Why consequences backfire… and what to do instead

One of the parents in my online support group (Families in FLIGHT) recently asked this very important question about consequences:

I need help with the concept of consequences. My husband feels as though our kids have no consequences for their actions, and he’s right in a way. I gave up on time out and taking things away because then it would turn into an hours-long struggle about getting the child to go to time out or flipping out about having the item taken away. I felt like it was pointless and made things even worse. We have been trying to follow connected parenting, but this is really where we disagree and we got into a horrible argument last night about this. On the surface, I do feel like things like a time out, taking away electronics, not being able to do something fun is a perfectly reasonable consequence to poor behavior. However, see above, it causes major dysregulation. Well, one of my kids will basically accept it but the other two get so illogical and freak out. I’ve tried redos with my son, but that seems to anger him more. We’re at the point where we’re starting to fear for his future if he keeps going through life acting like this with no consequences. Most of the poor behavior is disrespect, refusing to do things (clean up after oneself, for example), and hitting. He will say he’s sorry later. I’m trying to up the praise for good behavior. I do sometimes feel like he needs consequences. He says he behaves in school because he doesn’t want to get in trouble. But then, I do see the whole unrelated consequence and why that’s bad. I’m just really lost right now.

First of all, I understand why consequences seem to be the most logical solution to a behavior problem. Giving out a consequence for breaking an established rule is such an accepted practice in parenting and teaching that suggesting NOT using them makes us feel like somehow we are missing the mark and not doing our job to help our kids learn responsibility.

I used consequences in my classroom for over twenty years, and they were effective… in the short term.  They kept my kids quiet, busy, and on task during my classes.  However, when I look back at the times that I used them, I realize now that they didn’t provide a lasting effect on the kids who were clearly dealing with ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and early childhood trauma.   For those kids, I instinctively added an additional layer of trust-based, relationship-based mentoring that happened in quiet moments when I was able to get to know them and build their trust in me.  I didn’t know it at the time, but developing a relationship with those students was the KEY to transforming their behaviors in my class.. the consequences truly didn’t do much but make me feel better for enforcing my authority.

As a parent of a child adopted at age ten, I also learned from experience and from lots of reading and research that consequences generally backfire with kids who have trauma histories.  Here are the reasons why they don’t work:

  1. The behaviors our kids exhibit are SYMPTOMS of underlying stress and fear.
  2. Children with trauma histories are in survival mode – fight, flight, freeze.  They don’t process things with logic; they are reacting from deep emotional wounds.
  3.  For children who have explosive and aggressive reactions because of fear, a consequence doesn’t do anything to stop the behavior – it just escalates the stress response and makes things worse.
  4. Children with trauma histories don’t process things the way typical children do.  They don’t trust adults because of past hurts.  They often will seek to control every situation rather than comply with rules because their lives have been out of control during developmental years.
  5. Complex trauma is very difficult to overcome – but it CAN be overcome with patience and a compassionate, connected approach.

So… if we can’t use consequences to shape behaviors, then what do we do instead?

As parents using a compassionate, connected approach, should we just let our kids get away with everything and do whatever they want, without setting any limits at all?

No, I don’t think this is the right approach either.  However, it IS possible to set limits without using consequences and while building a trusting, connected relationship.

Here’s how we do this in my family:

I don’t impose parental consequences (punishments) at all.

I rarely ask for a “re-do” when my child is having a hard time with something, as she is typially unable to access her executive function in those moments. Instead, I wait until she is regulated and address the issue later, when she is calm.

Sometimes there are “natural” consequences to certain actions…. you accidentally (or in a rage) broke your headphones…. now you can’t use the headphones any more.  We might get new ones later, but I’m not going to run out and buy them right this moment so you will have to just deal with it for now.   This isn’t a parentally imposed consequence.   I also don’t point out the obvious or rub it in her face, as this would shame her even further after an incident.

When my child is dysregulated FOR ANY REASON… I focus on helping her get regulated first. This involves empathy, support, compassion, and encouraging coping skills.   It doesn’t involve lectures, admonitions, warnings, time-outs, counting to three, etc.  I am simply a LOVING, COMPASSIONATE PRESENCE to help her as she calms herself down. We can talk about the problem LATER.

Once my child is calm (this could be several moments or a couple of hours)… we may or may not address the issue that caused the meltdown, misbehavior, problem.   I assess her ability to discuss it based on her mood, my mood, and whatever the “damage” has been (physical, emotional, financial, trust, etc.)

When EVERYONE is calm and regulated (including me), we have a talk about the problem, in order to solve it or to talk about what we can do NEXT TIME the problem comes up.   If the issue involves damage to property or making a mess… then we clean it up and deal with it… TOGETHER.   I don’t give out extra chores or punishment, we just take care of the issue.

We continue to discuss the problem and utilize the CPS method described by Ross Greene PhD in his book The Explosive Child.  This involves figuring out my child’s perspective of the problem, drilling down to find out the source of the issue, and addressing the unsolved problem or lagging skills by TEACHING my child how to handle this kind of situation in the future.   Sometimes this involves role-play; other times it just involves brainstorming.

In my private coaching with parents, we go into great details on how to implement the CPS method for individual situations. We have also read and applied information from The Explosive Child in my VIP Community Book Club.

The key is that children need to be TAUGHT how to behave and solve problems.  Simply punishing them for behavior usually causes a child with trauma to shut down and stop listening.  Opening up the conversation with empathy helps the child to trust the parent, and over time the child will be more willing to solve problems together.

There are times when a parent MUST set a firm limit – and in my view, this is when the child’s safety is at risk or someone else’s safety is at risk. That’s why it’s so important to have a detailed safety plan if you have an explosive, aggressive child.  I believe that all other scenarios can be addressed through collaborative and proactive problem solving and encouraging dialogue and trust.   When a child is able to be part of a dialogue, the learning sinks in. When a parent demands compliance without involving the child’s voice and choices, the child will often rebel because the threat level is raised and feelings of safety and trust are violated.

I truly believe that working through problems this way over and over again is what has helped my daughter to become an excellent problem-solver and one who has so much more empathy for me and for others because she has learned the skill of positive collaboration.  Now that she trusts me, she is MUCH more willing to comply with simple requests and be cooperative at home.


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