How to 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. 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 enforce negative consequences to discourage bad behavior. 

How Consequences Work

Every choice you make leads to either positive or negative consequences. For example, if you go to work, you will be rewarded with a paycheck. If you stop showing up for work, you will likely get fired—a negative consequence. Children are no exception.

You can begin teaching your children life lessons about their choices from an early age. You can show them that making good choices, like doing their chores or listening to your directions, leads to positive consequences. Conversely, you can show them that misbehavior and poor choices, like physical aggression, lead to negative consequences. The consequences influence future behavior.

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 encourage kids to repeat good behaviors while negative consequences are given in response to a behavior you want your child to change.

While it is important to give your child positive reinforcement for behaving in ways that you like, 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 parenting 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 of those times, they may not learn that this behavior is inappropriate. On the other hand, if your kids know that every aggressive behavior will result in a negative consequence, they will be more likely to 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 be as effective a consequence now.  

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 respond to smaller, more frequent rewards that add up to a delayed, larger reward such as earning a sticker at the end of each day of good behavior followed by a trip 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 deserve a reward every time they help you clear the table. There are many ways to reinforce good behavior. Here are a few examples of effective positive consequences:

  • Positive attention: Talking 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 rewards: Rewards 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 are 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. For example, 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

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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