How to Use Consequences to Change Kids’ Behaviour
Until recently we have struggled with finding effective consequences to modify behaviour exhibited by our children that we find to be unacceptable – hitting, fighting and temper tantrums chief among them. We kept coming up with negative consequences that also impacted us and our other kids when one was misbehaving. For example one would be refusing to put her shoes on when we were getting ready to come somewhere as a family so we would issue the threat of being forced to remain behind in their room while the other parent took the other two kids where ever we were planning to go. Most often the response would be ‘fine, I don’t want to go.’
When a kid calls your bluff you are stuck. If you aren’t prepared to fully deliver on a consequence then it is meaningless. In this example the kid refusing to put on her shoes probably didn’t want to go in the first place so she got her way and a parent ended up suffering a negative consequence by having to stay behind.
What is a Consequence?
A consequence is something that happens as a result of an action or behaviour. Consequences can be positive or negative.
You can use consequences in three main ways.
- Reinforce positive behaviour with a positive consequence
- Reinforce positive behaviour by withholding a negative consequence
- Discourage negative behaviour with a negative consequence
We all want our kids to exhibit positive behaviours. It could be kindness, good manners, doing chores, eating their dinner, or managing their emotions.
these behaviours can be reinforced through positive words. We can thank them for clearing their dirty dishes and putting them in the dishwasher. We can let them know we appreciated their kindness towards a sibling, friend or neighbour.
Some behavioural changes may take more than positive words. Some will require rewards to get the change started. Some people use sticker charts when their toddler is potty training and give their child a sticker every time they use the toilet or potty. We have started using a token system where we provide a token when specific good behaviours are exhibited and negative behaviours are avoided. When the predetermined number of tokens are collected the child can pick out a reward at the dollar store or bookstore.
We can use negative consequences in two ways to discourage negative behaviours. They both involve our children knowing ahead of time what the negative consequences are for specific behaviours. Children can then make a decision about whether to avoid the consequence by choosing not to engage in whatever behaviour will result in the negative consequence.
In our house we have established a negative consequence for physical fighting. If our kids are fighting, they will lose access to any screens for half a day. They then have the choice to avoid that consequence by figuring out a solution to their conflict without hitting or they can fight and face the consequence.
Changing The Channel
Imagine you are standing in the kitchen making dinner, one of your kids comes in and asks what is for dinner. She doesn’t like what’s on the menu (even though she loved it last week) and she starts to wind up and demands something different or starts stomping, sulking and yelling – perhaps all of the above. She then storms out of the kitchen, angry and in passing by her sister she lashes out and hits her sister, who starts crying and screams for you, while hitting back. Now you are cranky and irritated that all of this has just happened because you answered a question about dinner.
Suddenly a nice family dinner seems less likely.
How do you change this behaviour using consequences?
In our house we have started using a mix of positive and negative consequences to manage this sort of situation and prevent it from happening in the first place. The kids can collect tokens for calming themselves down and managing their emotions when they start to feel upset. This might mean taking deep breaths, asking for help or just walking away. Whatever their decision, they can earn a token and positive reinforcement through our words congratulating them and thanking them for calming down.
If the positive consequence for calming down doesn’t work, we have a second negative consequence in place to change the hitting behaviour. If they hit each other, they are banned from screens for half a day. Knowing that enables them to decide whether to avoid that consequence by not hitting or hit and accept the consequence.
How to Decide on Consequences
This is a challenge that we have struggled with. We tried a variety of consequences to change behaviour and they were either untenable for us as parents, weren’t workable in the circumstances or difficult to maintain with consistency. We have now come up with a negative consequence and a positive consequence that work for us.
When you are developing consequences they work best if:
- They are relevant
- They are consistent
- The child is aware of the consequences in advance
- You follow through on them
These tend to be situational consequences that are related directly to an action.
Consequences such as:
- no desert until they clear their dinner dishes
- cleaning up mud on the floor after wearing muddy shoes through the house
- doing homework if work not completed at school
If you establish a consequence, positive or negative, it is important to apply the consequence consistently. Kids (and adults) need to know that a specific behaviour or action will result in a specific consequence every time. If you sometimes clean up the muddy footprints and sometimes make them do it, then it becomes a luck-of-the-draw consequence. When consequences are not applied consistently you are likely to get responses like “but I didn’t have to do that last time…” It is the consistent application that will change the behaviour.
Ensuring that your child is aware of and understands the consequences for behaviours in advance empowers them to make choices about how they act. If they know that a certain type of behaviour will be rewarded and another will result in the loss of a privilege they can use that information to decide what comes next.
Applying a consequence without advance notice can feel like changing the rules in the midst of the game. The child is more likely to feel unfairly treated instead of learning that there is a consequence for specific behaviours.
Follow Through on Consequences
This is the biggest challenge when applying consequences. Choose consequences that don’t cause you as the parent too much pain. Making a threat that you aren’t prepared to follow through on will fail if the kid calls your bluff. If you really want to go somewhere and they are fighting the departure, staying home instead as a consequence will only hurt you.
Follow through is tied to clarity and consistency. Ensuring that kids are aware of the consequence in advance and following through on applying the consequence every time will help them to learn that you are serious and that the behaviour merits that specific consequence.
Examples of Consequences
- Loss of privilege – no screen time, toy taken away, restriction of a favoured activity, loss of opportunity to go somewhere they want to go
- Time-out – a space where they need to go to remove them from others and activities for a short period of time.
- Positive reinforcement with words – congrats, well done, thank you, I’m proud of you, that was very helpful, I appreciate…
- Rewards – sticker charts, tokens towards a reward, choose a reward from a bin
These are consequences that we let our children experience and are a direct result of their choices. For example if they choose not to study for a test, they might fail that test; if they don’t wear mittens, their hands might get cold, etc.
Consequences of our actions
Everyday we all experience consequences of our actions. Every decision we make results in a consequence of some sort. It is important that children learn to associate consequences with actions. Some decisions lead to positive outcomes and some lead to negative outcomes and we each learn and grow from those results.
What consequences have you found effective in your family?