Positive and Negative Consequences

Q: Despite reading various information online about managing my child’s behavior with consequences, I’m not sure I really know how to most effectively utilize consequences to get my child to behave. Can you give me some examples of how to best use consequences to get my child to behave? Thanks!

Often times parents find themselves deciding in how to respond to their child’s behavior. What happens immediately after a child engages in a specific behavior is a consequence. This could be either positive or negative. A positive consequence demonstrates to your child they have done something you approve of, whereas a negative consequence or discipline shows your child they have done something unacceptable or inappropriate.

Let’s take a look at positive consequences or rewards. Rewards can be beneficial in encouraging your child and it increases the likelihood of them engaging in positive behaviors. Rewards can come in many forms, including praise, attention, activities, or material rewards (e.g., a toy). Praise and what I call relationship-based rewards are some of my favorites because they build self-esteem and connection. Examples of relationship-based rewards could be getting two stories at bedtime while snuggling with mom and dad instead of just one book, getting to choose the game played for a family game night, or 1-1 time with dad at the park or playing video games versus having to ‘share’ dad with your siblings.

When deciding on this approach, be sure to set goals that are realistic because if your child does not feel he or she can achieve the goal, they likely will not try. Also, when choosing a reward, determine if it is desired by your child. For instance, if your child does not care about a new sticker book, then it would not be a good reward to choose. So take a moment and consider your child’s likes and dislikes. For this to be successful, parents should give rewards regularly and consistently. This can be achieved by aiming to provide rewards periodically while your child is working towards a bigger reward for when they achieve a long-term accomplishment. For example, rewarding good grades on exams and projects while working towards the long-term goal of good grades on the final report card. Additionally, once a reward is promised, be sure to always follow through! This increases the likelihood of a follow through on your child’s part when a new goal and reward is established in the future. When setting up this approach, be clear with your child about the requirements to receive a reward by being as specific as possible. For example, a clean room means picking up clothes off the floor, putting toys in the toy chest, and making the bed. Similarly, be clear about the reward. If the reward is picking the restaurant for the family’s Friday night dinner out, you might specify the price range, any off limits because the commute is too far, or any other limitations that may exist. To track progress towards a reward, get creative and create a method that works for you and your child. As a general rule of thumb, for toddlers and preschoolers, it is best to reward them immediately, as their memory is not as good as it is for older children and the positive consequence must immediately follow the positive behavior for them to connect the two.

Now let’s talk about negative consequences. When using negative consequences or discipline to target misbehavior, aim to clearly identify the inappropriate or misbehavior. To achieve this, first ask yourself what it is you want your child to stop doing. Once you are able to answer that, make clear to your child what is okay and what is not to reduce confusion on their part. For instance, if your child is doing something you want them to stop doing, respond by providing a warning that the behavior needs to change or a consequence will follow. Be specific about the behavior and exactly what is to follow in the instance the child continues to misbehave (e.g., “If you throw the block again, I will take all the blocks away.”) It is often best to tie the negative consequences to the negative action, such as throwing blocks leads to blocks being taken away. However, it is also important to know your child’s ‘currency’ as to what is important to them. For example, for several months my daughter was in love with her pink sparkle shoes, and any warning that I would take them away for the rest of the day was followed with her complying with whatever I had requested she do or stop doing. Once the warning has been issued and the behavior persists, the next step is follow through of the consequence. It is worth noting, if your child does what you have asked, a positive consequence should follow. This can be in the form of praise, high fives, or a hug. If you find yourself having to go the route of a negative consequence, it is helpful to explain why the negative consequence is taking place (e.g., “Because you threw the block, I am taking the blocks for the evening.”) At this point, children may beg, plead, negotiate, or tantrum in an attempt to sway you into not following through with the consequence. That is normal and should not impact your decision to follow through; in fact, if you cave, your child will learn your warnings can be ignored as a negative consequence will not follow. Once the consequence has taken place, go back to communicating positively with your child. Be on the lookout for positive behaviors and acknowledge them with a positive consequence! That side if the equation is more fun for children and parents alike.