By Raising Children Network
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Little girls and mums at preschool
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 badly or inconsistently, they can have surprising and unwanted effects.

So 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 receives a positive consequence. This increases the likelihood of the behaviour occurring 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 occurring in the same circumstances in the future. For example, your child takes her muddy boots 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 receives a negative consequence or no consequence at all. This decreases the likelihood of the behaviour occurring in the same circumstances in the future. For example, your child throws a toy, and you put it 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 using natural consequences:

  • If your child refuses to put on a coat, let her get cold.
  • If your child won’t eat, let him feel hungry.
  • If your child doesn’t complete her homework, let her fail the assignment.
  • If your child breaks a rule on the sporting field, he’ll have to take the penalty.

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. Sometimes natural consequences can actually reward antisocial behaviour – for example, a bully’s aggressive behaviour can be rewarded when a victim ‘gives in’.

Related consequences

Related consequences often work well as part of behaviour management too.

A ‘related consequence’ – sometimes called a ‘logical consequence’ – is when you impose a consequence that is 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 bike 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 seem irrelevant. But it’s not always easy or possible to find a related consequence.

Losing a privilege

When you use this type of consequence for behaviour management, your child loses access to a favourite object or activity because of unacceptable behaviour. The ‘privilege’ isn’t necessarily related to the difficult behaviour. For example:

  • A child who isn’t cooperating with his mum might lose the privilege of a lift to footy training.
  • A child who swears at her dad might lose TV time.

When it comes to choosing the object or activity that your child will lose, think about the overall effect. For example, missing a game for a team sport might affect the whole team, not just your child.

Time-out is another type of consequence. It involves having your child go to a place – a corner, chair or room – that is apart from interesting activities, and other people, for a short period of time. It can be used for particularly difficult behaviour, or times when you’re 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 himself. This way your child will know that he’s loved and he’s safe – even when you’re using consequences.

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 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, she’s less likely to be resentful and angry when you put consequences into action.

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 the television is turned off 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.

And a long consequence can end up being worse for you than for your children – a child deprived of his bike for a week is likely to get bored and cranky!

Get the timing right
It’s good to warn your child before you use the consequence. This gives her a chance to change her 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. You might overreact and 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 won’t really understand consequences, particularly if they don’t understand the connection between their actions and the outcomes of those actions. Consequences will just feel unfair to them.

It pays to implement consequences calmly and in a neutral tone. Try not to make it personal – instead of talking about a ‘bad child’, talk about the rule and the child’s behaviour. Getting very angry or frustrated makes the child more likely to think about how mad you are (which can be rather entertaining, scary or exciting) rather than about learning from the situation.
  • Last updated or reviewed 27-11-2014