Natural Consequences…What Happens When What's Natural Doesn't Work?

When it comes to bad behavior, for the last couple decades or so, there has been a lot of advice given about natural consequences, but what is a parent to do when they don't work?

Dear Dr. Sherri,

We have gone to great lengths to deal with our children’s behavior. We have read everything and also seen professionals and have really gotten nowhere on this. My main question involves natural consequences. We have heard this and read about this over and over again and have tried to use it, but have really found ourselves very limited with this. Are we just missing the boat or do you believe natural consequences work? Sign us…Pooped Parents in Palatine.

Hi Pooped,

For the last couple decades or so, there has been a lot of advice given about natural consequences or logical consequences. These are consequences that apply logically or naturally to the situation. For example, the logical or natural consequence of breaking your toy is that you don’t get to play with that toy anymore. Many people believe these to be the only consequences that work. I disagree wholeheartedly based on the fact that natural consequences are not always effective and cannot always be waited for or risked. For example, the natural consequence of running in the street is getting hit by a car. Now, anyone in his or her right mind knows that this is ridiculous. No parent is going to risk their child getting hit by a car for the purpose of learning not to run in the street. What about the child who wants to touch the hot stove? Are we going to let the child do this, based on the fact that it's a natural consequence to get burned, when we touch a hot stove? Of course not! Any responsible parent will try very hard not to have their child do this, or even come close. Let's look at one that isn't so crisis oriented. What about the child who is always late in the morning. This is the child who won't get out of bed when you ask. You need to be at work at a certain time and every morning is the same battle. You yell, you scream, you rant, you rave and still the child resists. Now, what is the natural consequence for this? If you went by the letter of natural consequences, it would be that the child would have to get him or herself to school or miss school. There are several problems with this. First, most kids I know would relish the thought of a parent leaving without them. In their minds, they can stay home and watch their favorite shows. Who needs school anyway, right? The other problem with this is a safety issue. If you leave your child to walk to school alone, it can be a safety problem. I know many parents who battle with their children to get going because they do not want the child walking alone! In this situation, the natural consequences do not seem to work. The only one who seems to be getting the consequence is the parent.

So, once you've thought about the natural consequence to a behavior and cannot find one that fits in a safe and consistent way, what are you left with? Many people out there will tell you that if it's not "natural consequences" there will be no learning for the child. Again, I say, "hogwash!" Consequences, whether logical, natural or not, work if you use them appropriately, consistently and you mean business! My feeling is that there are several things that make consequences work.

First, you have to know what is meaningful to the child. This is the most natural and logical thing I can think of, when it comes to consequences. What is going to effect this child? What means something to him or her? If it means something, it will get through! Second, consequences need to be appropriate. They need to make sense. They need to not be violent. Beating on your child teaches nothing but violence. Teaching them that bad decisions lose things that are meaningful to them, makes sense. This is something that they need to learn for later life too. All of us live in an adult world where good decisions are rewarded and bad ones are punished. Additionally, many times as adults we lose things when we aren’t responsible. Right?

Be careful about only withdrawing privileges though. Most kids have something else to play with when something gets taken away. If this is the case, that child is feeling no punishment and behavior will not change. I cannot go into specific punishments in the scope of a blog post, because one size does not fit all, but rest assured, I haven’t met the kid I can’t turn yet. Powerful consequences do the trick, trust me on that!

Also, be careful not to fall into the trap many parents fall into: saying it and not following through. You get all big and blustery and take the thing away only to forget or get busy and the child gets it back sooner than he or she should. Nothing learned except that mommy or daddy will eventually forget so the odds are in favor of the behavior continuing.

With our example of our child who won’t get up on time, who is it that’s feeling the consequence? The parent is the person who is feeling the brunt of the consequence. The parent gets bent out of shape and has to be late to work. This is the only natural consequence that comes out of this situation. The child feels nothing from this situation, except power. Our children need to be ready for the real world and if they don't learn it at home, where are they going to learn it?

So, when natural or logical consequences don't fit, make sure you use some appropriate consequence. If you're not sure of what works, ask your child. Children tell me what works with them, more than any other source. Ask them what they own that they like. You can also ask what activities they like the best. Make sure to ask these questions when you're not in the heat of battle with them. At a calm and cool time, interview your child and find out what will work. Remember, though, finding out what works and then not using it, does nothing for anyone. Don't feel bad doing this! You aren't being sneaky. You aren't being nasty. You're simply being methodical about finding out and using what will work quickly and effectively. This way is better for your child and you.

Consequences don't need to necessarily be natural. If they're appropriate, thought out ahead of time, methodically decided upon and then implemented without hesitation, they will work. If your child has to do some sort of cleaning work after school as long as each minute he was late that morning, he’ll think about being on time next time. Natural? Definitely not! Does it work? Every time I’ve suggested it, it sure does! I can guarantee you that your child will do everything in his or her power to get you to back off of your punishment decision. Don't get shaken by this. If your consequence is appropriate but firm, and not abusive, you aren't doing anything wrong. You're teaching your child what is acceptable and unacceptable for now and for later life as well. After all, isn't this a parent's job? Best of luck with this and remember to set up a time with me if you need extra support. Take care!

Dr. Sherri Singer, Psy.D. is a Child and Family Psychologist and Parent Coach helping parents to help their kids avoid behavior problems, physical behavior, school and homework problems and symptoms without medication while developing fast processing speed, multi-tasking and memory skills. She provides low fee Skype online sessions and telephone coaching from anywhere in the USA and 24/7 online video behavior and processing skill classes for parents. Contact her at http://www.happyfamilysite.com/

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Amy February 16, 2012 at 03:39 AM
Actually Dr. Sherri, while I am in no way connected to any of the other people that have posted, I have to agree. I think it's totally irresponsible for you to offer up "one size fits all" advice, and then promoting your fee-based services. You want to advertise on Patch? Go for it! But don't cloak yourself in an advice column while hocking your services.
Sully February 16, 2012 at 10:36 AM
Now it is you insulting your readers. Amy speaks the truth. I have no idea who she is other than a Patch reader. I also do not speak for KMC. She has her own thoughts. It is not necessary for me to put words in her mouth. Again I ask, do you really think I am the only one who would find your blog/advertisement troublesome? Do you not understand how you may be very close to the line between ethical and unethical? Patch has a limited readership, but I have to think if more saw you on here, they too would question your motives.
Amy February 16, 2012 at 06:17 PM
I don't know that she insulted me, per se, but I disagree that this "article" does no harm. You suggest that a parent should quiz a child on what things they own that they like best and what activities they like the best...maybe a better suggestion would be for these same parents to get to know their children to the point that they wouldn't need to ask these questions. It seems to my untrained, non-MD eye that if parents are so disconnected from their children that the kids are acting out simply to get a parent's attention. Take my own kids for example - my eldest values the Wii and going to his sports practices, and my youngest values her playdates and watching television. I don't need to ask them what they value - I simply am around them and pay attention to who they are. Maybe instead of writing artices about how ADHD "may" not exist (let me assure you - it does, and in case you still aren't convinced, I'd invite you to my home any morning or evening of the week to see for yourself), you could perhaps counsel your clients to put down the books, the iPads, the cell phones and be present in their children's lives.
Mr. Cut Tha Fat February 16, 2012 at 06:52 PM
"maybe a better suggestion would be for these same parents to get to know their children to the point that they wouldn't need to ask these questions" - THIS!
victoria smith February 21, 2012 at 03:27 PM
As we all know what works for one may not work for another. Being a parent is a hard job. We make many mistakes along the way when bringing up our kids, but we hopefuly do learn from them. If anyone knows your kids it is you the Mom and Dad. We will not always agree with how our friends and family deal with "situations" regarding kids and behavoir and or consequences, but then again we can also learn from them as well. In the end all you can say is that you have given the best tools to your kids and you hope that when they go out into the world they use them. I have always been straight forward, honest, to the point, lots of understand, compassion and kept my mind and ears open to try and see things from their perspective as well. It is a two way street. Now that they are 18, I can say that along with maturity they have become the young men that I had alsways thought that they would become. Not to say that I didn't want to knock them into next week several times, but through all the shouting matches, temper tantrums and obsticle throwing they now have a pretty good idea that my firmness and sometimes odd behavoir towards all of this was all due to get them where they are today. And Yes, I have been thanked. Dr.Sherri, do not try and explain yourself to the people that do not agree with you. You are just adding fuel to the fire! Let them have their say and just move on to the next topic! Not everyone is going to agree and that's ok too.


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