The idea of consequences for behaviors may not evoke pleasant feelings at first, but consequences are an important part of childhood and a pathway to learning and growth. In terms of parenting, consequences for kids are what they can expect to happen after they behave in certain ways- positive and negative. Providing consequences for children tends to make a behavior more or less likely to occur in the future. When used appropriately, consequences are an effective tool for parents to encourage positive and healthy ways of behaving.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Why are consequences important for kids?
- The challenges of enforcing consequences
- How to set appropriate consequences
- Examples of consequences by age-range
Why are consequences important for kids?
Effective consequences help reinforce healthy boundaries that kids need to thrive. Implemented thoughtfully and consistently, consequences can promote feelings of security and preparedness in children. Helping kids understand what’s expected of them, and providing fair and appropriate consequences for their behaviors, can bring grounding and stability to family life. Establishing and maintaining rules and consequences can benefit the entire family.
Both positive and negative consequences are important for kids. Positive consequences, such as praise and granting privileges, promote prosocial behaviors, improve self-confidence, and strengthen the parent-child bond. Negative consequences, such as correcting your child when they misbehave or having them miss a fun activity, help kids learn from their mistakes and discover better ways of behaving.
Consequences help kids learn and grow. Through consequences, kids discover the repercussions of their actions. Understanding this cause and effect relationship helps kids monitor their own behavior and make decisions more carefully. Together, positive and negative consequences promote character, confidence, and self-control in kids.
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The challenges of enforcing consequences
Parents want what’s best for their child, but responding to their misbehavior can be tricky at times. Especially when big feelings are involved. Delivering a hefty negative consequence in the heat of the moment is a natural response when you’re frustrated- “That’s it, you’re grounded for a month!” But if the consequence is unrealistic, or you don’t follow through, then the consequence can do more harm than good, and your child may not take you seriously the next time.
Consequences can also amplify negative behaviors in the short term, but it’s important to stay firm and consistent. If needed, wait until things are calm to give a consequence. Being prepared helps. Of course, life can be unpredictable, and there will be moments when you have to respond swiftly or creatively as a parent. As long as the consequence is coming from an educational place, as opposed to a punitive place, you are on the right track.
At the heart of effective behavior management is the belief that kids are capable of caring and respectful behaviors with the right nurturing and support. This doesn’t mean it will always be a walk in the park. Children have different strengths and weaknesses, so naturally, some children may require more time and attention than others. And kids with mental health diagnoses may need the support of a professional. Mental health professionals can help families learn how to respond to children’s challenging behaviors and implement effective consequences.
How to set appropriate consequences
Consequences that are specific, reasonable, and related to pre-established expectations tend to work best. Having clear expectations for your child is a great place to begin. Once the rules of the household have been established, it’s easier for parents to recognize and reinforce when things are going well (positive consequences) and correct unwanted behaviors (negative consequences). Setting up specific rules also helps children understand what’s expected of them and allows them to monitor their own behavior.
Work with your family to come up with rules that benefit everyone. You can include your kids in a conversation about what consequences they think would be appropriate and fair in different situations. The more consistently you implement rules and consequences, the more effective they will be. The most effective consequences increase the likelihood of good behavior and preserve a child’s self-esteem.
Once you’ve laid the groundwork, and your child understands what is expected of them, then you can decide how to best respond to your child’s behavior. Logical consequences that are related to the behavior tend to be a better option than random punishment. For example, if your child breaks their sibling’s toy out of anger, perhaps they lose access to their favorite toy for a few days. It can also be helpful to arrange consequences according to a hierarchy that matches the level of behavior with the degree of the consequence. Sometimes, life does the teaching for you. Natural consequences can help your child learn important lessons, and even sometimes replace the need for further action.
It is important that positive consequences are given to children as much, or more, than negative ones. Without a doubt, parenting is a balancing act, and disciplining your child is no different. Corrections and negative consequences should be balanced with ample love, praise, and positive attention. Effective negative consequences can help kids learn from their mistakes, and positive ones can help everyone celebrate their successes.
Examples of consequences by age range
There are a few things you should consider when setting consequences for younger children. First, consequences should be developmentally appropriate. This means that the consequences you give a 4 year old will look different than the consequences you would give a teenager. While the consequences themselves may be different during different stages of childhood, the premise behind them remains the same.
When it comes to younger children, being mindful of the amount of time it takes to deliver a consequence is important. Preschool children will need immediate consequences. If you wait a long period of time, or until the next day, they likely won’t make the connection between the behavior and consequence. For example, if your toddler exhibits a positive behavior like being kind or following rules, acknowledge it right away with specific praise- “I love how you are sharing your toys with your sister!” On the other hand, if two siblings are fighting over a toy, a logical and appropriate consequence at this age would be to put the toy away for a certain amount of time.
When kids are a little older, say elementary to pre-teen age, you may want to spend a bit more time reminding children of the consequences and the reasons for them. Positive consequences at this age could include praise and privileges. For example, if you finish your homework and clean up your room before dinner time with no reminders, then you can get extra free time or choose the dessert. Negative consequences may include the loss of privileges or valuable items. For kids this age, losing access to their electronics, such as a cell phone, video games, or screen time in general, can be a powerful consequence. Teens could earn a later curfew if they’ve demonstrated responsible behavior, or perhaps an earlier curfew if they stay out too late.
Creative consequences that accomplish more than one goal are a great option at any age. For example, the consequence could be having to make up for the negative behavior, or participating in a healthy activity. Helping with a chore or home project is another creative way to teach your child a new skill and spend valuable time together. Sometimes creative consequences are the most impactful and can help kids feel purposeful, helpful, and confident.
Effective discipline is a combination of positive and negative consequences. Make a point to catch your child doing good things any chance you get. This balances out having to give corrections or take away privileges. If you implement consequences effectively, they can be a wonderful tool for teaching, encouraging kids to take responsibility for their behavior, and building self-esteem.