7 Ways to Give Your Kids Consequences That Really Work

Kids can often seem hard-wired to challenge and test limits. Sometimes, this can mean that parents try and try to get their kids to mind them—and learn to make better choices for next time—but to no avail. No wonder parents become discouraged and frustrated: Kids don't seem to listen, and they often ignore warnings of impending disciplinary measures.

To counteract this, have a purposeful, well-articulated plan for what to do when rules are broken. Often, the problem is that consequences are not being used in the most effective way to curtail misbehavior and teach expectations. The good news is that a few simple tweaks to your discipline techniques can make a big impact on kids' behavior.

Consequences, when given and enforced the right way, can make your child sit up and take notice that you mean business. However, aim to implement them in a firm, kind way that focuses on encouraging better behavior rather than punishment.

The spirit of using consequences is not to make your child feel humiliated, embarrassed, ashamed, or unloved. Instead, this approach should help them understand and remember that misbehavior has unpleasant results (such as losing their electronics) that they'd like to avoid in the future.

Be Consistent

parent and boy sitting with crossed arms

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Positive and negative consequences only work if they are given consistently. If you only take away your kids' video games two out of every three times they hit a sibling, they're unlikely to learn not to do it. 

The inconsistent imposition of consequences sends the message that you're not really serious about what you say and/or that you can be persuaded to change your mind. So, the best approach is to give children a negative consequence each and every time they break a rule. Additionally, you can also give positive consequences for the actions you want to see more of.

Consistency is the key to helping your kids learn that they can't get away with bad behavior.

Make sure you stick to consequences, as well. If you take away a privilege for the whole day, don't give in early. Commit to doing what you say and saying what you mean. It may take some time for your child to realize and trust that you really will follow through, but if you stick with it, they will figure it out. Then, there's a good chance that your kids' behavior will change—and they will start listening to you again, too!

Give Positive Attention

A healthy, caring relationship with your children is a necessary foundation for discipline. If your kids respect you, consequences will be much more effective. So, at a minimum, aim to give your children 15 minutes of positive attention each day.

The more you invest in time-in with your child, the less time your children will spend in time-out.

This time could be spent listening attentively to your child while they are talking, or going for a walk together. You might do an easy baking project together or read a favorite story, or take out some old photos and talk about shared memories.

The point is that this is their time. Aim to give them your undivided attention. So, no stealing glances at your cell phone when you think they're not looking.

Clearly Define the Consequence

Consequences should be time-sensitive. Saying, “You’re grounded until I say so,” isn't clear enough. Neither is saying, “You can’t go anywhere until I can trust you again.”

Giving consequences with a vague end time may signal that you're not really serious and that you may just be making an empty threat in the heat of the moment. Your child may also get the message that things will soon blow over. Or your child may feel like you are imposing an overly strict response. This gives them little incentive to start complying if they think they'll never be able to get back in your good graces.

Always outline how long the consequence is in effect. Often, 24 hours is a reasonable amount of time to take something away from kids.

Try saying, "You've lost your electronics until this time tomorrow." There may also be times when you may want to take away a privilege until your children earn it back. In this case, the consequences are in place to promote positive behaviors, such as finishing school assignments on time or keeping their bedroom tidy.

If this is the case, explain exactly what needs to happen for your children to earn back what was taken away. This clarifies what behavior is expected from them, and keeps the situation neutral, rather than vague or overtly hostile. This approach also emphasizes the connection between your child's behavior and the consequence.

Linking Behavior to Consequences

Instead of saying, “You can’t have your phone back until I can trust you,” say, “You can earn your phone back for one hour a night when your homework is all done.”

Give Immediate Consequences

The best consequences are immediate. Taking away your kids' overnight with Grandma that is planned for next week is not likely to be as effective as taking away their electronics right now.

Immediate consequences ensure kids remember why they got into trouble in the first place. If it’s delayed by a week, they’re more likely to forget what rule they violated. Plus, feeling the consequence right after the misbehavior can help motivate them to not do it again.

There may be times, however, that it’s not possible to give immediate consequences. If you find out your children got into trouble on the bus three days ago, the consequence will obviously be delayed. Or if they misbehave right before they go to school in the morning, you may need to wait until they get home before you can outline a consequence and begin to enforce it.

When it's not possible to make the consequence immediate, tell your kids about it as soon as possible. Make it clear why they're getting in trouble now by reminding them which rule they violated.

Teach With Consequences

There’s a difference between consequences and punishments. Consequences should be used as a teaching tool. They are not intended to shame kids the way punishments often do. In fact, punishments often make behavior problems worse, not better.

Instead, logical consequences teach better choices by ensuring that the consequence fits with the misbehavior. So, if your kids refuse to turn off their video games, take away those games. Or, if they ride their bike outside the designated boundaries, take away the bike. 

If your older child doesn't study and bombs an exam at school, there is a natural consequence: a bad grade. There also is a logical consequence that can be imposed, such as losing video game privileges, taking on extra household chores, or losing out on social activities.

You may even want to give older kids and teens a voice in coming up with ideas for the consequences they will receive for various infractions. You may find that they are even harder on themselves than you are—and they may be more accepting of the consequences when they help determine what they'll be.

Make It Age-Appropriate

Experts agree that effective discipline requires an approach to consequences that are developmentally appropriate for your kids. For example, if a child under 3 breaks a rule, you may choose to remind them that they will get a time out if it happens again. With little ones, often the reminder of the consequence is enough to affect behavior.

Of course, you'll need to be prepared to follow through if they don't comply. If the rule is broken again, simply remove your little one from the situation for a pre-set period of time. (One minute per year of age works well.)

For kids ages 3 and up, you may decide to let them orchestrate their own time-out. Say, "You will need to go to time-out now but you can come back when you feel ready and you are in control." This promotes self-management skills and helps your child learn self-control. And it can work quite well with older kids and teens, too.

Switch It Up

Consequences may become less effective when they are used too often or for too many things at once. Kids who consistently lose privileges for an extended period of time may begin to lose motivation to earn them back. For example, time-out tends to become less effective when it is used multiple times throughout the day.

Or the consequence you are using may not be the right one to elicit the changes you want to see. If your usual strategy is to remove screen time, perhaps limiting a different privilege would be more effective.

A Word From Verywell

Using consequences effectively can make a world of difference in your parenting and your children's behavior. If after using these techniques you still find that they require frequent discipline, try looking at what else might be contributing to their behavioral issues. Other positive discipline tools to try include reward systems, praise, and active ignoring.

These positive discipline techniques can be instrumental in helping kids turn things around. A comprehensive approach, which includes using consequences, motivates them to improve their behavior and often brings the added bonus of helping to improve your relationship with them, too. 

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. What’s the best way to discipline my child?.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Steps for using consequences.

  3. Lippold MA, Davis KD, Lawson KM, McHale SM. Day-to-day consistency in positive parent-child interactions and youth well-being. J Child Fam Stud. 2016;25(12):3584-3592.  doi:10.1007/s10826-016-0502-x

  4. American Academy of Pediatrics. Communication dos and don'ts.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Essentials for parenting toddlers and preschoolers.

Additional Reading

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.