Steps for Using Consequences

how to use consequences for Misbehaviors

A consequence is what happens immediately after a behavior. Consequences can be both positive and negative. Positive consequences show your child she has done something you like. Your child is more likely to repeat the behavior when you use positive consequences. Negative consequences let your child know you do not like what she has done. Your child is less likely to repeat the behavior when you use negative consequences. Negative consequences are also called discipline. The five steps for using consequences to stop misbehavior are listed below.

It is important that you and your child are clear about which behaviors are okay and which are not okay. If your child is doing something you do not like and want to stop, let her know by giving a warning that the behavior needs to change or a consequence will be used (see Step 2).

Be specific when you tell your child what you expect. Saying something like, “If you don’t play nicely, you’re going to lose your toys” is vague. You and your child may have different ideas about what “playing nicely” means. State exactly what you want to see your child do. You might say, “If you throw the truck again, I’m going to take it away.”

Give your child a warning that the behavior needs to change. Let her know she will get a consequence she does not like if her behavior doesn’t change. Using “If-Then” statements are a good way to give the warning to your child. You might say, “If you don’t stop throwing the toy, then I’m going to take it away.”

Only use a warning if you are willing to follow through with the consequence. Follow through with the consequence every time you give a warning. If you don’t, your child will not take the warning seriously. In the warning, be specific about what you expect from your child. If your child is banging pans on the table, you may say, “If you don’t play gently with the pans, they will be put away for the rest of the day.”

Once a warning is given, you must always follow-through with a positive or negative consequence. Give a positive consequence if your child did what you asked. This lets her know you like the choice she made. Positive consequences include praise, hugs, pats on the back, or other things. Give a negative consequence if your child didn’t do what you asked.  This lets her know you do not like the choice she made. Ignoring, distraction, time-out, and delay or restriction of privileges are examples of negative consequences. It is a good idea to try ignoring or distracting your child as potential consequences. If these do not work or are not possible, think about the common sense consequences related to the misbehavior.

  • Ignoring
    When you ignore, you take all your attention away from your child and her behavior. Click here to learn more about when and how to ignore.
  • Distraction
    When children are distracted, their attention is redirected to something else. Distraction is easier to use when you plan in advance how you will handle situations that may be hard for your child. For instance, if your child misbehaves when you go out to dinner or on long car trips, bring crayons and paper or small games that can help distract your child.
  • Delay of a privilege and logical (or common sense) consequences
    Delaying a privilege means that your child has to wait to get something she likes. When you remove privileges, you take away things or activities your child likes. For young children, the privileges you remove need to be logically related to the misbehavior. For example, you might take away a toy your children are fighting over.
  • Time-out
    Time-out moves your child to a place free of anything or anyone that might provide attention. Click here for more information about time-out and how to do a time-out

Let your child know why the negative consequence is happening. Always follow through with the consequence. Remember timing is key. Consequences should occur immediately after the misbehavior. This way, your child clearly understands what she did to get the negative consequence. You may say, “Because you hit your brother with your doll, I am taking away your doll for the evening”. At that point, the doll should be removed and placed out of the child’s reach.

Your child may beg, plead, cry, and tell you what you want to hear once you use the consequence. Your child may also say things like she hates you or that you are a terrible parent. This should not affect your decision to follow through. If your child throws a tantrum and you give her what she wants, the lesson she learns is “If I cry loud enough, mom/dad will give me what I want.” In this case, you have actually rewarded your child for the tantrum and made it more likely she will throw a tantrum in the future.

After the consequence is over, go back to being positive with your child. If a privilege is removed or delayed, you can remind your child of the good behavior you want to see. For example, if you give your child her doll back after a morning time-out, you might say, “You can play with the doll as long as you play gently.” Watch for positive behaviors. Give praise and other rewards when your child does the right thing.

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Page last reviewed: October 2, 2017