How I Gave Consequences that Worked (and Lived to Tell the Tale)

Posted June 16, 2008 by

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When my son was a toddler, getting out the door of our house was always the hardest part of any trip. Nowadays, it’s the leaving of a place—any place, whether it’s the park, a birthday party, or even the doctor’s office—that throws him for a loop. At karate last week, he actually kneeled in front of the vending machine they have there and literally refused to budge. He had his eyes on the Skittles and was not giving up on them without a fight. “No candy today,” I said, bracing for the eruption I could feel was coming.


I was not disappointed. My son slumped onto the floor like a melting Jello mold at a 4th of July picnic and started wailing. He’s getting too big to lift but I tried anyway, at which point he “went boneless” on me (as the book Knufflebunny calls it—the perfect description for when kids go all limp so you can’t pick them up.) I stood there completely embarrassed as the other parents watched. There’s nothing quite like the mortification you feel when your child is misbehaving and the eyes of the other parents are on you. I think it has it’s own special place in parenting hell, along with blow-out diapers and hearing the words “I hate you” from your kid for the first time.

But this was my moment of truth and I knew it: my Waterloo, my Norma Ray moment, my re-match against Apollo Creed. I tried to keep my voice calm, but it was shaking a little when I said, “OK then. I’m going to wait outside the door until you come out. And then we’ll leave, but I’m not going to fight with you. It’s your choice.”

The wailing turned into angry screeches. In fact, the words “Howler Monkey” come to mind. And boy, was everyone really staring at us. Only now, they were quickly looking away like they felt sorry for me, which was even worse. As I stood there outside the doorway, their perfectly-behaved children—or so they all seemed to me—filed out of the Karate dojo without any back talk or histrionics. I imagined these other families getting into their immaculate cars and going home to their clean, orderly houses. (OK, that’s probably just conjecture on my part. During moments like this, I always feel like everyone else has it all together except for me.)

But I stuck to my guns. I followed through on the consequences I’d spelled out for my son and waited on the sidewalk. And he finally stopped his act and came with me. When we got to the car, I gave him a hug, looked him in the eye and said, “I didn’t like what you just did at karate. I’m not going to give you candy when you cry and yell. Candy is something you get for being good, or as a special treat. So when I tell you it’s time to leave, you need to come with me.”

He actually said, “OK, Mommy.”

And you know what? One week later, he’s actually handling it pretty well when we tell him it’s time to leave wherever we are. I know we might have to go back and repeat this process again before it sticks, but for the time being, I’ve been doing a little parental victory dance in the Consequences end zone.

So now it’s your turn. Tell us about a time when you used a consequence that worked for your child, and how you stood your ground—or tell us about a time when you couldn’t. What would you do differently next time? (Because, let’s face it, we’ve all been there, too!)

About

Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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  1. Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor (Edit) Report

    To ‘Snippy’: You are in the right place for advice. It does sound like there is a lot you want to work on with your 19 year old and we are glad you have found this site helpful. In the Total Transformation program James Lehman talks a lot about the importance of picking your battles. At 19 years old it is very developmentally appropriate for your daughter to want to control her own schedule, cell phone use, and so on. After all, the goal here is independence so it’s important when dealing with adult kids to allow them to make many of their own decisions as much as would be appropriate. It might be most effective to overlook the attitude of entitlement your daughter has and focus on the most important behaviors such as picking up after herself and helping around the house. Perhaps you let her decide when she eats breakfast (and with whom) and what kind of schedule she keeps so long as she is home by curfew. The reason I am suggesting that you really pick and choose your battles here is because we find it to be ineffective to try to address too many behaviors at once. We recommend that instead you choose the top one or two behaviors, choose consequences for them, and not try to consequence all the other things right now. I am including an interesting article about adult children by Debbie Pincus where she talks about your role now being that of a consultant rather than a manager: Adult Children Living at Home? How to Manage without Going Crazy. We wish you and your family the best. Take care.

    Reply
  2. Snippy (Edit) Report

    Okay, I am looking for advise on what kind of consequences for a 19 year old. Generally, a well like and responsible young lady. She has a part-time job, a paper route and will be starting another part-time job very soon and has her license and a blackberry that she has paid for plus good friends.
    Entitlement is what comes to mind. We are in the process of laying some ground rules but I don’t know what realistic consequences to give. She is getting up in the morning whenever it suits which means not down for breakfast with her brothers before school and then eats breakfast on her own. Just some forms of disrespect such as constantly on blackberry (has in her room at night, plus her boyfriend is 3 hours difference going to school elsewhere) which leads to not helping around the house, dumping her shoes in the walk area, expecting the car whenever. Watching t.v. whenever. I like James’ balance of giving a privilege for doing task orientated job plus the idea of treating adult children like guests in the home. I guess this is where I would like to see some changes because she acts (not always) like she can do whatever she wants. Generally making decisions on my own is somewhat trying and my husband does not see some of these challenges as important. I find that if I write a list for things to be done, it gets done otherwise no offers.I hear it’s normal. We will need to work on a budget with her. I probably shouldn’t be complaining in seeing the other comments. Is there another blog on Total Transformation where I can get advise?

    Reply
  3. Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor (Edit) Report

    Leah: It sounds like you have a few different behaviors you are working on with your son. With younger kids we find that a clear structure with incentives works best. You can try a behavior chart in order to provide both of these things and motivate your son to do what is being asked. It might be best to keep it simple and work on one behavior with the chart: doing things the first time he is asked. I am including a link to what we call a “single behavior chart” as well as an article on how to use charts—both provide thorough instructions for you. If you do continue to offer your son options, try to avoid offering him the option of sitting in the corner. If you give a kid an easy thing and a hard thing to do, of course he will choose the easy thing. Try instead to offer two harder choices: “Would you like to make your bed or get dressed now?” Good luck as you continue to work through this.
    Child Behavior Charts: How to Use Behavior Charts Effectively
    Single Behavior Chart

    Reply
  4. Leah (Edit) Report

    Are options really a good idea? I will tell my son “you have two options to complete a task such as get dressed or make your bed or you can go in the corner” and he will willingly sit in the corner. I am stunned and at a lack of what to do because by choosing this I still don’t get the task accomplished that i requested. Should there be no option, just “you have to do this because I am the parent” and that’s it, end of story? Even when I use that tactic it turns into a fight. He’s 4.

    Reply
  5. mama jo (Edit) Report

    I am a “late bloomer” parent & am 42. I have a 5&1/2 yr. old & a 13 month old; both boys. Receintly my oldest began getting a bit jealous of the younger, most notably while on a trip to my fathers’ house in another city. My eldest was with us on a shopping trip to the local grocer; as we had done before but at a WalMart. This time he got the “gimmies” (ball, coloring book & candy). I gave him too many “warnings” & finally asked my dad to stay & pay while I took the Gimmie Monster to the car. Boy, oh boy, did he scream till we got out the door, then he went into yanking on me to go back in. I picked him up because of the traffic in the lot & tried to calm him; too no avail. I just kept walking to the car with him, the whole time mortified at the idea that my child had changed so in just a week. It was late by the time we got home (we had gone to the playground & gotten something to eat before shopping) so bettime was not good either. I woke up the next day to find his new attitude to be continuing, as the morning wore on I remembered something that I had read that told the reader that the parent was too drained to do the things the misbehaving child wanted. – “You are taking away my energy, so I can not do what you want. Here are your options”, It is working now (crossed fingers & holding my breath)

    Reply
  6. Elisabeth Wilkins Report

    Molly: This is a tough one. It’s hard to tell if your son was the culprit or not here — could it possibly be that your mom (even though you say she is still “sharp”) forgot where she put them? I’m also curious if anything else has gone missing besides her earrings…

    If you find that it was your son who was taking things, we have a good article on EP for you that deals with shoplifting and stealing. Please read it when you have a chance, and good luck!

    http://www.empoweringparents.com/Shoplifting-Stealing-and-Stealing-with-Aggression.php

    Reply
  7. Molly (Edit) Report

    I have a 14 year old son. I adopted him as a new born and though I often forget he is not my biological child I believe he always remembers. I mention this thinking this might be the cause of some of his anger. We live with my mother . My mother, though elderly, is quite sharp, though somewhat messy. Though this is the case she knows where her jewelry is. Well twice now she has missed a pair of earrings. Both she had placed in a box . When going back to retrieve them they were gone. There not being anyone in the house but the 3 of us, as angry and resentful as my son gets, his need for attention from his peers and his passive aggressiveness makes me believe thathe has taken them. He often will tell us that he sold this pen, this candy etc. to a friend as well. Adding this all up I wonder. He has never stolen money from us. I can lay oney on the table and he will come and ask for money. He is a wonderful kid and I love him so much. I am not really sure what to do.
    He does think we believe he took them. He said he believes this because of the way we are acting. Is this an admission of guilt. So if I do discuver he is taking things what do I do?

    Reply
  8. BrendaMom (Edit) Report

    OK, so yesterday was a day off school. We were at the park. My 6 year old asked to stop at 7-11 on the way home for a drink. It was 4:30 pm. At first I said OK. Then–get this–he says “I thought I wasn’t supposed to go to 7-11 with you on the way home anymore because I misbehaved last week.” I said thanks for reminding me; we’ll go home. If you want a treat, we can go to 7-11 after dinner. The whining began, and he was using the “i’m not hungry; i’m not going to eat dinner” and at that moment I felt a light of inspiration. I channeled James and all you folks. I said, “ok, if you don’t have a tantrum right now ( or stop discussing this or some such) we will go to 7-11 after I –emphasis–I eat dinner.” I loved it; thought it was brilliant. He calmed down quicker than usual. He did eat a bit of dinner and then asked to go. I said, well I haven’t eaten yet so you’ll just have to wait. By the time we went to get the treat I thought he deserved it in spades for navigating this new way of relating with me. I gave him lots and lots of praise.

    Another success last week: getting out the door in the a.m. is hard for us too. The day he blew up last week and after we both cooled off a bit I said, “well honey you had 3 really good days this week of leaving the house calmly and easily. Let’s try for 4 next week. I know you can do it.”

    This stuff is awesome.

    Reply
  9. Wendy (Edit) Report

    My almost 10 year old son is being treated for depression, and I also think he has OCD and maybe bi-polar disorder. Any consequence I give is greeted with the “I hate you, you hate me” argument, and when I try to explain myself to him (I’m trying to help you learn to be a responsible adult one day, etc.) I am told that he doesn’t plan to become an adult because he is just waiting until the day he has the guts to kill himself. Or alternatively, that when is 18 he will move out onto the streets and not become a productive member of society, hopes someone else kills him, whatever. This breaks my heart that he is so unhappy in his own mind. It makes me want to do whatever I can to make him happy, even for a moment. When I do stand my ground, and say I’ve explained to you at least twice why I want you to do whatever it is, there will be no more discussion, it works sometimes and the arguing stops. Other times it doesn’t. I am so conflicted about everything, and I know he senses that and takes advantage of it. His new argument is that he will sleep thru the new school year and do nothing, because he doesn’t need to know anything since he will be homeless or dead. I’m not looking for advice, I think I just needed to vent. Thanks.

    Reply
  10. Sandra (Edit) Report

    My children are 15 months apart. My daugher (6)often engages me in power struggles; however, my son (5) is generally very easy going. Often the most logical consequence for my daughter has a negative impact on my son. For example, I may tell my daughter to go to her room, pick up a toy, do a chore… but she refuses and a huge meltdown follows. The most effective consequence is to delay the trip to get ice cream planned for later in the day until she complies. If this consequence does not work, then I’m stuck and must follow through but my son is the biggest loser! (Obviously, I cannot leave my son at home alone). If I take my kids to the ice cream shop but do get my daughter something I’m asking for an enormous, knock-down, drag-out, nightmarish fit. Because my children are so close in age, I feel like I’m paralyzed in the consequences area… What can I do? I honestly feel like she is “jailing” her brother with her behavior! Arrg.

    Reply
  11. ella hess (Edit) Report

    It is wonderful feeling when you get this response from a child ” ok mom ”
    been there got that always feels great
    a little victory warms your hart for long time

    Reply
  12. Jackie (Edit) Report

    Jeanette: This is a tough one. I’m not a counselor or psychologist, so this is just my opinion as a mom here, but here’s what I’d do. First, I would assure your son that you will try harder to protect him from his cousin. This might mean keeping a closer watch on them when they play together. Then, each time you go to your brother’s house, I would sit your son and your nephew down and lay the ground rules for the visit. (You can do this in front of your brother.) For example, you can say, “No hitting, biting, kicking or hurting anyone. If anyone says ‘stop’ while you’re playing, you have to stop. If anyone gets hurt, we will leave.” (or, if he’s at your house, “You will have to leave.”) You don’t even need to say who you think will be doing the hurting–just leave it unspecified. Stick to this plan, and you might see some changes in behavior. If you don’t, you might have to stop going to your brother’s house for awhile. In the end, the most important thing is to protect your son and make sure he’s not in harm’s way.
    I hope this helps!

    Reply
  13. jeanette thornton (Edit) Report

    i have a nephew that has ADHD and ADD. he has a real attitude when it comes to women and he thinks that women are the root to all evil. he has to have the last word and treats his father like dirt. he is very jelous of my son. when he gets into trouble with someone he goes after garrett and will hurt him if we do not keep an eye on him. we have tried everything and i am at a lose as what to do. i want my nephew to treat my brother with respect and to leave my son with him. please help me. we are at a lose too. thanks
    jeanette

    Reply
  14. Elisabeth (Edit) Report

    Hi, Rachel and Marie. I think James Lehman said it best in regards to consequences vs. punishment.

    “A consequence is something that follows naturally from a person’s action, inaction or poor decision. It differs from a punishment in that a punishment is retribution. Punishment is “getting back” at someone, to hurt them back for a hurt they did. When you get a speeding ticket, it’s not a retribution for something you did wrong. It’s a consequence of your poor choices and decisions.”

    For more on this, you can access his article, “How to Give Kids Consequences that Work” at:

    http://www.empoweringparents.com/kids-and-consequences.php

    Hope this helps. And Rachel, hang in there!

    Reply
  15. Marie (Edit) Report

    Rachel, I wonder if your family therapist wants you to use rewards instead of punishment? Punishment and consequences are very different techniques and I’m guessing Elisabeth Wilkens could describe the difference more accurately than I could….

    One consequence I learned from a mom of teenagers many years ago was “No “B”s No Keys” If her kids didn’t acheive a B average (and she knew they did not have any learning disabilities that would affect their ability to acheive this) they were not allowed to use the car. It also impacts auto insurance rates so that is a very real-life consequence kids can learn to help them understand that thier behaviors have an economic impact on their life.

    Reply
  16. Heidi (Edit) Report

    My son, 11, has told me he hates me. The only thing I could think of at the time was the following response, ” Good, that means I’m doing my job as a parent.” Then I told him that I loved him anyway.

    He is saying it less and less. Has it totally gone away? Not yet. When it does I don’t think I will notice.

    Reply
  17. Terry (Edit) Report

    One day when my children were young, my son said to me, “If you don’t let me (do something that I don’t remember), then I won’t like you anymore.”
    I responded, “I don’t care if you like me. My job is to be your parent, not your friend. My job is to see that you grow up to be a responsible, self-sufficient adult.”
    He was rather surprised because the “I hate you” approach worked for other children in the apartment complex. It didn’t work with me.
    We didn’t have a problem with “I hate you” after that because it didn’t push my buttons and get the response that he desired. He had a right to his feelings, but I had a responsibility to parent appropriately.

    Reply
  18. Rachel (Edit) Report

    Oh, when my son first told me he hated me he was two and we were in a super market. He had this look of smug “what are you going to about it?” on his face. I looked him square in the eye and told him he could feel anything he wanted because I loved him anyway. He told me he hated me a couple more times that same trip to which my answer was “I love you anyway.” No matter how mad he gets, no matter how much he tries to hit or kick me, he has never again said that he hates me. He did, however, make the opposite statement of “my mommy hates me” a year ago when he was sent to his room for a cool down – even writing it on a pillow in permanent marker. After he calmed down, I told him that just because he feels a certain way, doesn’t make it true – feelings are such fleeting, fickle little things that what is felt today will feel like something else tomorrow.

    Reply
  19. Rachel (Edit) Report

    Firm, consistent consequences are well and good, but what do you do when they don’t work? I live at home with my parents while I attend school full time. My mother is a screamer/threatener with no real follow-through. My father stays out of things until ‘it’ has gone too far and he ends up spanking my son. While I admit I used to be really relaxed with my parenting (I’m a recovering doormat), I’m becoming more and more confident with my parenting skills. The problem I have is this: The stuff we deal with today are the same problems I’ve been dealing with for years. The rules have not changed – no lying, no stealing, don’t break limbs off the trees, kitchen knives stay in the kitchen, no crazy noises (my mother is noise sensitive), don’t sneak food, etc. What do you do when the child just doesn’t seem to get it? ***I should make you aware that my son has Executive Function Disorder which seems to make it harder for him to learn from and remember consequences.*** At which point do you say enough is enough – you are 11 NOT 5, act like it? We are with a family therapist who tells me to use rewards rather than consequences and to stucture every moment of his day with an activity since he seems to get into the most trouble when he thinks he is bored. I’ve tried those approaches to no avail. – not to mention that structuring every moment of his day is a monumental task and a huge burden to me since I can’t get anything ‘grown up’ done when I have to tow him around with me and watch his every move. What now??

    Reply
  20. Scott (Edit) Report

    This is extreme but only once has one of my six children said, “I hate you.” My response, “Who would you like me to call?” He said, “What do you mean?” and I responded, “Well, I work hard to pay the bills around here. I feed you, I shelter you and look after your general well-being. If you hate me, you are not taking advantage of all those luxuries that I provide for you any longer. So… who would you like me to call?” I then gave him a way out to save face and we had a conversation about things. Had he given me a name, I would have called and set something up.

    Reply
  21. Monica (Edit) Report

    My daughter is 13 years old and continually puts off doing her chores, specifically, loading or unloading (depending on the week) the dishwasher. She usually says “After I finish this on the computer.” or “After I finish watching this show.” and then DOESN’T ever get around to doing it!

    I found a tip somewhere on this site that I tried and was amazed at the result. It was time for her to unload the dishwasher and she was on the computer. I told her to do it and she gave me the usual AFTER excuse. I said “Okay, you can use the computer or watch tv AFTER you unload the dishwasher.”. Amazingly, she got off the computer and did her work!

    I’ve been using this technique successfully ever since.

    Reply
  22. circe (Edit) Report

    I have read so many parenting books. The one I found to be the most helpful with discipline is called 123 magic. This is magic! I want stock in this book. If you really follow the rules. You can make the most unruly kid listen and be respectful.
    The problem is parents a lot of the time think they are sticking their ground and folowing through but in reality they do not follow through.

    Reply
  23. Elisabeth Wilkins Report

    Ruth, Jenn and Tammie–good for you for being consistent with your kids. It’s a great feeling when you get it right, isn’t it? 🙂 And Deb, thanks for your wise advice. With parenting, I always find that once you’ve solved one problem with your child’s behavior, something new comes along that you have to figure out, but consistency–like giving consequences when they act out and then following through– is the key. (Of course, it’s one of the hardest things to do, and I admit, I fall short of the mark more often than I’d like! But we’re all human–we just have to keep trying, right?)

    Reply
  24. Ruth Collins (Edit) Report

    I am raising my 9 year old grandson, which is a joy for both of us. He gets a 2 hour visit with his mother every Sunday. Well last Sunday, we met at the swimming pool for the visit. After the visit his mother said she would take him and his sister for ice cream where she works. I agreed, but my grandson wanted to wear his wet swim trunks and I told him no, I didn’t want the wet clothes on the seat of my car and he had dry clothes that would look better to go eat ice cream. He started to argue and I simply stated that he could change clothes or we could go home and he and his sister would not get ice cream (or a little longer visit with their mother). He simply said OK and put on his dry clothes. It has not always been this easy, but using the “consequences of your actions” plan has been working great. Before using this, he would tell me I was “being mean” to him, pout, or something to get into control and get his way. He is learning that I am the one in control and life is a lot more pleasant without the drama.

    Reply
  25. Jenn (Edit) Report

    The other morning I told my eleven year old daughter that we had to leave a little earlier that morning because we were going to ride our bikes. She instantly said, “I don’t want to.” I told her I was riding so she had a choice to ride her bike to school or walk. She told me, she just wouldn’t go to school that day. I told her that it was her choice but then she would have to live with the consequences. She asked about the consequences. I told her it could be increased homework from school, no television for a few days, or no trip to the fast-food place this week.

    She stopped arguing, thought for a bit, and quietly got her bike helmet on. By the time we got to school she was happy again.

    I was close to caving, but I am so glad I stuck to it because not only does it make the next time easier, it is a better lesson for her.

    Reply
  26. Michele (Edit) Report

    Question for Tammie: What is your consequence for not brushing teeth before bed?? That’s a tough one for us, too, with our ten year old son. Thanks.

    Reply
  27. Tammie (Edit) Report

    My husband and I are committed to consistancy with our kids. Our 7 year old has ADHD, which makes it even more important that his boundaries are firm and consistant and he knows what to expect. He does not get 4th and 5th chances – there is ONE warning, telling him what his consequences will be, and if the behavior continues, he gets the ezpected consequence. Period. Our biggest battle as of late has been with brushing his teeth before bed. We’ve stopped explaining why it’s important, stopped asking him incredulously, “don’t you do this every night? Why on Earth are you arguing about this?!?”. We just give him the warning, then, if he keeps throwing his fit, the expected concequences. It is much easier for us to not argue with him (I’ve never changed his behavior that way anyway!), and his tooth-brushing fits have drastically decreased.

    Reply
  28. Debbie Wittig (Edit) Report

    Start now with the consequences and always follow through. Let it fit the crime and as the child gets older pick the arguments carefully. It is really hard to hear “I hate you” but children are very manipulative and know what words will dig dip to let them have their way. It will get worse. I am raising my 15 year old grandson because there were NO consequences from his mom and his dad is not a part of his life. His mom wanted to be his friend and the most serious consequence was a “talk”. When he turn 13 he was becoming uncontrollable and the words “I hate you” were becoming more true and she just couldn’t understand why. His mom decided after all those years he should be spanked and he hit her back. He has been with me for 2 years and although he does not yell I hate you and hit me my consequences weren’t sticking. I would ground him and he would leave anyway and then school was not fun so he was truant. I told him daily in a low loving voice that he was making very bad choices and there would be very bad consequences from somewhere. It did happen. He was in the wrong place and the wrong time with the wrong kids. One of the kids held up another kid with a pin knife. It was reported to the police but the only description he gave was of my grandson because he knew him from school. He was arrested and put in Juvenile Detention Center for two days and then on house arrest for a month until the trial. I know which kid actually did it but the lawyer has told me to wait until the actual trial so that we can use the information to help my grandson. That really doesn’t matter because he was still there and it is wrong to hang out with the kid. The court could decide to take this to adult court in which case if found guilty by association he could go to adult jail.

    He has done a lot of thinking of the loss of freedom and the choices he is making. Even if found guilty and put on probation the school will expel him and he will have to go to an alternative school. He has told me over and over that I was right. He has also stated that he is glad it happened because he was headed down the wrong road and this could actually be worse then it is. He has decided that doing wrong isn’t worth the consequences which is a lesson his mother should have taught him when young and brought him up with it. Just think how different both of their lives would have turned out. I know she carries a lot of guilt and by all rights she should. Children are a gift from God and he trust us to do right by them. I thank God that he has learned a lesson from this and that he is thinking now before doing the things that look fun. He has also commented himself to going to school everyday and doing what is right.

    Reply

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