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.

YELLING IS NOT A CONSEQUENCE!

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! 🙂