A Key Component of Behavior Modification: Consequences

Many parents who bring their child to me for therapy/behavior modification hear me say this phrase OFTEN: “What were the consequences?”. Consequences are crucial in changing your child’s behavior. Of course, I believe in the power of positive reinforcement which is why I wrote THAT blog entry first. Now it’s time to focus on using consequences to address behaviors that are negative and cannot be ignored. Remember what I said about your attention being one of the biggest reinforcers to your child? Keep this in mind when giving consequences. Be careful not to give your child the most attention all day when you deliver a consequence. (This can reinforce negative behaviors, because your child will withstand the consequence just to get your attention!). When delivering a consequence, use minimal eye contact, try not to use your child’s name, and keep it as simple as possible. Your voice does not have to be cold or mean, but try to make it “all business”, and comment directly on the behavior.  My favorite lead-in? “That was not OK”, “It’s never OK to ________”, or “It wasn’t OK when you ______.”  NAME what the misbehavior was, and then name the consequence. When possible, give a warning. Tell your child directly what you expect of them, and what will happen if they do not comply. Warnings give your child the chance to correct the behavior and have a chance to earn praise from you. (Some behaviors, such as hitting, kicking, or unsafe behaviors do not warrant a second chance; consequence those immediately.)

Consequences are your best tool for changing behavior.  Consequences are what give you power over your child’s behavior, even if you feel powerless in the moment. True, you may not be able to get your child to stop doing something or start doing something right in that moment (no matter how hard you grit your teeth!) but ultimately you do have the power. Giving consequences immediately following a misbehavior or noncompliance communicates that power to your child, who I can guarantee is taking notes on who has the most power in the relationship.   Agreeing on consequences in advance and implementing them when needed takes FAR less energy than lecturing, yelling, and pouring your emotional energy into getting upset and letting your kids know it. If you know earning the privilege to watch a TV show motivates your child, and you have decided in advance that’s a consequence you’re willing to use, deliver it like this: “It wasn’t OK when you ________. No more TV for the rest of the night.” If TV is not something you’re willing to take away, or that’s more of a consequence for you, don’t mention it or use it as a consequence. Decide on something else you are willing to use as a consequence and follow through. Even though consequences are best delivered immediately, if you’re simply not up to fighting a battle in the moment, wait to address it later. Following through with a consequence is crucial in establishing your authority, so don’t deliver the consequence until you’re sure you can follow through.


You hate it, so why don’t they hate enough to stop doing what caused you to yell in the first place?? Well, they do hate it, but they simply wait for you to stop. Once it’s over, there is little to no impact. It does nothing to decrease the possibility of the behavior happening again in the future. Other consequences are what decrease the chance of the behavior happening again in the future. The power to change your child’s behavior comes from consequences applied consistently. Over time, their behavior will change AND you will begin to have more power in the moment.

Whenever possible, use natural/logical consequences to address a behavior. These are consequences that naturally occur as a result of our behavior, and these experiences can change your child’s behavior instead of you having to intervene. For example, if your child forgets to bring his mitt to baseball practice, he won’t get to participate. This eliminates the need for you to punish him, as he has already felt the effects of his behavior.

Try to have the punishment fit the crime. That is, try to “connect” your child’s behavior with the offense. Examples: Offense: Your child refuses to brush his or her teeth. Consequence: Child may not have any sweets until teeth are brushed well, and on a regular basis. “Sweets are not good for teeth, especially teeth that aren’t brushed!”. Offense: Child won’t stay in bed at bedtime. Consequence: “Practice” bedtime routine during playtime, or earlier bedtime the next night.

Some final thoughts about consequences: Whenever possible, assign immediately so your child’s behavior is fresh in his or her mind, and the consequence will be connected to it. Keep consequences short; for young children (4-6), time-outs are still appropriate. For loss of privileges, the next hour or two should be impacted, and not much beyond that. For older children (6-10), the rest of the day is far enough to go with your consequences. Only for older children would I assign consequences a few days or even a week at a time. Going longer than that can make you forget to follow through, or start to feel like you’ve punished yourself! A general guideline I’m fond of is to allow your child to have a fresh start the next day. This increases the chance that he or she will be successful in turning the behaviors around, rather than feel like there is nothing to look forward to.

Plan ahead for behaviors you typically encounter, so you don’t have to think of consequences when you’re angry. Make a chart of some behaviors your child seems to be struggling with, and write down the consequences you will use to address that behavior. Having these in your “back pocket” helps you feel less overwhelmed by the misbehavior in the moment, helps your child know what to expect, decreases the chance of the consequence being too severe due to your frustration, and increases consistency between parents.

Example consequences:

Offense: Child hits sibling. Consequence: Time out, child does sibling’s chore for that day. Offense: Child won’t clean room. Consequence: No electronics until room is clean. Offense: Teen is late for curfew. Consequence: Has to decline the next social event he or she is invited to.

Happy Consequencing! 🙂


Praise and Rewards to Motivate Behavior

Praise and rewards are wonderful tools to increase your child’s positive behavior. I can hear the skeptics now: “Do I really have to reward them for doing what they are supposed to be doing?”. Well, no, you don’t have to. You can rely on crossing your fingers and hope they do what they are supposed to, and give consequences when they don’t. However, based on basic behavior modification principles, reinforcing behavior with positive feedback, praise, and rewards will make it increase. (And make your life a bit easier!) We all operate on this principle; we go to work and get a paycheck. We do something nice for our spouse and get positive feedback. We all need and enjoy positive reinforcement.

Remember, any time you are tuned into your child, you are reinforcing what he or she is doing. Therefore, it’s best to give your full attention in response to a positive behavior on behalf of your child. When you see him or her doing something positive, name it. “I really like the way you ___________” or “You did a great job ____________.” Other ways of giving positive attention include eye contact, using your child’s name, and giving a positive physical reinforcement such as a hug or a high five.

In addition to the above positive reinforcement, rewards can also increase your child’s positive behavior. Rewards are particularly good for reinforcing behavior your child may be struggling to display. Start a sticker chart with one behavioral goal. Make sure it is stated in the positive, i.e. getting stickers for “Closing door quietly” instead of “Stop slamming doors”.  Think about what motivates your child. Rewards do NOT have to cost a lot of money, nor should it always be food or something sweet. Children are often motivated by these two things: time and power. Time with YOU is almost always motivating!  Giving your child 10-15 minutes of ONE ON ONE time is a wonderful reward, especially if you have other kids.  Since children are not usually the ones in control (even when they think they are ;)), they enjoy having power when possible. Therefore, having the power to choose something for themselves or the entire family can feel very good… and be very reinforcing!

Suggested Rewards:

  • Walk with parent
  • Board game with parent
  • Select game for whole family to play
  • 10-30 minutes extra TV/computer/video game time
  • 10-30 minutes later bedtime on Fri/Sat evenings
  • Read a book to/be read a book by parent
  • Choose where family goes out to eat
  • 10-15 minutes one-on-one activity of choice w/parent (coloring, playing with dolls, etc.)
  • 1 item from 99 cent store or dollar bins at Target
  • Pick out favorite cereal next time grocery shopping
  • Decide what family has for dinner for the evening
  • Special dessert
  • Pick movie to watch with family

I write about this so often because I truly believe in the power of praise. You might be amazed to watch your child’s behavior change if you commit yourself to praising positive behaviors consistently.

What behavior should you praise/reward?



Ignoring is a FABULOUS way of getting rid of behavior without paying any attention to it. If you ignore minor misbehavior, and praise/pay attention to good behavior, you will see your child’s behavior change a great deal.

Remember, this technique is for minor misbehaviors, and/or for behaviors that seem to be geared toward getting your attention. If you ignore them, you are teaching your child these behaviors don’t “work”. All the more important to pay attention again as soon as he or she is doing the right thing, to reinforce the more positive behavior.

The trick to ignoring is you have to be committed to it, or don’t attempt it. This is because the behavior will not just magically disappear when you ignore it; it will likely GET WORSE FIRST. This is called “upping the ante”, and it is something most people (and even animals) do!

Picture this: You give a light knock on someone’s front door. No answer. Would you just walk away immediately? Most of us wouldn’t. We’d knock again, this time a little louder. If it still didn’t work, we would probably walk away, because what we were doing wasn’t working.

Your dog scratches lightly at the door to be let outside. Nothing. He starts whining a little bit, scratching with more fervor. If still nothing, he’d probably go lay down (or possibly have an accident in the house :)).

These are examples of “upping the ante” with behavior, although the behaviors I’m referring to in regards to children and attention-getting are probably less benign than the above examples! First tries are hardly ever enough to convince us something isn’t going to work. Often we need a second, and sometimes third attempt to show us our behavior isn’t working. You have to remember this EVERY TIME you try ignoring your child, and be prepared for the increased intensity.

Picture this:Your child is trying to open a jar while sitting on the floor. Instead of asking for help, she begins making noises of frustration. It’s clear what she needs, but she’s not asking for it the right way. She keeps trying, getting louder and louder, and stomping her feet on the floor. When she realizes this method of asking for help isn’t working, she says, “Mom, can you open this for me?”. You respond immediately, saying, “Absolutely! All you have to do is ask!”.

Your teenager is muttering to himself over breakfast because you have told him he lost his computer privileges that day. You know to ignore, so you go about your business in the kitchen. You hear, “I have to have the strictest parents in the world. Lucky me!” Remind yourself, “he’s upping the ante, I have to keep ignoring”. He throws in one last jab… “I bet when Tom was my age you wouldn’t have taken away his computer!”. You feel the urge to respond… you hate it when he implies favoritism for his older brother, but you know it best to ignore all the way through. Sure enough, he gives up. After he’s been quietly eating his eggs for a few minutes, you strike up a conversation about last night’s ball game. Even if he’s not in the mood to chat, you did the right thing by not engaging in the argument.

Remember, you must be committed to ignoring all the way through. If you try ignoring for the first and second tries at getting your attention, and then you finally give on the third, you may have accidentally reinforced a more intense behavior. Don’t forget: kids learn what works! You just gave them a mental note, “It works when I get that loud”, “It works when I say that word”, or “It works when I slam my door”.

Picture this: You walk up to a window with the intention of opening it for some fresh air. You give it a gentle tug with one hand. Nothing. You give another gentle tug; still nothing.  You pull a little harder, this time using both hands. It won’t budge. You plant both feet on the ground, put both hands on the window and PULL as hard as you can. The window opens!

What did you learn from this? You learned that gently tugging on the window does not work, and so you must pull really hard to get it to open.  The next time you wanted to open it, you would probably walk up to the window, get a good grip, and yank on it with all your might. That’s because you learned what WORKS. When people learn what works, they want to do that the next time instead of wasting time trying things that DON’T work.  This is how you extinguish the minor misbehaviors of your child and reinforce the positive… show them the positive ones “work” to get your attention, and the negative ones don’t.

Picture this: Your child knows you hate it when he kicks the back of your seat in the car. He begins tapping his foot lightly on your seat. You ignore. You feel the kicking get harder, and more frequent. You feel like you can’t take it anymore, and so you say tersely, “STOP KICKING MY SEAT!”. Oops. You may have just accidentally reinforced some hard kicks on the back of your seat, because he learned that’s what works to get your attention in the car. Instead, wait it out, reminding yourself that behaviors extinguish when they aren’t working. As soon as he stops kicking for a full 30 seconds, engage him in conversation. Later, you can say, “I really like it when you sit still in the car” and praise him for the specific behavior.

Some behaviors cannot be ignored, and need to be addressed immediately. Stay tuned for a future blog on consequences! 🙂


Behavior Modification: How Does Your Garden Grow?

I’m big about behavior modification. I love it! It’s amazing to think the reactions you give others can shape their behavior (this works on pets, kids, and spouses, too!).  Behavior modification, put simply, is increasing the behaviors you do want while decreasing the behaviors you don’t want all by the way you respond. In order for behavior modification techniques to work, they need to be applied repeatedly, consistently, and firmly.

Think of all your interventions (praising, punishing, or simply talking to your child) as ATTENTION.  Interactions that you perceive as negative may be simply attention to your child. ATTENTION is to BEHAVIOR as WATER is to PLANTS. The more attention (water) you give your child’s behavior (plant), the more it will GROW.

What kind of plant do you want to grow, a flower (good behavior) or a weed (bad behavior)? If you want flowers to grow, you need to pay most attention to the good behavior. As those of you with gardens know, weeds grow even faster with water than flowers do!  Therefore, if you pay attention to the negative behavior more than the positive, you’ll have a garden full of weeds (or a house full of chaos)!

It’s waaaay easier to pay attention (or start paying attention) to the negative behaviors than the positive. All too often, children catch our attention once they’ve done something wrong.  They learn this! They learn what works to get your attention. If you start paying attention to good behavior (repeatedly and consistently), they will learn this works best and will start giving you more good behavior.

Most kids want their parents’ attention more than any other thing. Therefore, any time you are tuned into your child, you are reinforcing what they are doing. Eye contact is very reinforcing!! Using their name is very reinforcing.  Think of the Far Side cartoon about what dogs hear…

The same is true for kids… you could be saying anything! All your child knows is that in a world of busy schedules and many distractions, THIS got your attention. THIS got you saying his or her name! This got YOU! So, if it was an undesirable behavior, do your best to refrain from responding to it with the most attention you’ve given your child all day. If it was a minor misbehavior, ignore, and make a note to pay attention to them again as soon as they start doing the right thing. If it was a more significant misbehavior and not one to be ignored, address it briefly, ideally with a consequence, and move on.

Don’t let your PRAISE become “blah blah blah” either! Specifically name what your child has done right, i.e. “That was great the way you _________” or “I really liked it when you __________”.  Some kids will feel it even more if you throw in a high five, a hug, or a kiss. Reward good behavior with special time with YOU.


Published in: on September 23, 2011 at 2:14 pm  Comments (1)  
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