How to Use “If-Then” Rewards and Consequences

Behavioral techniques are useful in creating consequences for your child. When teenagers act out with problematic behaviors, like cutting, drug use, drinking, promiscuity, or other issues, the need to gain control over the situation or retain authority might trump using natural consequences to teach vital life lessons. Parents might struggle with the notion that they need to punish their kids in the traditional ways that they might have learned from their parents. However, by utilizing simple “if-then” statements and tactics, we can negotiate expectations for our kids by connecting consequences with rewards.

Negotiation and Behavioral Contracts

Behavioral contracts built on simple “if-then” statements can help hold your kid accountable when struggling with problematic issues. According to Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center’s co-founder, Aaron Huey, kids and parents can come together and agree to terms while things are going well for consequences that will stick. Contracts can help kids learn to connect their behaviors with their goals and teach them that freedom comes from responsible behavior. However, we need to consider the best times to discuss terms to negotiate with our kids.

The Best Times to Negotiate Are When Things Go Well

When we try to negotiate while things are in a state of disarray or during an emergency, we might not be in the best state of mind to think clearly. We might also need to urgently deal with a situation that requires medical, psychiatric, or even legal intervention. During these emergencies, as parents, we need to do what is best to ensure our children’s safety and well-being. A crisis, like running away, being drunk, a suicide attempt, or other urgent situation, is not the time to teach lessons or negotiate a contract. During an emergency, our child needs our support, help, compassion, and love.

When dealing with emergencies, both ourselves and our children are not in the best state of mind to negotiate. We cannot discuss the consequences of behavior or lecture our kids when they need immediate interventions, like staying in a psychiatric unit or receiving medical treatment. Emotions will be running high, and we are likely to create long-term consequences from a heightened emotional reaction. Once our kids are safe, sober, or in treatment, then we can begin the healing process and connect the behaviors to the consequences. Treatment facilities like Fire Mountain include family counseling, parent coaching, and “coming home” contracts throughout the process.

What Are “If-Then” Statements?

“If-then” statements define a cause and effect relationship between two things. When we utilize these types of messages while discussing behavioral contracts, we state our expectations and the natural consequences for behaviors. These can provide the basis for behavioral contracts. The following are examples of how to use these types of statements:

  • “If you are failing in school, then you need to spend more time on homework. Therefore, we will need to ensure that you are not out late when you need to do school work. If your grades improve over the next three months, then we can look at extending your curfew on the weekends.”
  • “I am not willing to loan my car to someone who uses drugs and alcohol. If you are clean for three months, then we can re-negotiate a deal to borrow the car regularly.”
  • “I will not pay for wifi access for someone using the internet to access pornography. If you agree to us monitoring your usage, then you can use the internet.”

In each of the preceding statements, there is a direct relationship between the behavior and the consequence. Often, the best strategies for behavioral interventions will have a natural consequence of the behavior. On the other hand, traditional punishments like sending a kid to their room to think about what they have done or threatening to take things away do not directly connect cause and effect. These types of punishments often fail to teach kids the lessons needed throughout their lives. 

Consequences Need to Matter

Fire Mountain’s Aaron Huey states that if the consequences do not hurt, they will not matter. Our kids need to be affected somehow, whether they feel a sense of loss, grieve losing a privilege, miss time with their friends, etc. Without feeling hurt by their problematic behaviors, the consequences will have no significance for the child. Therefore, as parents, we need to keep the bigger picture in mind. We can then empower our kids to make responsible choices and behave accordingly to gain access to the freedoms that they desire. 

Consequences for behaviors are essential to learning valuable lifelong lessons. Our kids may not see the connections between behaving responsibly and having more freedoms. When they have problematic issues that result in emergency interventions, we first need to deal with the situation. These moments of crisis are not the time to negotiate behaviors, lecture, or punish our kids. We can use simple “if-then” statements to outline the expectations for our kids, as we show them the direct impact of their actions. Behavioral contracts, parent coaching, and family involvement are paramount to recovery. At Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center, we know how teenagers’ problematic behaviors can impact the entire family. We are here to help the whole family system! If you have a teen struggling with issues like addiction, promiscuity, depression, cutting, suicidal ideation, or other severe problems, call us today at (303) 443-3343. We’re here to help your family’s fire burn brightest!

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