As a parent educator, one of the most common questions I receive beyond “how do I get my child to listen?” is “what consequences do I give my child when they… (fill in the blank with any undesirable behavior)?”
The response out of my mouth is often very shocking for parents initially.
Rooted in our deep desire to raise kind, empathetic, good humans, we parents often feel the strong urge to teach children lessons when they trip upon their developmental journeys.
My child won’t pick up their blocks. I need to teach him responsibility.
My child isn’t sharing. I need to teach her kindness.
My child isn’t listening. I need to teach him respect.
My child isn’t doing her homework. I need to teach her work ethic.
While adults have the ability to function from their prefrontal cortex - the rational part of the brain that responds to situations with good judgment and awareness of long-term consequences, toddlers, tweens, and teens process information with the amygdala, which is the emotional part of the brain.
Because the connections between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center are still developing (and will continue to mature until age 25), children of all ages are learning the skills of self-control, focus, problem-solving, self-awareness, and empathy. And because neurologically they are wired to feel and process one true emotion at a time, their feelings and behaviors are often intense and impulsive.
As parents, we have expectations for our children. We expect that they will be kind, empathetic, and make good decisions. These are valid goals rooted in love, and, they are also a tall order for the developing mind. Very often we see our children meet an expectation - they go potty on the potty, get themselves dressed, share, or focus and listen in the classroom - and we think that because we see it sometimes, our children are capable of doing it every time. But just because they can do a skill doesn’t mean they have mastered it.
So what happens when our kids follow nature’s design and push back against our wants and desires with their own? Our reaction as parents is to give a consequence so that they can learn a lesson. However, research shows that this may not be the most effective way. In fact, most of the time when consequences are issued, they come in the form of punitive measures such as taking something away, isolating the child, or shaming them. These tactics have been shown to decrease the gray matter of the brain - the same parts we are eager to grow!
There are two main types of consequences.
There’s the natural type which are those that are inevitable, unavoidable, and inescapable. They happen because they would happen anyway.
A few examples of natural consequences include:
- Your child won’t pick up her blocks so she ends up losing some of the pieces.
- Your child isn’t sharing so his brother stops wanting to play with him.
- Your child refuses to put on a raincoat even though the forecast shows rain so she gets wet.
- Your child isn’t completing homework so he gets a low grade.
Many adults think that if natural consequences aren’t getting the job done, then it is their job to add more - the artificial, unnatural, adult-imposed consequences. Like natural consequences, these are powerful and persuasive. But here’s the thing ... If natural consequences, which are inevitable, unavoidable, inescapable, and powerful didn’t get the job done, why would we think that adding more unnatural consequences would do the trick? The answer is, they won’t.
When children misbehave, it isn’t because they are bad, unmotivated, or defiant. Their behavior is development. They are growing brain regions and learning skills. And when challenging behavior rears its head, your child is communicating to you - through their behavior - that the expectations upon them are too heavy. There is some lagging skill or unmet need getting in their way.
Maybe your child is struggling with impulse control, initiating or sequencing tasks, self-awareness, emotional regulation, or conflict resolution. Remember that these are skills and the part of the brain responsible for them is still maturing.
Maybe your child is seeking more power, desiring attention, experiencing emotional or sensory overwhelm, or is off routine, hungry or tired. Their way of expressing their needs is through behavior, and often through what we adults call “misbehavior.” That’s because the part of the brain responsible for whining, meltdowns, shutting down, or withdrawing is fully functioning.
So, what tools do we have to soothe a child’s reactive brain while nurturing their learning one?
- Notice. What expectation do I hold for my child that seems hard for them?
- Get curious. What lagging skills or unmet needs are present?
- Collaborate. How can I involve my child in solving this problem?
When we move away from adult-imposed consequences and take a relational approach, we shelve shame and blame and create neurological circuits in their brain that make space for learning big, adult-like skills. Using a Time-In space is a powerful way to create rituals of connection and skill-building. Naming and noticing emotions, understanding behaviors, and learning to manage both by uncovering the root cause of dysregulation is a lifeline for all children.
This doesn’t mean that we are passive parents. There are still firm, clear, and consistent, boundaries. And as we make family agreements and stand strong in our limits, we can follow nature’s lead to guide our children through empathy. For what we model, our children mirror.
Our children are already good, so we don’t have to make them good. But we can teach them things along the way, giving them a voice in the process. Our children are always learning and we have a choice about whether we are teaching through shame, blame, and pain or curiosity, connection, and collaboration.