What To Do When Consequences Don’t Work

What To Do When Consequences Don’t Work

Three Parenting Strategies To Try when Consequences Stop Working and your Child is Misbehaving

Does this scenario feel familiar?

It’s getting close to the end of the day, and you are expecting your child to clean up toys, wash up, help set the table, get ready for bed and go to sleep.

Only problem is, every step of the way includes ignored requests and power struggles.

Toy clean up is not done. There is a fuss about dinner. Just getting into PJ’s is a twenty minute orderdeal.

With the best intentions to teach your child, you find yourself dishing out consequences.

The consequences only make things worse. Not better.

Your child is upset and whiny “Why are you taking my toys away….moooooom! You are so mean!”

You are thinking…this totally DESERVED a consequence…except it makes no difference for tomorrow!

Why Consequences Stop Working

Very often consequences are just punishments in disguise, or at the very least, unpleasant power plays that take away a child’s sense of capability, well-being and trust.

Instead of helping and inviting cooperation, consequences are more often than not used in a way that chips away at your relationship with your child.

There are times when consequences can help your child behave better.

If chosen well, sometime consequences can help your child learn and make better behavior choices.

Other times, consequences can actually make things worse.

The wrong kind of consequences just don’t motivate children to behave well. Your child might actually feel discouraged or so frustrated that their beahvior gets worse instead of better.

See more on this from Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline here: No more logical consequences (at least hardly ever) Focus on solutions.

Here are 3 Positive Parenting Strategies to Try when Consequences Stop Working:

1. Problem solve instead of using consequences

Toys not being picked up?

Clothes never in the hamper?

Tooth brushing nightmares every single night?

When a problem repeats every single day, consequences aren’t going to help your child learn to do better. Solving the problem will. 

Daily struggles that keep repeating themselves are best seen as problems to be solved. Not bad behavior that needs to be punished.

When it comes to repeat problems,  most parents will admit to using consequences because they feel like nothing else will convince their child to do what they are being asked.

This is a red flag that a problem needs to be solved.

Consequences keep your child stuck in the problem. Solutions help your child move forward. 

Instead of consequences for not cleaning up toys, not doing homework, not eating dinner, ask yourself:  HOW can I  best help my child suceed?

2. Re-frame:  “It’s not Personal!”

So very often what you may think  is bad behavior or naughty behavior is actually normal childhood stuff.

A two year old refusing to brush teeth is developmentally expected. So is a four year old running most places instead of walking.

Six year olds love saying everything is stupid.

Ten year olds will argue just about anything under the sun.

All these behaviors are normal.

They might feel annoying and challenging, but are certainly developmentally appropriate.

Reframing situations from “defiance” to “normal – kid stuff” can help keep you calmer. 

When you are challenged by your child’s behavior try to keep in mind:

  • It’s not personal.
  • It’s not manipulation.
  • Behavior is communication.
  • All behavior is purposeful.
  • Sometimes behavior is mistaken, and still purposeful.
  • Parents are meant to help children make better choices.
  • Your child needs guidance and connection.

When you are able to pause and re-frame a situation, from naughty to normal, bad to purposeful,  from taking it personally, to taking it as part of your parenting role, you can better respond instead of react.

“My kid isn’t picking up toys..they are so naughty and uncooperative” becomes “My child is three, it’s the end of the day, all these toys were played with, explored, part of a story, it feels tough to end such a fun day.” Wonderful story from a mother and how she changed her prespective on toy clean up here (on the blog Dirt & Boogers).

“My ten year old is arguing about everything, what a sassy mouth on this child, where did I fail to teach her respect” becomes “My ten year old is learning to be assertive, she has a strong point of view, I can listen to her AND model respectful conflict resolution”

3. Relate so you don’t have to retaliate

Do you remember being 5, 6, 9 years old?

Can you think of a time when your parent was asking you to do stuff and you would have much rather continued reading a book, playing a videogame or eat one more piece of chocolate, even if it was just before dinner?

If you weren’t give you a choice back then, did you feel annoyed, frustrated, upset?

Children benefit so much from learning skills and following routines like picking up toys, and brushing teeth. Of course our job is to help them not only do these things, but hopefully also value them.

To help your child care, relate to them. Step into their world. Try to connect before insisting they do something for you.

Relating sounds like

  • “That games seems like so much fun, can you find a good stopping place. It’s time to set the table. You can tell me about the game while setting the table. ”
  • “Look at all these lego cars and ships you built. Awesome stuff. It’s clean up time. How about you tell me about your creations while putting them up on the self?”
  • “I bet you wish you could have another piece of chocolate. I wish I could too. And it’s close to dinner time. Let’s save these for tomorrow. We can have it for snack together.”
  • “You called me stupid. You must be so upset with me. I care about you. Let’s talk about what is going on.”

If you focus on relationship building, connecting, being part of the solution, then the sense that you must use consequences and punishments goes away (or reduces quite a lot!).

Staying involved and engaged in the early years builds the foundation for your child to do these things alone later on. The early years are not just the 0-3.

Children that are 4, 6, 9, even 13 years old benefit from your presence, guidance, care and concern.

Respectful communication and a genuine connection to you motivates your child much more than any consequence.

consequences not working with my child

We often have big expectations for our children and would like for them to be independent. Get on those pj’s, clean up the toys, put away their laundry, brush teeth, taste new foods. Preferably without any reminders, on their own, quickly and while being cheerful, happy and grateful for all they have.

Reality is that children like us are imperfect and impacted by their daily surroundings. Accepting their limitations and meeting them where they are, each day, is much more helpful to overall family happiness. 

If your child is refusing to help, having a hard time with the bedtime routine, or flat out refusing to help with chores, this doesn’t mean you have failed as a parent or that you have a brat for a child.

It means that it’s probably a good time to try focusing on problem solving, realistic expectations and relationship building.

When are you using consequences and feeling like they don’t work? Let me know in comments, I love to hear from you.

Peace & Be Well,


 Recommended Resources

One Thing To Always Say when Disciplining a Child by Ashley Soderland

How to Raise Problem Solvers from Becky Eanes

Teaching Problem Solving with a Great Book by Amanda Morgan of Not Just Cute

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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, and one cuddly dog.

27 Responses to What To Do When Consequences Don’t Work

  1. Thank you! Your wisdom and approach appeals not only to the mom in me but to the person who wants to relate in the best possible way to another person who just happens to be my child. I feel that what you have to share allows me to model good coping and communication skills that he can use himself.

  2. I find it so hard to let go of the “shoulds”. I keep trying to tell myself that they are young but I’m so sick of cleaning up 🙁

  3. The first strategy, problem solving instead of using consequences is something that I haven’t thought about using with my children. Very informative, thank you! 🙂

  4. Hi Gladys,
    I’m so glad to hear you found this helpful. I agree with you, good coping and communication skills are so important. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Francesca,

    All the cleaning up can get so tiring, I hear you! I wonder if there is a good solution in there somewhere to make things better for all of you? It’s true that when children are little they can get overwhelmed with clean up, but I find that breaking tasks down into very small steps makes it so much easier for all. Wishing you all the best, as you let go of “shoulds”!

  6. Hi Jane,

    It’s amazing what a difference it can make to approach mistakes and “misbehavior” with the intend to solve a problem instead of insisting on consequences. Glad to hear this was informative, thanks for stopping by!

  7. My son has severe ADHD and sometimes it is next to impossible to get him to behave appropriately or stop annoying or outright defiant behavior. He takes medication during the day but not in the evening. It is so hard to get him to cooperate. Of course grounding doesn’t work. I will ask him to clean his room and he will literally get down on the floor and talk about how his leg is hurt and he can’t move or he’s so tired. At bedtime I have to constantly remind him what he’s supposed to be doing before bed. I can’t go to bed until he’s asleep because he will get up and start doing all kinds of things. I’ve tried using a reward system but he doesn’t seem to be motivated by it. The one thing that I HAVE found that works when he’s angry is to have him go to his room to cool off and then show him some empathy and talk about things and how to handle those things better next time. Any ideas?

  8. Hi Amanda,
    Routines and agreements can be very helpful, especially picture based routines that are easy to follow and created WITH the help of your son. Do you have a support person for the ADHD? Usually a personalized positive discipline plan can be very helpful as it takes into consideration your son’s and your needs and how to best work together. Sounds like you have found a great plan for cooling off and yes, having empathy makes a huge difference. Empathy when he doesn’t want to clean can help too..”I hear your leg is hurting…with what can you get started?” So again, the focus here is on problem solving instead of the consequences that don’t work. What do you think?

  9. We are having some problems with violent acting out. I have read so much on positive parenting and am putting that into practice, but I would love your advice. Currently, when our 5 year old daugther is upset, typically becuase she isn’t getting her way, same examples as in the article, it is bed time, it is getting ready to go, etc and everything is becoming a struggle, then she hits. It is breaking my heart and is soo difficult to remain collected when I am at my wits end. So far we are having no forward movement and the stuggles contine so advice is welcome.

  10. My partner and I are having so much trouble with my 14 yr old daughter and 10 yr old son and their attitudes, rudeness and disrespect towards us, normally when asked to do simple tasks like unpacking the dishwasher or cleaning their rooms. We are not yelling people, and we don’t have harsh punishments. However we do limit their iPad time in general as we don’t want them constantly online and want to actually spend time with them each night as a family, so the consequences for their disrespect and rudeness is loss of time on their devices. We have a structured bedtime for them both, but it’s very different at their fathers for all of the above and when they come home from there, their behaviour is so much worse for at least 2-3 days. We give positive feedback to them every chance we get. Right now though I feel like I’m failing them. My son, especially. He gets so angry when he’s told to put the iPad down. He’s quite sensitive emotionally and never opens up. He lies to me even though he knows if he’s made a mistake and done something he shouldn’ have, we will work through it if he’s honest. But If he lies then he knows there will be a consequence, yet he still lies. I just don’t know what to do anymore and it’s breaking my heart. Their whole lives I’ve made sure I was always there for them to talk to. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong anymore.

  11. Hi Sad mum,
    Thank you for sharing what you are going through right now. From what you share, it seem that setting limits on screen time is feeling very challenging. Some clues that jump out here that may be playing a role in this situation is that you mention how things are different at the children’s father’s home. When children have two homes and two sets of rules it’s so very important for both parents to be willing to work together. And when that isn’t possible, then it is helpful to work with the children to listen, understand and validate their experiences. Zoning out into screens can be a way to escape difficult feelings. Screens really do affect the brain and how we relate to the world and it can feel difficult to transition away from screens. It may be worthwhile to create a screen time agreement that the children participate in making so they can hold themselves accountable too…Also, instead of looking into consequences for lying, would you be willing to consider ways to involve your son in fixing whatever the situation may be? Letting him take more responsibility for the problem? That disrespect or rudeness is often a message of disconnection – so I would suggest finding ways to spend one on one time together, every day, even if it’s difficult at first, so you can rebuild some trust and genuine heart to heart connection. Does that help?

  12. I would also say that taking away their screen time as a consequence will then lead them to feel like all time away from their screens is “punishment”, so wont choose voluntarily to put them away to spend time with you. If you have a plan, as Ariadne suggests, that the children are part of agreeing on to do with when they can play on their screen and when they cant, then those times will just be seen as non screen time instead of punishment time, and they will find their own amusements which may include coming to you and having a conversation. It may help if during this plan for less screen time you also ask them if there is anything they would like you to do more/less of, and you may be surprised to find out what buggs them. When they are finding it difficult to put the screens away at the agreed time you can sympathize with them and remind them that you find it difficult to hold up your end too sometimes. What annoyed me as a child/teeneager was feeling like all the rules were placed on me and the adults could do what they liked. My parents were fairly reasonable people so its not like they behaved in a wildly unfair way, but it made me feel like a lesser person and did not make me want to engage with them as friends.

  13. Thank you for posting this. We have been trying to correct the terrible twos by punishment and it is difficult to not bring consequences into the mix. Anytime my daughter doesn’t get what she wants, she goes into total meltdown mode. She did this after I read this article as she wasn’t being nice to her grandmother so I took her to her room to wait until she was done crying it out. And asked her to go downstairs to say sorry. I let her know that she is a good girl and needs to be nice to people even if we feel bad sometimes. She said sorry and was great the rest of the night. I can’t thank you enough for provided an alternate method of approach.

  14. Hi and thank you for your open point of view. My son is 4 years old and for the last couple of weeks he has been passive agressively hitting other children at daycare. It’s been incidents like a trip here, a push there, and so on. When I get the report about his behavior usually when I pick him up, we have conversations about what our hands and feet are for…not for hitting/kicking. He seems to listen while we are having these conversations, he actively participates in the conversation. I have also taken a lot of his toys buckets ( he’s having to earn them back daily). I’m sad and frustrated and feel like I failed in some way. My husband and I don’t portray abuse of any type …I’m not sure how to help my son stop hitting. Please help

  15. Hi Rosie,
    It sounds like on the home front you are really working towards helping your son find new ways to deal with what is going on at daycare. While having good talks at home is a really good step in this process, self control at age 4 is very much under construction. Reaching out to the daycare staff for on the spot help would probably help quite a lot. Frustration and fear are usually behind aggression in the early years so children need help learning to recognize those feelings before they get too strong. I understand your thought in taking the toys away and having your son earn them back, but at age four this consequence is too unrelated to what is going on. It might even be making him feel more frustrated because he knows he is disappointing and yet he can-t really manage his emotions yet without guidance from his teachers. While modeling can teach children to hit, many children who are never hit will also develop aggressive ways to communicate their needs. Guidance can help them stop. To stop hitting your son needs a new strategy for getting his point across like a safe person he can talk to (a daycare teacher) and say “I feel angry”, a teacher willing to help him stop before he hits, a calming area he can walk to, or words to say to his classmates like “I also want a turn” etc… These two resources might help: Discipline When Young Children Are Aggressive Helping Young Children Learn to Manage Aggression

  16. Dear Sad Mum, what you’re saying sounds so familiar. I have an 11 year old daughter who, despite knowing what the consequences are if she misbehaves, still does it. She lies even when she knows i know the truth. Example, She was told last week that if she continued to be rude and answer back she would miss her gym class, she still did it, missed the class. She then had a school disco Fri night, and even after having her Ipad taken away at bed time Thursday (as normal, she only has approx an hour a day access) and knowing that misbehaviour would lead to missing the disco, she still waited for me to go to bed, sneaked out of bed and got the Ipad! When I discovered this Fri morning, she still lied and said she got it in the morning. She missed the disco. When I talked to her calmly about was worth it she said she didn’t know why she did and but she knew she was taking a risk. The consequences don’t seem to deter her (hence why I’m reading your site) she knows its wrong but still does it, feels awful afterwards, and then does it again. I don’t want to live in a home where i have to lock things away as theres no trust. No matter how much effort I put in its not enough, she wants constant attention. Working and running a home too, I’m exhausted.

  17. We’re struggling so mugh right now with trying to curb my three year old’s crazy behaviour around is newborn sister. Sometimes I’m stuck breastfeeding on the couch and he’s bouncing all around her or throwing toys and I feel so helpless trying to get her to stop. I know that these are just normal three year old behaviours, but I have to ensure the baby’s safety so I can’t have him jumping around and falling on her head. We’ve tried consequences, explaining why he needs to be more careful, working with him to find solutions… nothing works. I don’t want him to start resenting his sister beca Aw he’s always getting chastised around her, and he’s not trying to hurt her but he really needs to give her space and be more careful. Any advice?

  18. This transition time to becoming a big bother can be quite tough on everyone! Sounds like your three year old is trying hard to get attention any ways possible. What do you think you can do before settling in to breastfeed to help keep things going better? I used to have a special bag with stickers, small tinkering toys and fun books (rotating the content from time to time) and I would pull out that special bag and help my toddler find something that looked fun and invite them to play next to me. Another thing that worked well was to read stories together. Is anyone able to help you and take your 3 year old to the park or to run and play outside to get some of that energy out? You might also like this post: http://positiveparentingconnection.net/how-to-discipline-when-a-new-baby-arrives-and-siblings-act-out/ And our positive discipline for the first five years course – it’s full of resources and parenting tools specific to the toddler years and toddler challenges like defiance, high energy, and finding better substitutes to consequences which toddlers just don’t learn from. You can see more about that course here: http://bit.ly/2sWxuCi

  19. My 7 year old thinks it’s funny when his 3 year old sister gets hurt. Tonight he said, “good” when she was bleeding. Other times he laughs at her. We have given him a lot of warnings, said we don’t like this behavior, tried to talk to him about it. Tonight when he said that, my husband said,” what did you just say? ok, for that you are going to bed now.” It was 30 minutes before his usual bed time. My son didn’t like that at all and got really upset, cried, blamed. My husband gave him another chance but it was too late. my son was already upset and so he yelled and then threw down the lego he was building. So then he didn’t have any more chances. He was told to get ready for bed, he would still get a story read to him, but he needed to get ready then and would go to bed earlier than usual. Lots of talking happened after that where he got the chance to talk about what happened for him, but he was still blaming his Dad for being horrible and also said he didn’t love him. I know translated as “I’m really upset right now.”
    When similar situations have happened before, we get the same reaction. I’m starting to think that these consequences aren’t working. Do you have a suggestion?

  20. Hi Juliet,

    I’m wondering if you re-read what you shared with me if you notice the power struggles and the mention of consequences but no firm limits / boundaries being set? For example, what does going to bed 30 minutes early do for your son? It certainly was a way to make him understand that you were both very mad at him, but he likely felt hurt and upset (not much different than what he did to his sister, one is emotional hurt, the other is physical hurt) but the experience centers on hurt all the same. A consequence for throwing down lego would be having to clean it up or having a broken toy… Giving second chances is a great tool WHEN the aim of the second chance is to RE_DO what didn’t work. I’m not saying that sending him to bed and then changing your mind about it is necessarily wrong, but as you noticed, giving in to his upset about it did not address the actual problem – him feeling distraught and you two finding his previous actions unacceptable. Going to bed can’t teach a child to get along with a sibling. It can help them learn to calm down but in this scenario it sounds like he felt rejected and afraid. It sounds like instead of consequences you may want to focus on solving the problem of sibling conflict and teaching your son how to calm down and manage his emotions when he is feeling upset. You may also want to figure out how to work as a team, you and your husband to address unhelpful behaviors without consequences but with the intent to stop / calm / resolve. Hope that helps you 🙂

  21. Any guidance about lying? My 6 year old has started lying to me constantly. Most of the time I know that he’s lying but he’s getting better and better…I’m at my wits end with it. We have taken the Positive Discipline class and I often refer to the mistaken goals chart but this one I just can’t figure out. Thoughts???

  22. My 6 year old is having problems with his teacher consequences are not working I don’t know what to do how to help both of them in house he does everything may be I have to remind he but getting into PJ’s brushing his teeth going to bed cleaning up packing his bag pack I do remind him if he is paying in shower but I don’t understand why in school he falls into trouble plz guide

  23. Hi Rita,

    Instead of having the teacher impose consequences I wonder if you can suggest that she involve your son in thinking of solutions that will actually help him. It is a
    mistake to think consequences solve behaviors. If your son is struggling with something in school he needs help to learn to do better – that is what school is for – learning. Ask the teacher to help either you or both you and your son with thinking about solutions that teach what is expected. Positive Discipline in the Classroom is a great book full of helpful information for teachers as well. At home, it’s important for you to also focus on solutions and empowering your son to do things for himself, set a routine instead of relying on you reminding him to do everything. With time, as he grows it’s very important that he feels capable, because he is!

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