Why Consequences Don't Work (and what to do instead)

We were recently reading through several Facebook threads about how helpless families feel in managing their toddler’s behaviour. The messages were consistent, “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, I’ve tried consequences but they didn’t work, I don’t know what to do differently”. This got us thinking about how common it is to resort to consequences as a measure in parenting. It’s how most of us were raised, so it’s almost a default response to assume that to be a good parent you need to impose consequences on your children for their “misbehavior” in order to raise a “good” kid. Today we’re going to talk you through why these tend not to work and offer an alternative of what to do instead.

First, let’s define the word “consequence” as we’re using it today. When we are referring to consequences, we mean a parent imposed consequence to a particular action, NOT the natural consequence of a child’s actions. Be careful here because we often can get tricked into imposing “natural” consequences to our children’s actions, but natural consequences happen without any intervention from us at all (eg. not having a toy to play with because it broke when it was thrown). Some examples of consequences we are referring to include, but are not limited to, time outs, taking away a loved item, or making a child clean up a mess alone because he did it “on purpose”.

Next, let’s get into some of the reasons why consequences generally don’t work.

The first reason is that they assume the behaviours from the child are a conscious choice of the child, that they’re choosing to hit, bite, yell, throw, or ignore your request for cooperation. Toddlers are not tiny adults, they are immature humans. We can see this immaturity in so much of their day, from their little waddle as they walk, to their often uncoordinated efforts to dress or feed themselves. We permit the immaturities when it comes to learning to speak, walk, feed, dress, toilet, and so many more things every single day, but when it comes to emotional regulation, which is the foundation of self-control, we tend to be a bit less gracious. We might think “how many times do I have to tell you!” or “no that’s unacceptable, we never hit”, but we likely wouldn’t take this approach to other immaturities like falling over in the early days of walking. Just like they are stumbling and mistepping in most aspects of their little lives, they are going to miss the mark frequently when it comes to how they behave.

This is because the mixed feelings they need to be able to control their impulses and behaviour do not come on board until around 5-7 years of age. These mixed feelings are needed to say “I want to hit, but I love my brother so I won’t”. We can do a lot to coach our children before this age, but a lot of the time we need to stay close and block them to be able to keep everyone safe and regulated.

We also need to remember that often the behaviour that we’re seeing is a result of an unmet need or emotion. We need to respond to those needs and not to the behaviour to help the behaviours to subside. As an example, if our 2 year old is acting out because he’s feeling disconnected to us, imposing a consequence is likely to increase the throwing, because it doesn’t address the disconnection he may be feeling. If we instead acknowledge the root of the behaviour and offer some more closeness and connection, we would likely see the behviour subside on its own because the need was met.  

The second reason consequences don’t tend to work, is they tend to teach different lessons than we intend to. When we consistently impose a consequence for a child’s action, they may over time, and as they mature, begin to stop themselves from the unwanted behaviour because they don’t want the consequences. Now, we need to ask ourselves, do we want our children not to behave inappropriately because of the selfish implications of what will happen to them or would we rather they do so because they understand the impact of their actions on the people around them? What happens when we’re not watching to impose the consequences? Are they going to be able to regulate their behaviours in the absence of the consequences?

Finally, consequences impose conditions on the relationship we have with our child. When we send them away to teach them not to hit, when we take away something they love in order to curb a behaviour, when we make them do something on their own because it was their fault, we are teaching them that our relationship with them is contingent on the way they act. The biggest challenge with this is that it is that relationship with us that gives us the ability to parent and act with natural authority. That relationship is called attachment and it’s what helps our children to want to stay close and cooperate. So when we undermine that attachment relationship by imposing consequences, we not only erode our relationship a little bit but we are actually working against ourselves as children are less likely to want to listen and follow our direction when they’re feeling disconnected. In fact, they’re more likely to act out when they feel like their attachment relationship is threatened.

So then, what can we do if consequences aren’t the answer?

Prioritize attachment. Let the ultimate guiding principle be will this negatively impact the relationship I have with my child or will it strengthen it? If the answer is the former, avoid it, if it’s the latter, go right ahead. We want to work at strengthening as often as possible.

Love unconditionally. Most of us love our children unconditionally but do our actions communicate this to our little ones? We need to strive to send the message that nothing our child does can make us love them any less - or any more - than we already do today.

Set loving limits. We can hold loving limits without the use of consequences. We can do so by blocking a hit before it has a chance to make contact, removing a child from an environment that is too much for them in the moment, or kindly removing an item that they are not using safely.

Repair after rupture. It’s inevitable that we’re not going to get it right every single time. Just like our little ones get it wrong, we also get it wrong sometimes too. The important thing is that when we get it wrong, we acknowledge this with our little ones and work to fix the relationship we have with them. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have yelled at you, that was my mistake and you don’t deserve to be spoken to like that. I’ll work on not yelling, do you want to read with me?”

Empathize and hold space for big feelings. Can you really empathize with your little one? Think about how it must feel to want something SO badly and not be able to have it in the moment. When we can truly take their perspective we can shift our response to really hold space for some big feelings. This ultimately leads to emotional regulation, which in turn will eventually lead to self-regulation.

Connect, connect, connect. Connection might not be the cure for everything, but it’s pretty close. When you take the time to connect, you’re reaffirming your relationship, you’re helping your child feel close to you, and you’re giving them the opportunity to co-regulate with you. All of these things will help you to deepen your attachment and lead to more cooperation from your child.

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Categories: : Attachment, Behaviour, Emotion, Motherhood, Parenting