October 11, 2009


Consequences … something you’re supposed to give as a good parent. From time-out in preschool to taking away computer time, cell phones or car keys later on, consequences are a staple of parenting. Sometimes, they can be quite effective. Yet, often they don’t seem to do a thing. Here’s why: Kids with learning differences or attention deficits have difficulty applying prior learning to current situations. The lesson you tried to teach your child yesterday by giving a consequence may not be in his/her mind today when you want him/her to apply it. This is especially true if the child is emotional stirred up. (And what potential conflict situation doesn’t leave both parent and child in a state less than serene?)

As Ross Greene discusses in The Explosive Child, kids who may be prone to reacting impulsively may literally feel as if they never made a decision to act in the way they did. It’s as if the behavior happens before they ever register an intention to act. They really may not have meant to do it or may not even realize that they did despite the evidence. So, when a parent gets angry in response, the child feels unjustly criticized. Sometimes, the child may act without thinking through all the implications of their statement or action: “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” They didn’t intend it to be a problem, so why should they be given a consequence? Instead of absorbing the lesson of the consequence, they feel misunderstood, blamed and angry. In these situations, the consequence does not lead the child to reflect on the misdeed at all.

The alternative is to avoid the cycle of blame, anger and self-defense. If feedback is given in a non-critical way, the child may still be open to taking it in. Sometimes, all that requires is the parent saying: “Did you mean to say …?” Or: “Did you just mean to…?” “Let’s try that again.” Or: “Do you realize how that just came across?” When given a chance to save face and be given the benefit of the doubt, a child may be motivated to pause, reflect and attempt to correct their own behavior. And, you may save the wear and tear on your relationship at the same time.

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