As parents, we know that children need to have structure and boundaries. They need to know our expectations for behavior. Where it gets more tricky for parents is how to respond when a child is not following these expectations. It’s not always clear what the difference between consequences and punishment are, and why one is more effective than the other.

A consequence is the result or direct effect of an action. The goal for giving consequences is to teach a lesson that leads the child to make positive choices. It encourages self-examination, accepting responsibility for one’s actions, the ability to learn from mistakes, and the development of an inner voice of self-control. Consequences give your child the message that he is capable of taking responsibility for problems and can handle them.

Punishment is defined by Merriam-Webster as “suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution.” The goal is to inflict hurt, pain and to get even. Punishment can cause resentment and rarely teaches a child what you want him to learn. It also can be damaging to your child’s self-esteem and does not facilitate secure attachment.

Here are some examples of punishment versus consequences:

Backtalking/disrespectMouth washed out with soapChild loses privileges until attitude improves
Chores not doneGoes to bed early“I would be glad to give you a ride as soon as you complete your chores.”
Damaging propertySpanked and groundedDoes extra chores to pay for damage
Misbehavior at the dinner tableNo TVExcused from the table
LyingSit in the corner with face to wallMust earn trust back by demonstrating honesty
StealingYelled at and lecturedMakes amends to store or person
Fails in schoolGrounded at homeStudies rather than playing at recess


There are reasons parents resort to punishment:

  1. It’s a convenient way to vent anger and frustration.
  2. They are often doing to their children what was done to them when they were young.
  3. They don’t know what else to do because they lack alternate strategies or parenting skills.
  4. They beliefe they must maintain control and exert authority.
  5. They want immediate change in their child’s behavior and their children react quickly out of fear.

Punishment, however, often backfires. The negativity fuels defiance and anger. It reinforces the child’s negative view of themself and reinforces negative patterns. It damages trust and connection. It is also temporary. A child may react and be compliant in the moment, out of fear, but they have no incentive to change their behavior over time.


There are two types of consequences: Natural and imposed.

Natural consequences are between the child and the rest of the world. They forget their jacket, they feel cold. They don’t study, they fail the test. They refuse to eat, they feel hungry later. The child learns from what happens in the “real world.”

Imposed consequences are consequences you use when your child’s actions are problems for you and your family, others or put them in danger. Whenever possible, imposed consequences must reflect the actions, be enforceable and address the problem. Children can sometimes come up with their own consequences and they are often harder on themselves than parents would be. This gives children power in a positive way and teaches resourcefulness.

How you deliver an imposed consequence will determine how effective it is.

Here are some tips for successfully giving a consequence:

  • Connect with eye contact. This is key to gaining your child’s attention.
  • Be aware of the nonverbal messages you are sending. You don’t want to come across as angry or intimidating. Instead, have a firm yet empathetic tone and look.
  • Set the stage. Pick a time and place to avoid distractions. Make sure you are in the right mood so your child is more likely to be receptive.
  • Focus on the behavior, not the child. You want to convey the message: “I dislike your choice and behavior, not you.”
  • Work as a team with your partner. Consequences are most successful when parents are on the same page.
  • Be consistent. Don’t ignore your child’s behavior in one time and give them a consequence the time.
  • Don’t lecture. Keep it brief and straightforward.
  • Control your anger. Be firm, yet calm. Anger and yelling show your child, they are in control of your emotional reactions.
  • Don’t threaten and give multiple warnings. You are basically teaching your child not to listen. Give them a single warning, so they have the opportunity to correct their behavior and make a better choice.
  • Positive consequences. Reward your child for good behavior. Emotional rewards, like smiles, hugs, words of appreciation can be very effective.
  • Make it relevant. The consequence should mean something to your child. If your child doesn’t seem to care about consequences. Don’t believe it. Your child cares more than your think. This is usually a game of manipulation and control.
  • It doesn’t have to be immediate. Taking time to calm down and consult with your partner can be a good thing. It also gives the child time to think about their actions.
  • Don’t overdo it. You want your child to know they are accountable for their choices and actions. But if you constantly give them consequences or the consequences are too big, your child may feel like they are perpetually being punished, become hopeless and have no motivation to change.

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