By Amy Morin
It’s quite often that parents enter into my therapy office to tell me that “consequences just don’t work” with their child. Whether they’re using time out or taking away privileges, they feel like their child is immune to consequences because the behaviors aren’t changing.
Consequences are an important part of discipline, however. They can work with even the toughest kids when they are used appropriately and it can be a great way to help kids change their behavior. There are some strategies parents can use to make consequences more effective.
Positive and negative consequences will only work if they are given consistently. If you only take away your child’s video games only two out of every three times that he hits his brother, he’ll quickly learn he’s got a good chance of getting away with hitting and he’ll be willing to risk it. If however, you are consistent in giving him a consequence each and every time, his behavior will change.
Sticking to consequences is also part of consistency. If you tell your child he can’t go out and play for the rest of the day, but by afternoon, you change your mind and let him go outside anyway, he won’t learn. It’s essential that you stick to it no matter how much he whines, begs or promises to change his behavior.
A healthy relationship with your child is a necessary foundation for discipline. If your child loves and respects you, consequences will be much more effective. Giving your child positive attention and spending quality time together helps develop a positive relationship. This is also true if you are disciplining a step-child, grandchild or any other child.
Any consequence should be time sensitive. Saying, “You’re grounded until I say so,” just isn’t a good motivator. Neither is saying, “You can’t go anywhere until I can trust you again.” Instead, it’s important to outline how long the consequence is in effect.
Usually 24 hours is a good amount of time to take something away from a child. However, there may be times that take away a privilege until your child earns it back. If this is the case, outline exactly what needs to happen for your child to earn it back. Instead of saying, “You can’t have your cell phone back until I can trust you,” say, “You can begin earning the right to use your phone for one hour a night if you get all your homework done and tell the truth for the next two weeks.”
The best consequences are immediate. Taking away your child’s overnight with Grandma that is planned for next week is not likely to be as effective as taking away his electronics right now. Immediate consequences ensure kids remember why they received the consequence in the first place. If it’s delayed by a week, they’re more likely to forget.
There may be times, however, that it’s not possible to give immediate consequences. If you find out your child got into trouble on the bus three days ago, the consequence will obviously need to be delayed. Or, if he misbehaves right before he gets on the bus in the morning, you may need to wait until he gets home from school before you can give him a consequence.
There’s a difference between consequences and punishment. Consequences should be used as a teaching tool and shouldn’t shame or embarrass kids. Logical consequences are a great way to ensure that the consequence fits with the misbehavior.
Natural consequences can be a great teaching tool when they are used deliberately. Using a natural consequence doesn’t mean your child is allowed to get away with misbehavior. Instead, it should be used as an opportunity for him to learn from his mistakes.
Consequences should be used sparingly. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t take away a privilege when it is deserved, but consequences become less effective when they are used too much. Kids who lose all of their privileges for an extended period of time begin to lose motivation to earn it back. Time out also becomes less effective when it is used many times a day for weeks at a time. Consequences can be used in conjunction with other discipline tools, such as reward systems, praise and active ignoring to help kids manage their behaviors.