Do Kids Need Immediate Consequences to Learn Proper Behavior?

Many parents believe that consequences for misbehaviors need to be delivered immediately, or they will not stick. When a child acts out or flunks a big test, parents might yell, “go to your room,” or issue some other punishment in the moment without consideration for the long-term effects. Often, our knee-jerk reactions to a child’s behavior might be based on our emotions, which are fluid and inconsistent. 

We might be on edge after a poor night’s sleep or a hard day at work, influencing our immediate reaction. Conversely, we might be run down and feel too tired to deal with our child’s behavior. We might have little to no response, thus confusing our child if we usually have reacted more strongly. Regardless, our immediate reaction to a child’s behavior is driven by thought, logic, or planning. We can delay consequences.

Children Will Remember

The myth that consequences need to be immediate might be rooted in behavioral psychology experiments on rats and other mammals. Since most mammals do not have the same long-term memory abilities as humans, the myth that consequences for behaviors need to be immediate was based on assumptions regarding animal behavior. These assumptions do not transfer to kids because children will remember long after the behavior.

The myth continues to influence parents. However, reacting to situations at the moment is often not the best course of action for learning new skills and healthy behaviors. Only in times of life-threatening situations do we need to react immediately to behavior. For example, if our child is high, storms out of the house, and drives away, they could be putting their life or another’s life at risk. The consequences of calling the police to stop them need to be immediate due to the severity of the situation. However, most behaviors do not require swift resolution and can wait for correction.

“I Need Time to Think About This”

One of the most powerful things that we can do as parents to tell our kids, “I need time to think about this.” Our kids will remember that some form of consequence is coming. They will think about what potential consequences will come their way. When we say that we need time to think, we give ourselves space to get out of our knee-jerk reaction mode to a healthy emotional place, where higher-order thinking and decision-making can occur.

Giving ourselves space from our kids after they engage in maladaptive behaviors, such as coming home with a note from the school disciplinary officer or discovering other issues occurring, is one of the most helpful things that we can do for ourselves and our kids. We might need to contain our shock, hurt, angry, or disappointed feelings at the moment. We can always go back to our emotions and should take that time to process what we feel. We are allowed to feel upset about a child’s behavior. However, we need to take ownership of these emotions instead of punishing our children with our emotions driving our reactions.

Thoughtful Consequences Lead to Thoughtful Behaviors

When we remove the pressure of setting consequences immediately, we can take time to resource the issues with our parenting partner or other reliable support. We might check in with support groups, like Fire Mountain’s “Parenting Teens That Struggle” on Facebook or Al-Anon family groups. Thoughtful consequences for maladaptive behaviors beyond yelling or sending our kids to their rooms will lead to thoughtful behaviors on their part.

Consequences should be as natural as possible, connected to the behaviors in a meaningful way. For example, a child who drinks excessively might not be allowed access to our car. Most parents would agree that they would be unwilling to loan their vehicle to someone who might be under the influence. A child who fails their classes due to excessive internet use or gaming might have their devices taken away from them for a few hours each night to focus on homework.

Consequences like these take time and planning on our part. Our kids engage in maladaptive behaviors to fulfill a need. If we do not use consequences to teach healthy replacements, they might fall back on these behaviors or resort to other maladaptive coping mechanisms.

Remember to Have Consequences for Positive Behaviors

While we often focus most of our attention on bad behaviors, we also need to remember that positive behaviors also need consequences to stick. A child who helps out around the house can receive verbal praise, an allowance, or other privileges. Often, just acknowledging good behaviors can go a long way in letting kids know that they are on the right track. No matter what, our kids need to know that we love them–at their best and their worst.

We do not need to set consequences for maladaptive or bad behaviors immediately. Often, when we react in the moment to something upsetting, shocking, or disappointing, we do not have access to the higher-order thought processes needed to create thoughtful responses. We could yell or allow our emotions to take over. We might even underreact to the situation if we are feeling rundown or exhausted ourselves. Giving ourselves some space to figure out what comes next will be healthy for ourselves and our children. We may not have all the answers right away and should not expect ourselves to know exactly what to do. Consequences need to be consistent and thoughtful to be effective for our kids. If you have a child who struggles with maladaptive behaviors, like cutting, drinking, using drugs, excessive gaming, or other issues, residential treatment might be the next right step. Call Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center today at (303) 443-3343. We’re here to make your family’s fire burn brightest.

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