Advice for Parents with “Consequence-Immune” Children

As parents, we all know that it’s important for our children to have consequences. Without them, how would kids understand when they’ve crossed a line or made a bad decision? Yet, despite our best intentions, sometimes the consequences we employ seem to have little to no effect on our kids, leaving us wondering if we’re doing the whole parenting thing right. If consequences are supposed to motivate the right behavior, what happens when kids seem to be “immune” to them? Or, even worse, if your child seems amused by the consequence?

First of all, be assured that this behavior, while frustrating, is fairly normal for kids. Not only do kids need to test boundaries, but then learning how to deal with consequences is important, too. For some, trying to find them amusing or feigning to be unbothered is part of a developing coping mechanism. Rather than focusing on what they say after receiving a consequence (like “I don’t care” or “so what”), pay attention to how they behave in the hours and days to come. While they might not admit it, oftentimes a consequence will help change behavior in a positive way, which is proof that your strategy is working.

If, of course, behavior doesn’t change — or if it gets worse — then the type of consequence you’re using may need to be adjusted or changed. If your child wants to argue after receiving a consequence, do your best to avoid it. This type of bait only escalates the situation, leaving you both fighting for power. Getting the “last word” in is never important. What is important is following through with the consequence you’ve delivered and ensuring your child understands why they are receiving this consequence.
If you’re not sure if the type of consequence you’re using is effective, take a closer look at it. Sometimes as parents we get caught up in old habits, offering the same consequence time and time again, even if it really doesn’t make sense for the type of behavior our child is exhibiting. Remember, the consequence needs to relate to the situation being dealt with. For example, while taking away a cellphone from an older child who is spending too much time on it and, therefore, not getting homework done is often effective, choosing to take away a cellphone from a child that’s fighting with his or her sibling might not be the right consequence.

It’s also important to remember that longer consequences doesn’t necessarily meant that they are better. Taking away a privilege from a child for weeks or months at a time can actually be very demotivating because it makes them feel like there is no way out. If they can’t hang out with friends for the next two months, then why should they work on changing their behavior now? While consequences should be proportionate to the type of behavior your child is exhibiting, never think that it’s going to be more effective just by making the terms longer.

Like anything, consequences aren’t always perfect. Sometimes it takes time to figure out what works best with your child, knowing what motivates them to act better. For a lot of children, the most effective consequences aren’t actually taking away privileges, but, instead, adding chores or tasks. Instead of stating that you’re taking away screen time as a consequence, for example, you can achieve the same thing (less time on screens) by giving your child chores to do around the house.

The reality is that no child is “immune” to consequences, it just might take some time to figure out which type of consequences are most effective. And, remember, it can take time for children to let the reality of a consequence soak in, so don’t believe them when they say they don’t care — they do.

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