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What about when a child "needs consequences"?

Posted by Sarah Stogryn on

As a passionate and vocal advocate for respectful connected parenting, and as the neurodivergent mother of a PDA Autistic tween and a pre-diagnosed ADHD child.... one of the questions I often hear is "What about when a child "needs consequences? What about when they NEED to be punished? What do you do then? Because sometimes 'a talk and a hug' isn't enough you know. I want MY kids to grow up to be good people not spoiled brats"  

If you ask most who are advocates for consequences or punishment of children what they believe the purpose is, they'll inevitably say something about teaching that actions have consequences and give an adult example like “if you get caught speeding you get a ticket not a cozy heart to heart and a hug”

You know what though? Kids aren't stupid, and kids are not adults!

Kids know that actions have consequences because they are literally hard wired to learn that naturally. It is fundamental to survival as a human. All those times your infant dropped a toy and you picked it up again? 100x in a row? Cause & effect. You didn't have to "teach" your child that, you only had to support their innate learning efforts. Likewise, kids don't need to be penalized, shamed, isolated, OR stickered, rewarded, and praised to learn about actions & consequences. Kids *do* need us to gently help them connect the dots sometimes between their choices and the impact of their choices. They do need our guidance in how to make things right when they go wrong. And they do need us to help them see what all their options are then give them space to practice making choices of increasing significance for themselves. When we attempt to teach our kids about actions & consequences through punishments aka artificially imposed consequences though, we're actually teaching kids that the person in power is allowed to control the person with less power. Not the intended lesson at all.

To be clear, a kid feeling cold because they didn't wear their coat is a natural consequence of not wearing a coat. Telling your child they're grounded for X days and can't go outside because they didn’t wear their coat last time is not a natural consequence. It's an artificial imposed consequence aka punishment. And there could be legitimate reasons why your kid didn't wear the coat that range from sensory processing differences to executive dysfunction to not grasping longer-term consequences etc, and where the appropriate response of the parent is to non-judgmentally bring the coat along or bring the coat to them if/when their child expresses need it after all

Kids do well if they can (R.Greene). If a child is not doing well its because there is an inappropriate expectation being placed on them, and/or they don't have the skills to meet an otherwise appropriate expectation. Punishment and consequences solve neither of those issues, but they do teach kids to lie, to hide, and that their parent(s) can't be trusted to truly meet their needs. 

A child's behaviour is communication. Every behaviour - good bad and neutral - tells us something about that child and their needs

Giving a child “consequences” or a “punishment” because of "bad behaviour" (aka because they have an unmet need!) doesn't teach them to be better people. It teaches them not to get caught. Speeding while driving as an adult is a bad behaviour but is not an expression of an unmet need or unrealistic expectation - its making a choice because they think (consciously or not) they can get away with it. Undesired behaviours in children however are always about unmet needs, lacking skills, or inappropriate expectations. Meeting the needs of our children with compassion and connection and love and respect facilitates optimal brain development and emotional maturity so that they grow into 'good people', rather than into adults who speed unless they see a police cruiser because all they fear is getting caught.

Our children's lives are not mere preparation for some future 'more real' state of existence. A child's life NOW matters just as much as an adults does. Adults and children alike are fully human, here, and now, today.  Adults however have a fully mature prefrontal cortex that allows them to see things in ways that children are ACTUALLY INCAPABLE of. Children, while fully human now, are also growing and vulnerable and in need of special care because their brain is a work in progress. For better or worse, how we parent our children profoundly influences this brain development that will impact them for a lifetime.

Many parents can get on board with respectful parenting initially, but still hold out with this escape clause of "punishment or consequences are necessary at times when a child refuses to... listen, obey, understand, etc". It's not true. That escape clause isn't about kids who “refuse to xyz” but rather, is about an adult who doesn't see their child's needs. Maybe this happens because of ingrained patterns. Maybe unhealed wounds. Maybe our own traumas are being triggered. In any case, as parents in today's world we have the opportunity to DO BETTER by our kids. Kids are smart. If you're still holding out that escape clause where "sometimes" your child will deserve punishments/consequences, then you are not truly parenting in a connected and respectful way. There are baby steps as we learn certainly, a continual back and forth as we learn a new dance, but ultimately - you can't both punish a child AND parent with compassion and respect for who your child is. The two concepts are mutually incompatible and this truth is felt deep in your child's soul. They know it in their cells even if they can't express it in words. 

If love and respect and compassion and connection "aren't working" then it is the parents responsibility to *dig deeper* and find out where the disconnect is happening between them and their child. What need has not yet been identified and met? What skill might still need to be learned? What expectations from the adult may still be inappropriate for where the child is at in their life and overall development? Behaviour is communication. What message is our child trying to convey that we're not hearing?

When you understand how a child's brain develops, 'consequences/ punishments', no longer make any sense. And when you really take an honest look, you'll discover that punishment/ consequences are little more than revenge for failure to comply, and an exertion of power over the vulnerable. That is a TOUGH pill to swallow as a loving parent trying to do their best. Breaking legacies of harm and healing our wounds is no easy task but it is worth it.

Blaming our child for failing to comply and trying to force them to learn through punishment/ consequences is a dead end. Nobody truly learns or becomes a better person when threatened or afraid. Fear closes down the higher brain centers and kicks it into a stress fueled survival mode which, over time, steadily DECREASES a person's ability to be calm, empathetic, in control, and make sound decisions, AND it creates a disconnect between parent and child as the parent is the source of the fear/threat. Staying connected to our kids is everything. 

Staying connected to our kids is everything. Love unconditionally. Respect fully. Build bridges not barriers.

I don't want my children to fear me. I want them to trust me. I want them to be healthily connected to me. I want them to feel my love and respect for them in every ounce of their being no matter their circumstances.  I want them to know in their soul that my love is unconditional. 

So, what IF a circumstance arises where your head is shouting that your child needs to be punished or receive "consequences"? 

1. Step outside and breathe. Have a glass of water. Make tea. Look out the window. Take some small step to ground and refresh yourself. 
2. Think about one of your favorite moments with your child. Recall their smell and their touch and the joy of being in that favorite moment with them.
3. Tell yourself aloud: My child is not bad. My child is doing the best they can. My child needs my help. 
5. Connect with your child without judgement. Love them unconditionally. Respect them fully. Think in terms of building bridges not barriers.
6. State calmly what the concern is and ask them if they can tell you about why they made that choice.  (this may take time and reassurance, particularly if they are coming from a place where they are afraid of your reaction to the truth).
7. If needed, gently share the impact their choice has had. (Help them connect the dots between their actions and its consequences)
8. Ask your child what they could do to make things right. If you've been a family that uses contrived consequences and punishments, your child may well suggest one of these (I should be grounded. I should be spanked. You should take away my xyz...). Don't stop there! Go further and explore what is needed to ACTUALLY make things right again for everyone. Take positive and proactive steps to mend fences, repair trust, inspire growth - be willing to explore creative options. 

Finally - - remember that this is a work in progress and none of us - parent or child - are perfect. No matter where we are in our parenting journey there are places to heal and grow. When we make a mistake, there is no need to beat ourselves up. Don't be afraid to call a do-over if you make a harsh snap decision or you regret your approach. Apologize to your child without excuses. Forgive yourself truly. Start. Fresh.  Life is full of second chances to be the person we want to be <3

Recommended Reading & Resources
The Whole Brain Child (for kids 2-12) by Dan Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson
Brainstorm (for teenagers) by Dan Siegel
Raising Our Children Raising Ourselves Naomi Aldort
Connected Parenting by Jennifer Kolari
Raising Human Beings by Ross Greene
The Explosive Child by Ross Greene
Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn
Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn
Hold On To Your Kids by Gordon Neufeld & Gabor Mate

Self-Reg by Stuart Shanker
Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids by Laura Markham
Parenting From The Inside Out by Dan Siegel & Mary Hartzell

Brain-Based Parenting by Daniel Hughes
Everyday Blessings by Jon & Myla Kabbat-Zinn


Aha Parenting
Dr Gabor Mate
Lemon Lime Adventures

Evolutionary Parenting 
Happiness Is Here
Raised Good
All Fun & Games - Replacing Punishment




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