How To Parent: Setting Consequences To Children’s Actions

How to Give Kids Consequences That Work

How to Give Kids Consequences That WorkA 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.

When you’re giving a child a consequence, it’s important to make it flow naturally from the child’s choice or action. For example, if your son sleeps late and doesn’t get up for school, the natural consequence is to go to bed earlier that night to get more sleep. The natural consequence isn’t to take his phone for a week. Tell him he has to go to bed early for the next three nights, and then if he can show you he can get up for school, you’ll go back to the later bedtime.

It’s also important to make the consequence task-oriented, not time-oriented. A time-oriented consequence is when you tell your child he’s grounded for a week or can’t use his cell phone for two weeks. It’s ineffective because all it does is teach kids how to “do time.” It does not teach them how to change their behavior.

“Making your daughter stay in for three weekends won’t teach her to observe curfew. It just puts you and your family through grief and the child learns nothing.”

A task-oriented consequence is related to the offense and defines a learning objective. If your child stayed out past curfew last week, this weekend, she has to come in an hour earlier to show you that she can do it. When she shows you she can do it, you can go back to her normal curfew time. Making her stay in for three weekends won’t teach her to observe curfew. It just puts you and your family through the grief and the child learns nothing.

Related: Give your child consequences that really work.

The best consequences are those from which the child learns something. If your son is disrespectful to his sister, a good consequence is to tell him he can’t use the phone until he writes her a letter of apology. In the letter, he has to tell her what he’ll do differently the next time he’s in conflict with her. Writing the letter of apology is a learning experience for him that wins him back his phone. That way, he’s not just “doing time.” He’s completing an act that teaches him something.

I think parents have to be very clear about consequences, especially the older kids get. By “older,” I mean the difference between six and eight and then eight and ten. I’m not talking about the difference between eight and eighteen. The older kids get, the more thought they have to put into the consequence. So if a kid’s grade drops because he’s not doing his homework, yes you take his TV. But you take it until the teacher tells you that he’s been doing his homework for two weeks. Or until the teacher tells you he’s brought his grades back up to a B.

What do you do when consequences don’t work?

We hear from many parents who say, “I’ve tried everything, and consequences just don’t work with my kid.” What can a parent in this situation do? First of all, we need to talk about the kids for whom consequences do work. These are kids who are used to structure and are used to limits being set on them. Having structure and setting limits with kids teaches them that there are rewards and consequences in life. If you’re having trouble making consequences work with your kids, here’s an important point. If you want consequences to work, you also have to have rewards. If you have no rewards, then it’s very hard to come up with a consequence without being punitive.

In The Total Transformation Program, I encourage parents to sit down and think up a list of consequences and a list of rewards for their child. The list should include things they can afford, things that don’t cost a lot of money and things that they can achieve in the time they have in their day as parents. For example, as a reward, can you take your kid down to the park for a half an hour and shoot some baskets. Half an hour is all you need. It doesn’t have to take two hours. You also want to make sure the rewards and consequences on the list are realistic to that child’s developmental level.

I also recommend that parents order the rewards and consequences from mildest to heaviest so that you have small rewards for small achievements, big rewards for big achievements. The same goes for consequences. Smaller consequences that flow out of minor infractions. More serious consequences for more serious offenses. By the way, taking the phone is a major consequence, and I would use that cautiously. It’s usually a major consequence because it is usually a very important item to a kid. The more important an item is to a kid, the more he’ll learn when it’s taken as part of a consequence. But remember that when you’re giving consequences, you don’t want to use all your big guns at once.

Having this menu of rewards and consequences gives you a roadmap for how to deal with the hills, valleys and forks in the road you encounter each day with your child. It also keeps you from taking shortcuts, which we all do in parenting. Parents are tired, they work hard, they have high levels of anxiety over their finances and their professional careers, and they have lots of demands beyond caring for the children. This is true in almost every family. So parents often start taking shortcuts that are ineffective, such as taking the cell phone for every offense or grounding a kid for a week. If you have a menu of rewards and consequences, you can give an appropriate consequence for the offense—one that allows the child to learn. Not a knee-jerk, punitive consequence.

The most important question you need to ask yourself when you’re giving a child a consequence is this: What do I want to accomplish here? Do I want to show him who’s boss or do I want to get him to do his homework? If you want to show him who’s boss, then you’re going to be extra punitive in your consequence and fire all your guns at once. If you want him to get his homework done, then you start with consequences that can lead up to getting homework done. Like no TV until your homework’s done. It’s as simple as pie.

Related: Learn how to set limits with your child.

When do you use the “big gun” consequences? When you’re dealing with issues involving values and respect of others. When you’re faced with abuse issues such as physical or verbal abuse of a family member or teacher. Or when you’re dealing with serious issues such as stealing.

Consequences don’t happen in a vacuum. They have to fit in with an overall style of parenting that is designed to produce children who can respond to limits, meet responsibilities and demonstrate age-appropriate behavior. So, if a consequence isn’t working, and a parent says, “I took his phone for two weeks and it’s not working,” that parent needs to look at a couple of things. First of all, maybe two weeks is too long. Maybe what you have to tell your child is this: “I’m taking your phone until you don’t do X for twenty four hours.” Or, “If you talk abusively to your sister, I’m taking your phone until you don’t talk to her abusively for forty eight hours straight. And every time you’re abusive with her, it starts over.” Go back again to the most important question: “What do I want to accomplish?” If you want to hurt him for hurting his sister, take his phone for two weeks. But if you do this, don’t expect any compliance out of him. If what you want to accomplish is having your son learn not to be abusive and work on his self-control, then set up a task as part of the consequence.

Another thing to think about is whether you’re being firm or rigid. There’s nothing wrong with being firm. But if you’re being senselessly rigid, your kids are going to develop defiance to respond to that. That’s the problem with using all the big gun consequences at once.

Sometimes consequences don’t work because they are part of a much broader problem, and the child is in a power struggle with the parents. Withholding compliance is a part of that power struggle. One of the primary ways that kids try to win that power struggle with their parents is by withholding compliance. Once that pattern establishes itself, the only power the parent has is to punish, and the only power the kid has is to withhold compliance. Consequences will not work in that atmosphere. When this occurs, parents need the more comprehensive solution that The Total Transformation and the Parental Support Line provide. The program and the support will help you with the broader problem-solving skills that enable kids to take responsibility for compliance without being reactionary.

How to Give Kids Consequences That Work reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit

James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James’ foremost goal was to help kids and to “empower parents.”

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