When to give consequences to kids

When to give consequences to kids

“I need better consequences!” I hear this a lot from the parents in my coaching programs. Parents are having a problem with their child’s behavior, and they want to set some limits! But what they’re doing, isn’t working. They’ve tried Positive Discipline, Peaceful Parenting, Dr. Becky… They know their child knows better… Maybe this kid just needs the right deterrent! “I need better consequences!”

Now, I believe in Consequences – if you do it right. But many parents don’t actually know when to use Consequences – and they have some real misconceptions about what a Consequence should be.

So when should you give your child a Consequence? When they’re having a major meltdown? When they’re being disrespectful? Don’t you just give Consequences any time there’s bad behavior?

Actually, no. And there’s actually a lot of problem behavior where Consequences are NOT a great response. Here are 6 of the more common problem behaviors parents ask me about:

1. Emotional dysregulation — tantrums and meltdowns

You’ve asked your child to turn off the iPad and now they’re having a meltdown. They’re yelling, they’re screaming, they’re throwing things, they’re slamming doors! Do you use a Consequence?

No. You never want to punish a child for having a tantrum or a meltdown – and you never want to send the message that anger is inappropriate, misguided, or otherwise bad!

Kids can’t help getting frustrated, and for some kids, getting REALLY frustrated, is normal – because Big Feelings are a temperament trait. But here’s the thing about Big Feelings: They actually inhibit the part of the brain we use when we’re trying to calm ourselves down! When a child is really angry they aren’t able to calm down, so don’t give them a Consequence – instead, help them to express their anger – safely, of course.

Now if your child punched a hole in the wall, later, after they’ve calmed down, you can have them make some kind of restitution. But the goal is never to prevent tantrums and meltdowns – the goal is simply to teach the child how to handle these big feelings. LOTS of kids have crazy meltdowns, and I teach every parent I work with how to set things up so kids can have their meltdowns without hurting anyone or anything. Kids’ meltdowns really decrease in both length and frequency when parents stop resisting the anger and instead they help their kids express it!

2. Emotional dysregulation — “My child is aggressive!”

OK, so what about Hitting? What if your child hits you or kicks you when they’re mad? Surely THIS deserves a Consequence!

No, it doesn’t. The answer to hitting is a lot like the answer to Tantrums and Meltdowns. Kids hit because they’re really angry, so your goal is to teach them to express that anger safely. And when it comes to hitting, one of ways we teach kids to be safe, is to draw an absolute line in the sand when it comes to physical aggression.

You never want to punish the hitting, and you don’t want to give a Consequence – but you do need a zero-tolerance policy. And this means that when a child is hitting, you remove them from the target of that aggression, or you move the target away from them – just until they’re done hitting. Of course, how you do this depends on your child – and often, parents of kids who are older or bigger feel that they can’t prevent the hitting – but this challenge comes up a lot in the families I work with. It is possible to have and enforce a non-punitive no-hitting policy, no matter how old or how big your child is. It just needs to be designed for your family. Get help if you need it!

3. Should siblings get in trouble for fighting?

Sibling rivalry is another problem parents ask me about. Jonathan is mean to his little sister Sarah. Should that get a Consequence?

Again, no. Now if Jonathan is physically hurting his sister, we just talked about that. Separate Jonathan from his sister until he can be with her without hurting her. But if we’re talking about sibling rivalry without physical aggression, what we really want to do is teach the kids the social skills they need to resolve the conflict or the disagreement – and Consequences don’t teach these skills.

In my coaching programs I give parents and kids scripts that take parents out of the mediator role and put this conflict resolution in the kids’ hands. “Jonathan, what do you want? Sarah, what do you want?” And if each person’s wants are incompatible – or even if someone says something crazy or unrealistic – it’s, “Jonathan wants [whatever it is], and Sarah wants [whatever it is]. What are we going to do?” Humans are compelled to come up with an answer to this question. Yes, you do have to coach them through these conversations in the beginning, but kids really DO figure it out – you just have to teach them how!

4-6. My child is disrespectful; my child won’t eat; my child won’t poop!

OK, and now let’s talk about disrespectful or hostile talk; eating; and pooping! You don’t use Consequences here, either. As I tell the parents in my coaching programs, “You don’t use Consequences to manage anything going into or coming out of the body!”

If your child isn’t eating what they should, “forcing” them to eat just creates anxiety and it makes it much harder for them to develop a healthy relationship with food. If your child isn’t pooping, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to force them to poop! The best approach with both of these problems is to disengage from the fight.

With poop, some kids do well with rewards charts, but if it’s a power struggle, Consequences or even just trying to persuade them to poop, only escalates the struggle.

With food, it’ll be easier for you to disengage if the only food “on the table” is nutritious! Stick to one menu – everyone gets the same dinner – and serve meals only at predetermined meal times – and your child can choose to eat or not. They will eat when they’re hungry, and if they don’t eat their dinner and junk food is just not an option, they’re still getting their nutrition.

And what about disrespectful, mean talk?

This one is more complex, but for starters, this problem is a lot easier to solve once you have other behaviors like tantrums or not listening under control. Some not-so-nice communication can be solved just by your refusal to reward it. If your child is entitled and demanding – “Give me juice,” or “Do my laundry” – don’t say anything – and let them do their own laundry. There are several different strategies I use to teach kids to speak respectfully, but Consequences isn’t one of them. Other strategies work better, and in my coaching programs we don’t tackle rude or mean talk until after the kids have learned to listen.

When should I give my child Consequences?

So above I’ve covered a lot of problem behaviors for which you really SHOULDN’T give Consequences. So when do you give Consequences?

First, in my opinion, Consequences can be helpful if you have a strong-willed or oppositional child. If you have an “easy” child, you may not need Consequences. And Consequences are most helpful when the child just isn’t listening. Of course this doesn’t apply to the behaviors I’ve been talking about – if you tell your child to eat their dinner and they don’t eat their dinner, don’t give them a Consequence! But if you say, “Please get dressed” or “Please put your shoes on” and they don’t, that’s a good time to use a Consequence.

And the other time you might use something that’s not really a Consequence, but it’s similar, is if your child isn’t doing the things they’re supposed to do. So for example if they’re not doing their homework, you can make something they want to do contingent on the homework getting done. “You can have the iPad after you’ve done your homework.”

And how do you discipline a child when they’ve done something wrong?

There’s a right way and a wrong way to do Consequences, and I don’t want to make this blog longer than it already is, so I’m not going to describe the Consequence systems I use here. But before I bring this blog to a close, here are a few do’s and don’ts I want to leave you with:

First, don’t be punitive! Consequences are for teaching, not punishing. And the main thing you need to do to keep Consequences from being punitive is, be very intentional about your words and your tone of voice. Do not yell. Don’t express anger or frustration. Don’t even express disappointment! When you’re giving a Consequence, it’s important to be neutral and objective. “I see you’re not doing what I asked. I’m going to… [give the Consequence].”

Next, keep it simple! Your Consequence system needs to be EASY for you to use – otherwise you won’t use it.

NEXT, your System should be clear. Your child should be able to explain how it works, or, as I say to the parents in my coaching programs, “Your child should know what happens to turn the Consequences on and they should know what they need to do to turn the Consequences off.”

And finally, of course you should be Consistent. Don’t give a Consequence just because you’ve had a long day and you’re in a bad mood, and don’t not give a Consequence just because you’re tired. Consistency is important, not just because you can’t set strong boundaries if you’re not Consistent, but also because Consistency is another thing that keeps Consequences from being punitive! In other words, if you’re Consistent, it’s just, “this is how we do things around here.” But if you’re not Consistent, that actually feels unfair.

For some parents, Consequences are an important and necessary part of their parenting approach. I believe in Consequences – but for many problem behaviors, other strategies work better.

Do you have any more questions about Consequences, or do you have questions about the problem behaviors I talked about in this blog? If you do, please shoot me an email – and if you found the information I’ve shared to be helpful, please share it :)


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