How to Discipline Your Child: Effective Consequences for Children Who Don’t Listen

How to Discipline Your Child: Effective Consequences for Children Who Don't Listen

Do you have a kid who doesn’t care about consequences? If so,  this dad’s story probably sounds more than familiar to you: “I’ve done  everything I can think of to get my teen to follow just the  simple rules. I took away his Xbox. I unplugged the TV and removed the  cord. The internet was shut off indefinitely (thank goodness I still have  my phone!). He’s lost privileges, time with his friends, and even the door  to his room, but nothing matters and nothing fazes him at all. He says  he doesn’t care about any of this stuff, so what am I supposed to do? It’s  not  like I can take away his bed and all his furniture or take the door  off his room— though, trust me, we’re considering it at this point!”

“You  can’t punish a kid into better behavior. So while it’s certainly tempting,  taking everything away from your child is unlikely to be effective.”


Even just reading that story, I feel myself getting  overwhelmed!  Sometimes, parenting is so hard.

Related: Having a hard time with your defiant  child?

When your child refuses to respond to consequences, how  else are you  supposed to get them to change their behavior? When nothing works,  how are you  supposed to get them to follow the rules?

Certainly, every family is unique. Your situation may  look different on the  surface, but I bet lots of parents can agree on the same  underlying cycle: My  kid acts out. I give him a consequence. Nothing changes. I  give him another  consequence. Nothing changes. Now he’s even more resistant,  and we’re even more  annoyed. He gets another consequence. Nothing changes.

Fortunately, there is a way through this seemingly  never-ending  conflict. The answer might not be what you think.

Stop adding consequences.

James Lehman tells us that you can’t punish a kid into  better behavior. So  while it’s certainly tempting, taking everything away from  your child is  unlikely to be effective in changing behavior. James goes on to  say that  “stacking” consequences — adding one after another — only teaches a  child to  “do time,” or to simply wait out his consequences, rather than actually  follow  any rules.

It’s also true that when you stack up too many  consequences, or ground your  kid indefinitely, they see this as a hole from  which they will never escape.  Think of it this way: If everything is taken away and there’s  no chance of  earning anything back anytime soon, why would they bother to try? If  they’ve  lost access to their Xbox for six months, what good is behaving better  today? By stacking your consequences, you remove any impetus for your child  to  change. It becomes a game, a deeply entrenched power struggle, rather than  an  effective parenting tool.

Related:  How to give kids consequences that really work.

Once kids feel like there’s no way they can get their  stuff back, it’s  almost like their best “defense” is to stop caring. As a parent, there is   nothing more frustrating than working up a consequence, only to hear your child   tell you they don’t care about what you’ve taken away.

So here’s the thing: if you’ve come to a place where  you’ve taken almost  everything away, and it’s still not working, know that trying a  different  approach can change the whole dynamic in your family. Keep in mind  that parenting is a  work in progress, and we want to keep looking for  what’s effective.

Here are  five things you might do to start seeing some real progress in  your household:

  1. Tie your consequences to a specific  behavior. Remember, you’re giving your child a consequence  because  you want them to change what they’re  currently doing. You  want your child to learn something: whether that is  learning to clean their  room, abide by the house rules even when they don’t  want to, or come home on  time each night.
    To use a common example, if they routinely get a   consequence for not cleaning their room, then they need to show that their   room-cleaning skills are improving. A consequence tied to this behavior might  be:  “When your bed is made, your dirty clothes are put in the wash, and  the dirty  dishes are put in the dishwasher, you can have access to the  internet. If these  things aren’t done, you don’t get internet access that day.”  It’s sort of a combination encouragement-consequence:  show me you’re improving,  and you earn something you want.
  2. Give them a chance to  succeed. When you’ve taken everything away, kids see no escape.   It’s a bottomless pit of punishment. Instead of tacking on additional   punishments, try taking it day-by-day. To stick with our “clean your room”   example, you might say, “Your room needs to be clean by 4 pm each day. When   it’s clean, you can access the internet. If you don’t get it clean by 4 p.m.,   there’s no internet that day. You’ll get to try again the next day.” Do you see   how that might work more effectively? Rather than that bottomless pit, you give   your kid a new chance, every single day.
    But what if it’s not  something as simple as cleaning his  room? What if you’re dealing with abusive  language, or disrespectful behavior?  First, remember that James Lehman always  tells us, “There’s no  excuse for  abuse.” We’ve written a lot about this on EP, and you  can read more about  verbal abuse by searching the EP archives.
    Regardless of the behavior you’re trying to change,  giving your child a  chance to succeed — every single day — is more effective  than stacking  consequences. Remember: punishment does not change behavior.
  3. Break it down! Chances are there are a lot of things you  want your child  to do differently. If you focus on too many things at once,  your child will get  overwhelmed with all the things they’re supposed to be  doing. Not only that,  but you will get overwhelmed with trying to remember what  consequence goes with  which behavior. Remember that you give a consequence  because you want your  child to do something differently. Focus on one or two  behaviors at a time.  Once they’ve shown improvement in those areas, you can use  their success (and  yours!) to build future success.
  4. Don’t double up. Related  to focusing on just a couple of behaviors at a time, you want to  match each  behavior with one consequence, and don’t double up. Let’s say that  he’s working  on cleaning his room, and getting home by his curfew. So if your  child earns  internet time by cleaning his room each day, don’t take away his  internet  access if he breaks curfew. Match a different consequence to that  rule. It  makes things clear and straightforward for everyone involved. Plus —  you want  your child to succeed, which means he needs to know that a privilege  already  earned stays earned. It can’t be taken away by something unrelated.  Choose  something your child wants, and match one consequence to one  behavior.
  5. “But wait! My kid doesn’t care  what we take away!” Ah, the feigned indifference of  childhood. Look, kids do  this all the time. If they know you will restrict, or  make them earn, something  they really, really want, why would they let you know  what that thing is? If  they pretend not to care, then maybe you won’t bother  taking it away. Pretty  smart, when you think about it. The way to find  consequences that matter to your child is  you know your child best.  Don’t  listen to what they tell you they care about, look at what they  actually care about. You know what they  value. The trick to effective  consequences is to choose something they value,  tie it to a specific daily  behavior, and make them hungry for more of it by  giving them a taste of  success, every single day.
    Related: How to start changing your child’s  behavior—today.

If you’re not sure what your child values, choose a calm,  relatively quiet  time to sit down and talk with them about it. You might even  ask them, “Is  there something you’d like to have more of, or have more time  with? We’d like  to give you an opportunity to earn those things, every day.”

Related: EP Downloadable List of Age-appropriate  Consequences for Kids

Having this discussion with your child makes sure  everyone understands the  expectations, privileges, and consequences. Not only  does this simplify the  whole process (no more coming up with a consequence in  the heat of the moment),  it makes your child feel like part of the team: you  want them to succeed, and  you’re going to help them get there.

Once you’ve chosen the behaviors you want your child to  improve, and you’ve  matched them with a specific consequence, the most  important thing is to stick  to it. Consistency is important; it keeps everyone in  your family on track.

The truth is, you are all in this together. You create an  environment of  success, together.

You can do this. One behavior at a time, taking each day  as it comes, things  will start to change.


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