Updated: Jun 15, 2019
By Dr. Sarah Haas *
As parents, it can be really easy to get frustrated with our children. When you're frustrated, it can be easy to take away anything and everything.
But how do negative consequences work? Actually, you might be thinking that they absolutely don't work with your child. And for some children this technique might not work. However, for many kids, negative consequences can work if they are used in the most effective way possible.
In a previous post that you can find here, we talked about how to use rewards o help encourage children to engage in appropriate behaviors, and negative consequences work in a very similar way.
The most powerful information in that post is to think of rewards as a way to highlight to the child what behaviors they need to focus on in order to get what they want: a reward.
"That is, giving a reward for a particular behavior may place a child's focus on controlling that behavior on the top of their to-do list."
Then once we thought about rewards in that way, it was easier to understand how to make a reward system work for you and your child.
Well, what would you say if I told you that negative consequences for inappropriate behavior could be thought of in a similar way?
What if negative consequences for inappropriate behavior works by bringing that behavior into your child's awareness; the negative consequences make a specific behavior even more prominent?
Have you ever taken something away from your child and their behavior became worse? Like, way worse such that you are now taking away other privileges?
Does this ever make you stop and think, "What is the purpose in taking away my child's ability to play Fortnite for the next three days because they hit their sibling?"
There has to be a better way.
When parents take some privilege or tangible item (like a toy) that is meaningful away from a child, typically the child will have a negative response. If you thought you were getting Friday off this week and your boss calls and says you have to work, you would likely be disappointed too!
-How frustrated would you be if, on Monday, your boss said, "Absolutely! It's no problem for you to take off Friday!"
-How frustrated would you be if, on Monday, your boss said, "As long as we don't have any fires to put out Thursday, you can have off on Friday."
If you felt more frustrated in the first scenario than the second, one reason for this has to do with expectations: If you're expecting to get the day off, it feels more infuriating when that doesn't happen! In the second scenario, you don't necessarily know you will have off on Friday, which lessens the blow when you're told you need to work that day.
Children can operate in a similar way. So if they are expecting to play Fortnite tonight and then it, from their perspective, gets taken away from them suddenly, they may get pretty angry. It's kind of like, "I had no idea that could happen, and that is the absolute worst thing that can happen!"
So what's the solution? The solution is quite similar to that of how to make rewards even more effective as we talked about here!
1. Setting up clear [reward system] negative consequences ahead of time
This cannot be overstated. If [rewards] negative consequences can help make a particular behavior more salient and reduce surprises (which in turn often reduces frustration), then this suggests that knowing ahead of time which negative consequence occurs as a result from which inappropriate behavior will improve the effectiveness of this technique.
If you can't rattle off which behaviors will lead to being reprimanded at work, it can feel like you are up a creek without a paddle left to figure out - by guessing and testing - which behaviors lead to which consequences. For kids who are inattentive, impulsive, forgetful, and/or easily frustrated, this can be a recipe for disaster. They need many more experiences of guessing and testing than you do to determine which behaviors lead to which consequences, which can make them feel like they are always getting in trouble.
Setting up clear negative consequences for pre-defined behaviors also can help you keep your cool -- you know what negative consequence results from your child hitting their sibling, which helps you feel more prepared, which helps you maintain your composure!
If you were to drive outside right now, and all of the speed limit signs were taken down, and a police officer pulls you over, you likely will not be happy. In fact, your first response might be something along the lines of, "This is unfair. I had no idea I was speeding because there was nothing here to tell me how fast I could go!"
2. Few behaviors = negative consequences
Just like the boss scenario, you like do not want negative consequences to be the main way that you shape your child's behavior. You (and your child!) are more likely to be successful if you remember what behaviors will get you [rewards] in trouble. If you get reprimanded for anything and everything, why bother "trying" to do anything different than what you're already doing? It feels like no matter what, you'll get in trouble anyway. The behaviors that result in negative consequences should be a handful of basic, non-negotiable behaviors that immediately result in a negative consequence.
3. Don't use negative consequences that result in shaming or abandonment
Your child may already feel poorly about themselves and their ability to control their behavior. They may feel that they get in trouble all of the time and use that as a basis for negative self-talk. Now on top of that, let's say you don't want to play with them tonight because their behavior was "so bad". This is a pretty demoralizing experience for anyone. This is not the purpose of a negative consequence. A negative consequence serves to make certain behaviors more memorable so the child can say to themselves "I don't want to hit my brother because if I do I'll get in time-out". Make sure the consequences you dole out are serving that role.
4. Follow through with negative consequences, consistently
This follows the age old adage of "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me". If your child learns they can engage in behaviors and you only threat negative consequences but won't actually implement them, your child will likely call your bluff.
If negative consequences are not consistent, children may continue to do the behavior that results in a negative behavior within your system. Why? Because it takes a lot of energy and effort for your child to change their behavior, and if they know sometimes they can do an easier behavior (e.g., tantrum) and not get in trouble for it, human nature is to take that path of least resistance.
You can also think of it this way. Following the driving example provided above, if you get pulled over for going 55 mph, you may adjust your behavior and go 45 mph the next day. But what if you get pulled over there and get another speeding ticket? And what if you get a speeding ticket in another area for going 40 mph?
If speed limits are inconsistent, they are different in different areas and you have no way to predict what they are where, you are likely to do whatever you want to do.
In the same way, if your child does not feel that he or she knows when they will get in trouble, they will keep doing what they are doing and get frustrated when they get in trouble.
6. Use negative consequences that are motivating
If your child does not care about their iPod, taking it away will have minimal impact on the current and future behavior that iPod is linked to. Of course, sometimes kids say, "I don't care, I don't like that anyway!" and they don't actually mean it. It's important to not only listen to their words, but also observe their behavior in response to taking a privilege or tangible item away.
Phew! There is a LOT jam packed in this blog post! You don't have to do this alone! We can help! See our services here.
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