Selecting Consequences

Some consequences are more effective than others. Fortunately, today there's a great deal of scientific evidence to back up behavior modification strategies. What's outlined here are those methods proven to work in clinical treatment settings and in homes just like yours.

What's Effective

In order for a consequence to be effective, it must be:

  • Immediate

  • Age-appropriate

  • Unpleasant for your child

  • A good match for the crime

  • Not too long — kids will give up if punishment stretches out into oblivion

  • Not negotiable after the rule has been broken

Consequences that are effective can largely be grouped into two categories: removals and impositions. A “removal” is taking something away from the child, such as your attention, an exciting environment, or a pleasant activity. The most well-known and widely used removal is time out. Other effective removals are:

  • Grounding your child from social activities for a weekend

  • Taking away screen time for a day

  • Immediately leaving play group, the park, a friend's house, a party, or Grandma and Grandpa's house if the child is not behaving there

  • Taking away a cell phone or electronic device for one to three days

  • No dessert that night

  • Forfeiting a turn to choose an outing or choose what's for dinner

Impositions, on the other hand, are consequences that impose some new situation on the child. Paying a fine, having Mom accompany the youngster to school for a day, pulling weeds or doing other extra chores, having to run errands with Dad because the youngster can't be left at home alone — these are impositions. If you're thinking that effective strategies require a lot of your time and energy to enforce, you're right.

What's Not Effective

Corporal punishment — very hard spankings, hitting, restraint, and other punishments causing physical discomfort — is not usually effective, and most of them are child abuse or border on it. You should know that hitting a child with an object, including a belt, is generally considered child abuse and that belt spankings have landed more than one adult in a correctional facility in the last few years. Corporal punishment is also problematic because it tends to escalate — if your kid doesn't do what you want, and your method of discipline is spanking, what happens if he still doesn't cooperate after a spanking? Do you spank him again? Harder? With something else? If that was your only strategy, before you knew it, you'd be committing child abuse. With a defiant child, corporal punishment could escalate into an all-out fistfight with you getting hurt yourself.

Alert

If you feel you have no avenues for effective discipline other than corporal punishment, then it's advisable to get some input and outside perspective from a qualified therapist. There are many more effective ways to get your child to cooperate than spankings, and a therapist can help you form habits for doing so if you're having trouble on your own.

Also ineffective are punishments that make the child feel bad about himself. These usually take the form of some subtle bashing, like telling a child you don't like him when he misbehaves, or being sarcastic. Comments like “I don't like tattletales,” “You're bad,” or “Get out of my sight,” don't send a message of unconditional love. Sarcasm such as “Well, well, I see someone finally decided to stop that obnoxious whining,” is not a great example of family cooperation and kindness. Humiliation, such as punishing a child publicly, also won't get what you want; the kid won't be receptive to the message you're trying to send if shame is at the forefront of his emotions.

Also, warnings are ineffective. “You're cruisin' for a bruisin',” “I've just about had it with you,” and “If you do that one more time,” are cliché warnings that don't work because your child interprets them as, “Hey, cool! I get to break the rule one more time — maybe more!” You don't need to warn your child that you're going to enforce the rules; you just do. And finally, empty threats such as “I'll break your neck” may sound impressive, but since you're not actually going to do it, and your child knows this, he will completely disregard what you're saying.

Match Consequences to Behaviors

The punishment should fit the crime, as the saying goes. Take out your list of “Most Important Rules” and put an effective consequence (a removal or an imposition) next to each one. Because these are the most important rules in your house, the consequences should be fairly stiff. Finally, clearly number and write the rules and their respective consequences on a large sheet of paper in the following format:

  • Go to school every day. If you skip school or leave school, I will go with you to school the next day, or as soon as I can get off work, and be by your side all day long.

  • No putting holes in walls or windows. If you do, you will spend the next weekend fixing the holes instead of going to any social activities.

  • No pulling the cat's tail. If you do, you will not be allowed to play with the cat for two days and will be grounded the next weekend.

  • Complete and turn in homework every day. If you do not, I will go with you to school the next day, or as soon as I can get off work, and be by your side all day long.

  • Bedtime is 9:00 P.M. Go to bed on time every night. If you do not, you will skip your extracurricular activities the next day (or the next time you have one).

  • No hitting. If you hit anyone, you will sit in time out for five minutes.

  • Weapons are not allowed in the house. If I think you have one, I will call the police.

Essential

For the time being, go with a practical approach and don't try to set up rules if you'll have no idea whether your child has complied. If you're working when your child comes home, you won't know if your child is watching TV instead of doing homework, so frame the rule based on what you can measure: completed homework.

Now you have a clear list of rules and their consequences — consequences that are fitting and effective. It's time to introduce them to your child.

Time to Talk to Your Child

In a moment of downtime when you don't anticipate an immediate power struggle (don't wait too long), approach your child and say, “I love you too much to let things go on like they have been, and it is my job to keep you safe and help you grow up with every advantage in life, so I am laying down some new rules. These are the three basic rules in our house, and the consequences for not obeying them.” Show the child your list. If your child is younger, read it to him; if he's older, have him read it himself.

Ask if there are any questions, or if there is anything that isn't clear, but don't ask your child to grant you permission to lay down the rules by ending sentences with “Okay?” You're in control. You might get questions like, “What if I just hurt the dog a little bit?” and you should answer that breaking a rule just a little bit is still breaking a rule. Tell your child that the new rules are in effect immediately. Then tell your child you love him, and end the conversation. Post the rules in a conspicuous place, and expect him to begin testing them right away.

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