As parents, we want our children and adolescents to behave appropriately and be responsible for their behaviors. When our children and adolescents misbehave, we want them to understand why those behaviors are unacceptable. So, we want to give consequences, but it is important to make sure we are imposing consequences that will alter behaviors. If parents are going to use consequences, they have to realize why they are using consequences and understand the significance of making the consequence “fit the behaviors” if you will.
Remember that punishment means to impose a penalty for an offense, retribution or retaliation, to deal with roughly or harshly, to inflict injury, whereas, discipline basically means to teach. So, as the parent, do you want to deal with your child harshly or to teach your child to use better behaviors? Hopefully, the answer is to use better behaviors. If the parent uses consequences to teach the child alternative behaviors, then the consequence has to be related to the negative behavior. An example is if the child or adolescent comes in late, then the parent cannot give sentence writing to change the behavior. Sentence writing is not connected to coming home late, so that consequence will not extinguish the behavior or help the child or adolescent recognize why the behavior was unacceptable.
There are two types of consequences: Natural and Others-Imposed. Natural consequences are the most powerful for extinguishing behaviors as they are directly connected to the behaviors. An example would be not wearing a coat to school (behavior) and the child is cold at recess (natural consequence), touching a hot stove (behavior) and the child gets burned (natural consequence), or leaves his or her bike outside (behavior) and someone either steals it or it rains, ruining the bike (natural consequence). You might ask, “Do natural consequences really work?”
Yes they do, but the parent cannot interfere with the natural consequence or it will not reinforce the alternative behavior. If the child won’t eat dinner (behavior), then they will be especially hungry for breakfast (natural consequence). If the parent goes into the kitchen to fix the child something later, then the natural consequence is ineffective. If the child does not do his or her homework (behavior), then they will get a zero for the homework assignment (natural consequence). The parent cannot do the homework for the child. The way this works is that the natural consequence will be unappealing to your child; therefore, it will change or extinguish behaviors. One exception here is when a natural consequence is dangerous to safety and health (like matches outside on a dry day). Never use natural consequences when a child’s safety is in jeopardy.
When using discipline to help the child be able to switch from unacceptable behaviors to acceptable behaviors, one of the most important thing for a parent to do is to make sure that they stay calm and regulated, no matter what the child’s behaviors happen to be. If a parent is upset about something their child has done, the parent needs to wait until he or she is calm before addressing the unacceptable behavior. The goal of discipline is to teach alternative behaviors. If the parent is upset and angry (dysregulated) when disciplining the child, the opportunity to teach alternative behaviors is ineffective as the child will be focused on the anger. The parent’s anger will most likely scare the child causing dysregulation in the child. For the discipline to work, the parent has to be calm and regulated.