Rethinking Consequences: 3 Steps that Help Children Change Unacceptable Behaviors

Rethinking Consequences: 3 Steps that Help Children Change Unacceptable Behaviors

There were jeans and inside out t-shirts scattered between legos and nerf darts. It was almost the end of the day and my son hadn’t picked up his room. I had asked earlier (probably more than once!)

As I walked through the house looking for my son I thought to myself..If he is on his tablet, I am so taking it away for a week!!! I noticed I was really tense and annoyed and took a few breaths to calm down. That’s when  I spotted him on the couch with his sister giggling up a storm.

“I noticed your room isn’t ready yet. Did you have a plan for getting it done as we agreed?”

“Oh…big ooops mom. You asked me and  I didn’t do it. I can do it now, like right away” said my son. “Wait, I can help you!” Said my daughter.

I couldn’t help but smile hearing my son’s honesty and my daughter’s offer to be helpful.

I was so glad I hadn’t jumped to taking away screen time. Such quick consequences really don’t make unhelpful behaviors stop.

I have learned over the years that rethinking how to approach misbehavior is important, especially if helping children learn to make better choices is your goal.  

Why are punishments and consequences not helpful?

Consequences and punishments, aside from not offering an opportunity to learn,  are emotionally draining and often frightening to children.

When children misbehave, they are typically missing important information, feeling disconnected from their parent, frustrated, fearful or overwhelmed. Sometimes children are simply engaged in their own world of play and discovery to follow through with what we ask. 

Consequences tend to create more tears and struggles instead of inviting real cooperation. What’s more, after dealing with consequences children typically feel resentful or frightened. 

What does help children behave better?

Children behave well when they feel encouraged, capable and emotionally well.  So whatever we choose to do to influence our child’s behavior needs to address those needs. Children need guidance and acceptance, especially if we want to be able to influence their behavior and shape it into a positive one.

Children don’t come pre-wired to know what is right and wrong. They do come wired with a desire to experiment and learn. So, a big part of helping children feel capable of learning and changing their behavior is to make sure we provide a safe space in which they can feel confident to take risks, make mistakes but also know that they will have a chance to try again. 

1 positive parenting better behaved kids

Here are 3 steps you can take to help children change unacceptable behaviors:

1. Stop & Explain: Stop the behavior by approaching the child.  As much as possible, avoid correcting behavior from far away. Instead, use gentle physical touch such as a hand on your child’s shoulders and a neutral, non threatening voice.

 Harsh words, isolation, yelling, physical aggression all shuts down the child’s ability to learn. 

Explain your reasons for not allowing something but keep it simple and clear.

  • “I’m concerned you could get hurt.”
  •  “Yelling inside is too loud.”
  • “The book shelf is for books, it is not for climbing.”

Communicating clearly helps your child develop good decision-making skills.

2. Focus on helping instead of blaming. 

You may never fully understand “why” your child has done something unhelpful. Young children often misbehave even if they “know” better too, because they are still learning, are very impulsive and emotional.  Healthy, growing children also choose to experiment and push limits. Blaming your child for bad behaviors is very discouraging. Being helpful and looking for solutions means you get back to working together. This is also an opportunity to be encouraging while still setting limits.

Helping may mean coaching your child through some feelings or simply setting clear and kind limits.

 

a positive parenting to bad behavior

3.  Present an YES! alternative:  What if anything could your child do differently that is helpful, wanted and acceptable in the situation that you are in?

After focusing on being helpful and encouraging as you did in step 2, try to find something your child is ready and able to do.  Can your child help fix something the broke or clean up a spill? Is there a quiet and interesting game your child can play instead of running wild and screaming?

In presenting alternatives you are actively encouraging your child to rethink and change her behavior choices while highlighting her capabilities. Because you took the time to be helpful and encouraging, chances are much higher that your child will be ready and able to cooperate with you now.

These three steps are a great way to start addressing unhelpful behaviors in a positive way.

Join our newsletter for even more positive parenting tools like connected, positive consequencescalm down corners and the best tools for helping children deal with anger and aggression.

Peace & Be Well,

Ariadne

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Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a Masters in Psychology and is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, one cuddly dog and "bluey" the fish.

18 Responses to Rethinking Consequences: 3 Steps that Help Children Change Unacceptable Behaviors

  1. What would be an appropriate response from the parent if a child is annoying his sibling on purpose, or being mean?

    • Yaffa,
      that is a great question. Children often annoy a sibling or get mean on purpose as a means to get attention or because they have a need that is not being met (like the ones listed above in the post) in such cases, it is a good opportunity to invite the child to take some time to cool off. If a calm down bag or chill out corner is already part of the family routine this is a time to use it and children get used to recognizing when they need some positive time out to calm down. Another option is to follow the 3 steps above. Stop it, explain it, offer an alternative. “Teasing is hurtful. Do you want to keep playing together or would you rather find a book to read for some time on your own?” or whatever activity the child can do alone… taking a moment to sit together, what is often called a time in, just to listen and be together is also very helpful. It is a common misconception that parents should withhold love and attention from their children when they are being mean or upset. children actually need acceptance, love and kindness the most in those very moments.

    • Hi Melissa,

      A chillout spot or corner is a place set up in the home as a safe space for a child to go to when they feel like they need a break or a place to calm down. In this area they can listen to music, squish stress toys, look at books, make a picture. They can go with a parent or on their own, the idea is to help children realize the benefits of stepping away from conflict and taking a moment to calm themselves down. You can read more about setting a chill out spot here.

  2. Hey Ariadne,

    This was a perfectly timed article. I’m still in the process of getting my wife on board with the philosophy behind peaceful/positive parenting and she has asked me, “If I can’t use x punishment or x consequence, what CAN I do?”

    Have already printed off a copy of this for her to read (It also provided some great information for me as well). Never heard of a chill-out corner before. I was going to ask what that was, but you have already answered that for Melissa.

    Thanks a bunch!
    -P.O.P.

  3. Love this. Some other important things to note are that studies show that Time Out before 4 years has been found to be completely ineffective in studies and that in older children it is only effective at curbing a behavior for a short term, shorter than a week, rather than addressing why the behavior is happening or how the child can do something different. Being with and talking to our child as well as modeling always yield the very best long term results. I love your blog, Ariadne!

    • Thank you Moorea! I just finished reading and researching 77 studies on discipline and parenting skills, time out is really being used in a disconnected way and there are so many different ways to guide children that work better! Thank you for your lovely comment.

  4. So how would you work this way of changing unacceptable behaviour when you have a 2 year old girl that hits… her 5 year old sibling, other 2 year old playmates, our dog and pretty much everybody else?

    • Hi Jodie

      To stop hitting, it’s important to teach the child other ways of expressing her frustration or fear (fear is often a driver for hitting even if they can’t quite voice that yet). So the steps here would be 1. stop the hitting or even better catch her hand before (not with force, just holding the hand or arm to prevent the hitting) and state clearly “I will not let you hit” 2. Try to figure out what is going on (does she want a toy? does she want to participate…) 3. Offer an alternative – it might sound like ” I think you are frustrated that annie isn’t sharing with you. Annie isn’t ready to share, I will sit with you while you wait.” Part of stopping hitting behaviors is ALSO teaching about emotions at other times – and proper ways to manage that anger, so not in the heat of the moment, but through play or books talk about alternatives for hitting “when you feel angry, you can clap your hands, you can’t hit your friends” What do you think? Can you see yourself trying something like that? It does take work – especially 2 year olds are just so impulsive – it takes practice and practice and patience! but it’s worthwhile!

  5. Hi Ariadne,

    I’m really happy I came across your article.

    We are helping out our child cope with a phobia that we never knew she has until recently. She is a 3 yr old girl just started schooling and we notice that when we call her to sit on her mommy’s lap she was sad and tearful. It’s like she feels that she will be disciplined.

    It started at school when she was sent to the timeout area by her teacher. And every time she misbehaves (that is what the teacher said) they would talk to her (maybe call her and place her in the teacher’s lap) then send her to the time out area. And the teacher said we should let her know the concept of timeout area, being first time parents and believing the teacher we implemented it in our home. We sent her to the timeout area maybe 3 times since June. We never thought the extent of effect to her is this much. We feel guilty and sad.

    Now we are trying our best to help her and your article helps. Thank you

  6. Thanks for a really practical article that will equip me with an alternative approach to consequences. My question is how do I let go of the stresses that build up in me as the children misbehave. Say the boys break their sister’s toy or write on the walls with a permanent marker. I understand how you propose I approach this with them, but these things still cause me angst. I could do with some practical tools to help with that!

    • Hi Rich,

      One thing that can help is to remember that children are not doing these things to purposely annoy or irritate you. Children do make many mistakes as they grow and if you see your role as a guide instead of the disciplinarian it makes it easier to stay calm and focus on solutions. In both cases you describe, breaking a toy or coloring walls it sounds like the children need to have clear limits and some proactive steps to prevent such behaviors. Permanent markers can be placed out of reach, and if the children break a toy on purpose they can be encouraged to make amends. To stay calm about such situations you can remind yourself that these misteps can be opportunities for children to grow and learn and that your presence is needed for that. Deep breaths before you address the situation, being pro-active instead of reactive and even a daily gratitude ritual can all prevent yelling and angst filled parenting. Hope that helps you.

      • Thanks Ariadne, I like the notion of being their ‘guide’ I’ll work on it. My problem with the preventative measures is that they dont tend to work with my boys – maybe its a twins thing – they’re certainly more focussed on what each other says are the rules of engagement than whatever we parents come up with. We do place things like permanent markers out of reach but they find a way…or you put one down for a split second to answer the door…we do also ask them to make amends for deliberately breaking things but once the moment is past its forgotten and the same behaviour reoccurs again and again. I find this incredibly frustrating, and I know consequences doesn’t work with them either! My wife has found a way to make these misbehaviours not matter to her, she’s let go of it, I’m struggling to do that.

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