Setting consequences for our child’s behaviors can help them learn to obtain their needs healthily. Kids might exhibit challenging behaviors, like addiction, defiance, promiscuity, or running away to meet an unmet need. As parents, we can guide our kids to find healthy ways of getting what they need. To set consequences for our kids to comply with good behavior, we need to have some form of leverage. For leverage to work, we need to be consistent with the rewards we offer as a consequence. To be consistent, we need to provide only what we are willing to follow through on.
When discussing behavioral changes, leverage refers to something that will motivate a person to make better choices. Without leverage, kids might continue to rely on their default mode or fall back on maladaptive behaviors that have worked for them in the past. As parents, we need to understand that kids fall back on bad behaviors, not due to an internal flaw or disobedience and disrespect, but because they worked in the past. To change their behavior, the past behaviors need to have a greater cost than benefit.
Cost and Benefit
Maladaptive or “bad” behaviors can be difficult to change because the benefit exceeds the costs. For example, the benefit of numbing oneself with alcohol from feeling emotional pain from trauma might exceed the costs of a hangover the next day. While we know that using drugs or alcohol to numb ourselves will lead to negative long-term consequences, the immediate benefit will often override these long-term costs down the road.
For behavior to change, the behavior needs to take away more from us than we are given. Consider the previous example of a hangover being a low cost for numbing ourselves from emotional pain. If we are hungover and not expected to get out of bed or have no responsibilities or loss as a result, the cost of the hangover—even if painful—is relatively low. However, if we missed work due to sleeping in and lost our job, the cost is much higher.
Setting Consistent Consequences for Kids
As parents, we need to inflate the costs of maladaptive behaviors for our kids by holding them accountable with leverage. We need to consider what will be painful to lose for a particular behavior and match that consequence naturally to the behavior. Since maladaptive behaviors are relatively consistent in their benefits (ex, every time our kids drink, they feel drunk; every time they run away, they get our attention, etc.), we also need to be consistent in setting our consequences.
Knowing what we are willing to provide or do for our kids with consistency will help us set the practical consequences needed to foster healthy behaviors. Unfortunately, we might not think through the implications and create an expectation that we cannot match. When we cannot keep to our word or promises, our kids might become discouraged and fall back to harmful behaviors.
Fully Consider What You Are Willing to Provide
For example, let’s consider using access to a cell phone as leverage for our child to complete schoolwork on time. We might say, “I will pay your cell phone bill each month if you bring your math scores up by one letter grade this semester.” If our child accomplishes this goal and then we realize that we do not have the budget for an additional cell phone, then we are not providing the consistent consequence our child needs to maintain good grades.
We will be better off if we consider the consequences fully and use a reward that we are willing to provide for our kids. We might promise things in the moment or agree to something just to get our kids to comply. Many of us hope that our kids will behave appropriately out of an intrinsic reward, that doing the right thing is a reward in and of themself. But, would we go to work if we did not receive the benefit of a paycheck—just because it’s the right thing to do? Unlikely!
We need to think about the consequences thoroughly. We have to imagine that our kids will be successful and consider the reality of that success. Sure, promising our teenagers access to our car each weekend if they pass a weekly drug test might get our kids excited and motivated to change. However, are we willing to give up our own car each weekend if they succeed? If we must, we can pair down the reward to something feasible, as consistency is crucial to reinforcing healthy behaviors.
Before setting consequences for our child’s behaviors, we need to consider what we are willing to provide and do ourselves if they succeed. We might promise our kids things that we cannot or are unwilling to give them later. Consequences in the form of rewards for demonstrating responsible behavior can be highly reinforcing. When we can attach our kid’s unmet needs driving their harmful behavior to a reward that meets that need, we can help them make healthy decisions. However, kids will not behave properly just because we say so, or the right things are a reward unto themselves. Often, our kids use maladaptive behaviors to obtain a need, and if we are not helping them meet their needs with consistency, they might fall back to these maladaptive behaviors. If your child struggles with addiction, running away, or other problematic behaviors, Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center is here to help. Call us today at (303) 443-3343.