Consequences make it clear to a child what not to do, so they’re handy to have in your behaviour management toolkit. You can tailor consequences to different situations, but consequences are always best when combined with a focus on your child’s positive behaviour.

About consequences

A consequence is something that happens after your child behaves in a particular way. A consequence can be positive or negative.

There are times when you might choose to use negative consequences for difficult behaviour. For example, you can use negative consequences to enforce limits and reinforce rules when simple reminders haven’t worked.

It really pays to put some thought into how and why you might use consequences. If you overuse negative consequences or use them inconsistently, they can have surprising and unwanted effects.

It’s always best to focus more on giving your child attention for behaving in ways that you like. This usually means you’ll need to use negative consequences less. 

Behaviour and consequences

When it comes to consequences, there are three common scenarios:

  • Your child behaves in a particular way and gets a positive consequence. This increases the likelihood of the behaviour happening in the same circumstances in the future. For example, you praise your child for sitting and eating his meal at the table.

  • Your child behaves in a particular way and avoids a negative consequence. This increases the likelihood of the behaviour happening in the same circumstances in the future. For example, your child takes her muddy shoes off at the front door, so she doesn’t have to help clean the mud off the floor.

  • Your child behaves in a particular way and gets a negative consequence. This decreases the likelihood of the behaviour happening in the same circumstances in the future. For example, your child throws a toy, and you put the toy away for the rest of the day. 

A consequence that seems negative to you might be positive to your child. For example, your child’s favourite activity is the sandpit. If your child bites another child while playing with some blocks and is moved away to the sandpit, this will actually encourage his behaviour. To him, it looks like the consequence of biting is getting to play in the sandpit!

Natural consequences

Natural consequences can be an effective tool in your behaviour management toolkit.

Sometimes it’s best to let children experience the natural consequences of their own behaviour. When children experience the results of their behaviour, they can learn that their actions have consequences. They might learn to take responsibility for what they do.

Here are some examples of natural consequences:

  • If your child refuses to put on a sweater, she feels cold.

  • If your child won’t eat, he feels hungry.

  • If your child doesn’t complete her homework, she fails the assignment.

  • If your child breaks a rule on the sporting field, he gets sent off.

These are important but hard lessons, and life is often a better and faster teacher than parents are. And you don’t have to be the unfair, bad guy. You can feel for your children, but saying ‘I told you so’ will probably upset them.

Sometimes you do need to step in to protect children from the natural consequences of behaviour. The consequence of dangerous behaviour could be serious injury, and the consequence of persistently avoiding schoolwork can be not doing well at school. And natural consequences can sometimes reward antisocial behaviour – for example, a bully’s aggressive behaviour can be rewarded when a victim ‘gives in’. In situations like these, you need to guide your child’s behaviour and apply appropriate consequences.

Related consequences

Related consequences often work well as part of behaviour management.

A ‘related consequence’ – sometimes called a ‘logical consequence’ – is when you impose a consequence that’s related to the behaviour you want to discourage. For example:

  • If a child is being silly and spills her drink, she must wipe it up.

  • If a bicycle is left in the driveway, it gets put away for the rest of the afternoon.

  • If children are fighting over a toy, the toy is put away for 10 minutes.

The advantage of related consequences is they get your child to think about the issue, they feel fairer, and they tend to work better than consequences that aren’t related. But it’s not always easy or possible to find a related consequence.

Other types of consequences: loss of privilege and time-out

Other types of consequences include loss of privilege and time-out. These consequences aren’t necessarily related to the difficult behaviour. But if you use them well, they give your child the opportunity to stop, think about his behaviour and learn from its consequences.

Loss of privilege is taking away a favourite object or activity for a while because of unacceptable behaviour. For example:

  • A child who isn’t cooperating with her mum might lose the privilege of a lift to soccer training.

  • A child who swears at his dad might lose screen time.

Time-out is when you ask your child go to a place – a corner, chair or room – that’s away from interesting activities and other people for a short period of time. You can use time-out for particularly difficult behaviour, or times when you and your child are both feeling very angry and you need to take a break from each other to calm down.

How to use consequences effectively

One of the most important things about consequences is to use them as a response to your child’s behaviour, not to your child herself. This way your child will know that she’s loved and she’s safe – even when you’re using consequences.

It’s OK if your child doesn’t change his behaviour straight away. You might need to use consequences a few times before your child learns to behave differently.

Here are some other ways to make consequences more effective.

Make consequences clear and consistent 

If children clearly understand what you expect them to do, and you regularly encourage them for doing it, they’re less likely to do things that require negative consequences. Having a clear set of family rules can make expectations clear for everyone.

Wherever possible, explain consequences ahead of time so they don’t come as a surprise. If you talk to your child about possible consequences, he’s less likely to be resentful and angry when you put consequences into action. This approach helps children feel heard and more open to your guidance.

If you use consequences in the same way and for the same behaviour every time, your child knows what to expect. For example, you might always use a time-out for hitting.

It’s also important to apply negative consequences to all children in the family. Even very young children will be upset if they see other children not being treated in the same way as them.

Keep consequences short

The advantage of short consequences is that you quickly give your child an opportunity to try again and to behave in a way that you like.

For example, if you turn off the television for 10 minutes because children are fighting over it, they quickly get another opportunity to solve the problem in a different way. If it’s turned off for the rest of the day, there are no more opportunities that day for them to learn to manage the situation differently.

A long consequence can end up being worse for you than for your child – for example, a child deprived of her bicycle for a week is likely to get bored and cranky!

Get the timing right

It’s good to warn your child before you use a consequence. This gives him a chance to change his behaviour.

For example, ‘Guys, this yelling is just too loud for me! If you can’t work out what to watch on TV without screaming at each other, I will turn it off for 10 minutes’. Beware of not following through – this can send the message that you’re ‘all talk but no action’.

The exception to giving a warning before a consequence is where you have a well-established family rule. There might be important rules where a consequence immediately comes after your child breaks the rule.

When you do need to follow through with a consequence, it will work better if the consequence happens as soon as possible after the behaviour.

But it’s best not to impose a consequence immediately if you’re feeling very angry because you might overreact or be too harsh. Instead, say something like ‘I’m feeling very angry at the moment. We’ll talk about this again in a couple of minutes when I’m feeling calmer’.

Adjust consequences to children’s needs and abilities

Reserve consequences for children over three years. Children younger than this don’t really understand consequences, particularly if they don’t understand the connection between their actions and the outcomes of those actions. Consequences just feel unfair to them. 

It pays to implement consequences calmly and in a neutral tone. Try not to make it personal. So instead of talking about your child being ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’, talk about the rules and your child’s behaviour. Getting very angry or frustrated can make your child more likely to think about how cross you are – which can be entertaining, scary or exciting – than to learn from the situation.

© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission

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