a dedicated 1-on-1 Coach. She earned her degree in Social Work from West Virginia University and has been with Empowering Parents since 2011. Rebecca has experience working with children and families in home settings and schools, and has extensive practice working with people of all ages who have survived significant emotional and physical trauma.