What's the deal with consequences?
It’s something that comes up often, especially with adoptive parents and parents of children with SEND (special educational needs and disabilities). Parents often feel they've done something wrong when setting boundaries and imposing consequences lead to escalations in tricky behaviour. Parents can easily feel really lost with it all.
The thing is, as parents, we're responsible for keeping our children safe and for teaching them how to manage themselves in the world. We can't get away from that responsibility, regardless of whether our children have experienced significant interpersonal trauma and/or have diagnoses like autism, ADHD, or FASD. All children need limits and boundaries. All children need correction and redirection at times.
First off, I want to be clear that as parents it's up to us how we choose to parent our children. So long as we're bumbling along, not doing any harm, we can safely decline advice we don't want and we don't think will work for us. So long as our parenting is safe and respectful and we're repairing the relationship when we make mistakes then that's great for any child. No parent is perfect, and children don't need perfect. In fact, there's evidence that children do better with imperfect parents who make mistakes and get things wrong than with parents who are perfectly attuned. The last thing I would want to do is knock the confidence of parents who are doing a good enough job with whatever approaches and strategies they already have to hand.
In this blog post, we're going to think about three types of consequences: natural, logical, and illogical. Natural consequences happen without any involvement from us. Logical and illigical consequences are imposed by us. The general consensus (outside of the world of trauma and SEND) is that natural consequences are the gold standard learning opportunity, logical consequences can be useful if used sparingly, and illogical consequences (sometimes referred to as just punishments) are to be avoided at all costs. In some therapeutic parenting and SEND parenting circles, there's the belief that all consequences are to be avoided because they don't work to change behaviour and they only serve to harm the parent/child relationship.
I want to say at this point that I believe there's a lot more to it all than whether or not we're using conseqences to support our children's development. As parents we need to be self-aware. We need to think carefully about our motives and about what we're hoping to acheive. If the aim is to control our child's thinking or behaviour then we're likely to end up frustrated, especially if we're determined to see change in the short term. If the aim is to provide the kind of environments where our children are most likely, over time, to develop the skills and outlook they need to get along well in the world, then we're likely to see success quite quickly because the measure is our own behaviour, not theirs. It's a subtle difference.
The context of any parenting that's good enough is regular self care (even if that's in short bursts of just a few minutes) and access to formal and informal support. If you're reading this and you don't have those things in place, go easy on yourself and be realistic about what your best is going to look like right now. Emotional regulation, which comes from feeling safe and having our own needs met, is at the heart of everything.
Let's unpick the different types of consequences and what they might look like in a parenting situation.
Natural consequences just happen. Parents have no control over them. The only thing parents have control over is how to help our children manage and make sense of them.
My child runs in the play park. They fall over. They cut their knee and it hurts. There’s no parent manipulation in that situation. Falling over is the natural consequence of them running. I carry plasters at the park so I put a plaster on my child’s knee and I comfort them. Plasters and a bit of comfort are nice. As a one off event, my child isn't very likely to learn much about running and falling over. What they're likely to learn is that mum takes care of them when they fall over, which is a great thing for a child to learn. Hopefully they’ll generalise that learning to other people and to a range of situations: people take care of me when I need help. If I don’t stop my child from running in the play park in the future, the likelihood is that they’ll fall over lots of times when they’re running, and hardly ever when they’re walking. They might realise that running increases the chances of falling over, and falling over hurts. They might stop running. Alternatively, with practice, they might just get better at running without falling over.
Logical and illogical consequences are imposed. It’s when parents manipulate outcomes to influence or control children’s behaviour. Logical consequences might go a bit like this:
My child runs in the play park. I worry they might fall over and I know that falling over hurts. I don’t want them to hurt themselves. I also don't want them bumping into other children. So, whenever I catch them running, I give them a minute or two next to me on the bench. When I release them into the wild, it’s on the condition they don’t run. If I catch them running again, I might impose another minute or two next to me on the bench. They might not learn anything about the relationship between running and hurting themselves, or running and bumping into other children, but they’ll likely learn that running gets you a minute or two on the bench with mum, and that might put them off running, thereby reducing the risk of hurting themselves or bumping into other children. They might just get better at staying out of sight when they're running.
Illogical consequences are similar to logical consequences but they’re usually harsher and make a lot less sense. This is because they’re often carried out by dysregulated parents who are motivated by their personal triggers. They can play out a bit like this:
At the play park, I tell my child not to run, because I don’t want them to fall over and hurt themselves. I catch my child running anyway. This triggers a core belief from my childhood: “Nobody ever listens to me because I’m not worth listening to.” This can be outside of my conscious awareness. Because I’m feeling threatened, I’m struggling to access the part of my brain that’s responsible for processing information and making rational decisions. I wrongly interpret my child's running as an act of defiance, rather than thoughtless and age-appropriate behaviour. It’s not about trying to make sure my child doesn’t hurt themselves any more. It’s about dealing with my child’s defiance. I might tell my child there’s no ice cream on the way home because I told them not to run and they took no notice. I might threaten harsher consequences, like no TV for the rest of the day, if I catch them running again. My child is likely to get dysregulated in response to my agitated emotional state, my illogical consequences and my threats of further consequences. They’re not likely to learn anything useful or good. Things are likely to get very tricky.
A loving and emotionally regulated parent is unlikely to do much harm with logical consequences. They're not likely to help children learn meaningful life lessons but they can help us get through our days and get things done when they need to be done. They can help us to keep our children safe. They can help us meet the differing and competing needs of more than one child. They can help us find the time and space to look after ourselves.
Natural consequences can be a great learning opportunity, helping children to learn about themselves, about other people, about relationships, and about the world. With nobody to help children manage and make sense of them, they can also be a difficult and painful experience, teaching us that the people around us don't really care. It's not helpful to rescue our children from the natural consequences of all their actions. It's also not helpful to step back and watch them suffer when we're in a position to help. There are lots of factors that contribute to decisions around how to respond: the age/stage of development, any additional needs, what happened, how regulated they were, how regulated they are now, whether they’re likely to learn anything meaningful from the natural consequence, whether they’re likely to learn something more meaningful if we step in to help.
One of my girls had a habit of keeping her phone in her back pocket. It fell out often. As parents, we kept telling her to keep it in her jacket pocket because one day it might break and stop working. One day it fell out of her back pocket and landed in the toilet. That was the end of that phone. We found a cheap second hand phone for her (at cost to us and not to her) but it took a few days. She was without a phone for a few days. She then had a phone she didn’t like until it was time for a new phone contract a few months later. She was grateful for the replacement phone even though she didn’t like it. When she eventually got a new phone she was much more careful with it. Natural consequences were far more effective than repeated reminders about what might happen.
One of my girls struggled to revise for exams. Letting her learn from the consequences of not revising would've been an unkind decision on our part. We helped her to make revision cards. We offered to go through them with her. We made a revision timetable with her and insisted that she revise at the agreed times. We threatened to turn the wifi off if she didn’t get off her phone when it was time to revise. We bribed her with her favourite foods and treats as a reward if she did the agreed amount of revision (we gave them to her regardless of course). We kept an eye on her and suggested she take a break when it looked like it was all getting too much. Natural consequences wouldn't have been appropriate in this situation.
There have been times with both girls where the monthly allowance has been spent in the first week. We haven’t handed them cash at those times. That would be foolish. But we have given them a bit of money for specific things as they’ve needed it: bus fare, a McDonalds, sweets, a bit of make-up they’ve got their eye on. We’ve also given them the odd tenner for doing jobs we don’t particularly enjoy doing, like doing all the ironing instead of just their own, just to give them a bit of extra cash.
There are some much more interesting examples of how we’ve worked with natural and logical consequences in our family but they’re not for public consumption. The take away points are:
If whatever you're doing isn't doing any harm and it's working, crack on.
We need to make sure we're regulated before we make decisions, so that we're able to reflect on our motivations and goals, so that we're able to connect with empathy and compassion.
Natural consequences, logical consequences, and no consequences whatsoever, have their place in supporting children's development.
Sometimes we're getting it right when we think we're getting it wrong. Our child's response isn't the measure of success, especially where there's trauma and SEND. Sometimes they need us to stand firm.
If you want to hear more, have a story to share, or you think we can help, we’d love to hear from you.