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 a 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 will likely be rewarded with a paycheck. If you quit showing up for work, you will likely get fired—a negative consequence.

Begin teaching children life lessons about their choices now. Show them that making good choices, like doing their chores or listening to your directions, leads to positive consequences.

On the other hand, it is important to deter misbehavior with negative consequences. If your child breaks the rules or engages in physical aggression, provide an immediate consequence. Doing so will make them want to avoid repeating that behavior in the future. 

Difference Between Positive and Negative Consequences

Parents are often confused by the concept of positive and negative consequences. A simple way to remember the difference is that positive consequences are more proactive and negative consequences are more reactive. In other words, positive consequences are designed to get kids to repeat good behaviors while negative consequences are in response to a behavior you want your child to change.

While it is important to give your child attention for behaving in ways that you like, or positive consequences, there are times when you will have to use negative consequences like time-outs and losing privileges. What's more, it is important to use a combination of both positive consequences and negative consequences. Using only one method is not as effective as having a variety of tools in your arsenal.

Give Your Child Effective Consequences

Consequences have to be consistent to be effective. If your kids hit each other five times, and you only give them a negative consequence three times, they won't learn that this behavior is inappropriate. However, if your kids know each aggressive behavior always results in a negative consequence, they will stop hitting each other.

Consequences also work best when they are immediate.

Waiting until Dad gets home to hand out a consequence or telling children they are going to lose a trip to their friend's house in two weeks won't teach them a lesson.  

Positive reinforcement also needs to be immediate. And the younger the child, the more immediate the reinforcement should be. For example, 5-year-olds are not likely to behave better if they have to wait a month to earn a reward. But, they may enjoy earning a sticker at the end of each day if they are allowed to go to the park once they earn five stickers. 

How to Use Positive Consequences

Good behaviors often go unnoticed. But, reinforcing the good things with a positive consequence encourages children to keep up the good work.

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

  • Positive attentionTalking to your kids, playing with them, and acknowledging them can encourage them 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

When using negative consequences, make sure that the consequences you choose will actually deter your child's behavior. For example, taking away the TV won't be an effective consequence if your teen uses a laptop to watch shows online.

And while some children may miss TV, others might not mind at all if their TV privileges were removed. As a result, 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 kids make a poor choice with their bicycle, take away their bike. 
  • Ignoring. If your child exhibits attention-seeking behavior, like a tantrum, withdrawing attention may be the best negative consequence. 
  • Time-out. Placing your kids in a brief time-out could deter them 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. For instance, 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. 

Attention, even when it is negative, can be a strong reinforcer.

Consequently, you should praise good behavior and ignore some mild misbehavior. And when your child breaks the rules, follow through with a negative consequence. 

A Word From Verywell

Remember, when implementing consequences it is important to be calm and consistent, especially if you are using negative consequences. Use a neutral tone and try not to make it personal. Explain the consequence to your child and why it is being used. Talk about the rules and your child's behavior. The goal is that kids would learn to modify their behavior when faced with the situation again. Meanwhile, look for opportunities to catch your kids doing something good and then reinforce this with positive consequences. By implementing both strategies, you will find that disciplining your child is not as difficult as you once imagined.

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