Discipline Kids With Positive and Negative Consequences

Reinforce good behavior and discourage bad behavior.

Time-out is an effective negative consequence.
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When most parents think about consequences for kids, they usually envision negative consequences, like time-out or taking away a video game. And while negative consequences are instrumental in changing a child's behavior, positive consequences are also effective discipline tools.

When used together, positive and negative consequences will change your child's behavior—as long as they are used consistently. Use positive consequences to reinforce good behavior and provide negative consequences to discourage bad behavior. 

How Consequences Work

Every choice individuals make lead to either positive or negative consequences. For example, if you go to work, you'll likely be rewarded with a paycheck. If you quit showing up for work, you'll likely get fired—a negative consequence.

You can begin teaching your child life lessons about her choices now. Show her that making good choices, like doing her chores or listening to your directions, leads to positive consequences.

On the other hand, it's important to deter misbehavior with negative consequences. If she breaks the rules or engages in physical aggression, give her an immediate consequence that she'll want to avoid in the future. 

Give Your Child Effective Consequences

Consequences have to be consistent to be effective. If your child hits his brother five times, and you only give him a negative consequence three times, he won't learn. However, if he knows each aggressive behavior always results in a negative consequence, he will stop hitting his brother.

Consequences work best when they are immediate. Waiting until Dad gets home to hand out a consequence or telling your child he's going to lose a trip to his friend's house in two weeks won't teach him a lesson.   

Positive reinforcement also needs to be immediate. And the younger the child, the more immediate the reinforcement should be.

A 5-year-old isn't likely to behave better if he has to wait a month to earn a reward. But, he may enjoy earning a sticker at the end of each day if he's allowed to go to the park once he earns five stickers. 

How to Use Positive Consequences

Good behaviors often go unnoticed. Reinforcing it with a positive consequence encourages your child to keep up the good work.

That's not to say your child needs an expensive reward every time he helps you clear the table. There are many ways to reinforce good behavior. Here are a few examples of positive consequences:

  • Positive attentionTalking to your child, playing with her, and acknowledging her can encourage her to keep up the good work.
  • Praise. Say things like, "You're being a good helper today," or "I really like the way you are playing so quietly with your blocks."
  • Tangible rewardsRewards can include everyday privileges like time to watch TV or they can involve earning new things, like a trip to the park. Token economy systems can be very effective ways to reinforce good behavior. 

How to Use Negative Consequences

Make sure that your negative consequences will actually deter your child's behavior. For example, taking away the TV won't be an effective consequence if your teen uses his laptop to watch his favorite shows online.

And while some children may miss TV, others might not mind at all if their TV privileges were removed. So negative consequences should be specific to your child. Here are some examples of negative consequences: 

  • Logical consequences. Logical consequences are directly related to the misbehavior. So if your child makes a poor choice with his bicycle, take away his bike. 
  • Ignoring. If your child exhibits attention-seeking behavior, like a tantrum, withdrawing attention may be the best negative consequence. 
  • Time-out. Placing your child in a brief time-out could deter him from misbehaving again.
  • Added responsibility. Assigning extra chores can be an effective consequence. 

Avoid Accidentally Rewarding Bad Behavior

Sometimes, parents inadvertently reinforce negative behavior. Unfortunately, this can cause behavior problems to get worse.

Attention, even when it's negative, can be a strong reinforcer. So each time you beg a picky eater to "take one more bite," or you tell your child to "stop whining," you may be encouraging those behaviors to continue. 

It's best to praise good behavior and ignore some mild misbehavior. And when your child breaks the rules, follow through with a negative consequence. 

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