Traditionally growing up most of us experienced behaviour management strategies based on our parents rewarding good behaviour and ignoring unwanted behaviour or having negative consequences imposed because of the behaviour. Most of us would say that this did not affect us in a bad way, and that we turned out okay. This is the case because you knew that your parents loved you unconditionally – that they only had good intentions towards you.
On the other hand, for a child that comes from a traumatising environment, where love was conditional and abuse, neglect and violence were part of life this sort of behaviour management will increase anxiety for the already mistrusting child.
Traditional behaviour management is much more problematic for children who have had experience of conditional love, especially when they have also experienced loss of parents. This can lead to core fears of not being good enough and anticipation that current caregivers will be lost too. In the face of these fears, children will experience high levels of stress and anxiety which:
- overwhelm their already fragile regulation abilities
- will lead to them dysregulating more quickly, often through displays of anger and temper
- confirm for them that they are bad kids, and their stress increases further.
Young children need us to pay attention and to do something about their bad behaviour. They need us to protect them from themselves when they are engaging in behaviour that will get them into trouble. Everything we now know about developmental trauma suggests that angry punishments, reward and negative consequences don’t work very well in the long run. You may get the child to comply for the moment, but it will come at the cost of their self-esteem and their continuing mistrust or lead to simmering resentment in the end.
What are natural consequences?
The use of natural consequences is a great learning tool. A natural consequence is the result on one’s actions. For instance, John refuses to wear a coat on a rainy day, the natural consequence of allowing John to go out without a coat is that he will get wet and be uncomfortable. The result is a consequence of the choice John made. In this example, natural consequences are:
- The responsibility of the child – John decided not to wear his coat.
- Not administered by the parent – Caregiver didn’t send him outside without a coat on.
What are logical consequences?
These happen as a result of a child’s action, and are imposed by the parent or caregiver. For example, Molly rides her bike onto the street after being told not to. The logical consequence is for the caregiver to take her bike away for the rest of the morning. It is important to make sure that logical consequences are reasonable and related to the problem and to let both the child and the caregiver keep their self-respect.
Why do logical consequences work?
- Obvious connection to the misdeed. The consequence is a result of their behaviour, not a punishment that has no connection and is unrelated. It gives the child a chance to learn what happens when he doesn’t behave in the way you expect him to behave.
- No humiliation. Focus on what the child is trying to communicate with the behaviour. With children, especially those from adverse backgrounds humiliation is more likely to create resentment and retaliation than learning. It also reinforces their belief that they are bad, unlovable kids and increases their sense of shame.
- Encourage responsibility for behaviour. Punishments, including timeout show that the adult is the ‘boss’, no matter what the adult might say. Logical consequences on the other hand, show the child how to take responsibility for their own actions.
- Calm and connected. The positive relationship is the most important healing factor for children in care. Logical consequences can be imposed in ways that make a child feel safe and secure. It allows the child to make choices. This is very different from the environment that they may have come from.
Steps for using logical and natural consequences
- Always find out what is behind the behaviour. When your child misbehaves, find out what he or she is doing and try to figure out why. Children in care often communicate through their behaviours. Use wonder and curiosity to inquire, “John, I may be wrong, but are you mad at me because we can’t go to the park today and that is why you threw your truck at me”? Continue to best guess and explore this together, as you may not be right initially, so keep trying, remembering that the child may also not know why they are angry.
Children misbehave for reasons:
- To get your attention
- To get power
- To get even
- Because they feel inadequate
- They may not have the words
- To stay safe and in control of their world
- Decide whose problem it is. Some problems are the child’s alone and it is best just to let it happen, as with John not wanting to wear his coat and getting wet in the rain. As long as it is not dangerous – do not interfere.
- Offer choices. When you want your child to do something or behave in a certain way, the best way is to offer a few choices. Make sure any choices you offer are one’s you can live with and does not harm the child.
- Stand firm. If the child chooses a consequence, follow through and don’t waver. A child used to getting his own way or being in control through misbehaviour may try to do the same thing when choosing a logical consequence.
- Talk to the child about choices in a positive way. A choice given as a way to get something is far more appealing to a child than a warning. The actual consequence is the same, the a power struggle is avoided because the caregiver is positive rather than threatening.
- Let the child know when they have done something good. Even if the child has had a really bad day, find something positive to say. This will help to build the connection and relationship and support the child to learn to trust.
- Let the child help decide the consequence. Because the problem is the child’s and he is in charge of the choices he makes, it is a good idea to ask him what he thinks a good consequence might be. You may have to help with this by giving ideas or giving several choices that are acceptable to you.
Children can often come up with better consequences than their caregivers when given the chance.
By allowing children to experience the pleasant or unpleasant consequence of their behaviour, caregivers help children learn what happens because of the behaviour choices they made. Using consequences can be an effective discipline tool with children three years and older.
- The caregiver must be able to think ahead and come up with a proper response. Take a step back, a breath, be mind-minded and rein in any impulses you might have to use your ingrained behaviour management strategies.
- The caregiver must not step in and ‘save ‘the child.
- The child must be allowed to experience the consequence.
- The consequence takes time to put into action and often does not work the first time
Sources: Foundations for Attachment Training Resource, Kim S. Golding 2017
Using natural and logical consequences, University of Minnesota Extension, 2018
Logical Consequences: Helping Kids Learn from their Mistakes, Dona Matthew PH.D. Psychology Today
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