Discipline Kids With Positive and Negative Consequences

How to motivate your child to behave better

Time-out is an effective negative consequence.
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When most parents think about consequences for kids, they envision negative consequences, like time-out or taking away a video game. And while those negative consequences are instrumental in changing a child's behavior, positive consequences are also effective discipline tools.

When used together, positive and negative consequences will change your child's behavior—as long as they are used consistently.


How Consequences Work

Choices have consequences, even for adults. And it's important to teach your child that if good behavior leads to more positive consequences and bad behavior leads to more negative consequences.

For example, you most likely go to work because you want to receive a paycheck (positive consequence). And perhaps you avoid speeding because you want to avoid a speeding ticket (negative consequence).

Give Your Child Effective Consequences

Consequences have to be consistent to be effective. If your child hits his brother five times, and you only give him a negative consequence three times, he won't learn.  However, if he knows each aggressive behavior always results in a negative consequence, he will stop hitting his brother.

Consequences also work best when they are immediate. Saying, “Just wait until your father gets home” won't change your child's behavior. Young children need immediate feedback for their misbehavior.

They also need immediate reinforcement for good behavior. A 5-year-old isn't likely to behave better if he has to wait a month to earn a reward. But, if he can earn a sticker every time he picks up his toys, and then has an opportunity to trade those stickers in for time playing his favorite game, he'll be more motivated to keep up the good work.

How to Use Positive Consequences

Consider how you respond when your child is doing a good job. What do you do when she's following the rules or playing quietly? 

Good behaviors often go unnoticed. Reinforcing it with a positive consequence encourages your child to keep up the good work.

That's not to say your child needs an expensive reward every time he helps you clear the table. There are many ways to reinforce good behavior. Here are a few examples of positive consequences:

  • Positive attentionTalking to your child, playing with her, and acknowledging her can encourage her to keep up the good work.
  • Praise. Say things like, "You're being a good helper today," or "I really like the way you are playing so quietly with your blocks."
  • Tangible rewardsRewards can include everyday privileges like time to watch TV or they can involve earning new things, like a trip to the park. Token economy systems can be very effective ways to reinforce good behavior. 

How to Use Negative Consequences

Make sure that your negative consequences will actually deter your child's behavior. For example, taking away TV won't be an effective consequence if your teen uses his laptop to watch TV anyway.

And while some children may miss TV, others might not mind at all if their TV privileges were removed.

So negative consequences should be specific to your child. Consequences should be age appropriate and may be specific to your child’s personality.

  • Logical consequences. Logical consequences are directly related to the misbehavior. So if your child makes a poor choice with his bicycle, take away his bike. 
  • Ignoring. If your child exhibits attention-seeking behavior, like a tantrum, withdrawing attention may be the best negative consequence. 
  • Time-out. Placing your child in a brief time-out could deter him from misbehaving again.
  • Added responsibility. Sometimes, assigning more chores can be an effective consequence. 

    Be Careful You Don't Accidentally Reward Bad Behavior

    Sometimes, parents inadvertently give kids positive rewards for negative behavior. Unfortunately, this can cause behavior problems to get worse.

    picky eater may receive a lot of attention when his parents make a big deal out of his eating habits. Repeatedly saying, "Just take one more bite," might show him that not eating gets him more attention than being a good eater.

    So make sure your negative consequences actually deter your child's behavior. And be sure to catch him being good often and give him positive consequences to encourage him to keep up the good work.