When your child intentionally breaks or damages something, hits someone, or throws things, what consequences are appropriate for these extreme behaviors? Do you give them a time out? Remove toys or video games?
Often children who act like this typically don’t have complete control over their behaviors. We need to be mindful that children are not typically being willfully “bad” when they do things like this. Their actions may be related to a diagnosis such as anxiety, executive functioning delays, ADHD, or autism. Some children are in a fight-or-flight state of anxiety when these behaviors occur. However, even though they may have a diagnosis, does that mean that they shouldn’t have consequences for those actions? How should you respond and what would be the most appropriate consequences for them? When should you implement consequences?
The most appropriate and meaningful consequences for behavior are natural consequences. This means that the consequence is directly related to their actions.
- If they throw things, they pick them up
- If they break something, they replace it or fix it
- If they hurt someone (physically or emotionally), they ask what they can do to make it better.
Unnatural consequences are unrelated to their actions. This is when you may take away video games, give time outs, or keep them from their friends. These things are less meaningful for children who have issues with executive functioning and impulse control who have difficulty planning ahead and seeing the future, and possible consequences, in their minds. These kinds of punishments are not likely to have an impact on future behavior, and may cause undue tension in your relationship with your child.
When and How Do You Implement Natural Consequences?
Consequences should not be mentioned or enforced while your child is actively having a meltdown. If they are yelling at you, then throw a plate and break it, it will be futile, and possibly result in more damage, if you tell them to clean up in that moment. If it can wait, let it sit until your child has calmed down. Once they are calm, calmly tell them that they are expected to clean it up, then give them time to process that information and act on their own. You don’t need to repeatedly tell them how wrong they are; they likely already know and feel bad about losing control of themselves. Children want to do well and will if they can.
If it is not possible to wait for your child to clean up their mess, for instance, if they broke a glass and you’re worried another person or pet in the household may hurt themselves on it, then you may need to find another consequence. Here are some options:
- Ask your child what they think their consequence should be
- Let them know what you missed by having to take the time to cleanup their mess. For example, if you were going to wash the dishes at that time, then their consequence may be to give you your time back by doing some of the dishes.
- Have them do the cleanup again to make sure everything was picked up, even if you know it was. They can sweep again or wipe the counter again if it was a spilled liquid.
Some of the consequences will depend on a child’s age. Young children should not be expected to do a thorough job of cleaning up all of the spilled milk they threw, for instance. They can be a part of the cleanup process with your help, however, even if it is just gathering cleanup supplies and wiping the table down again after you have cleaned up.
Natural consequences may also include telling your child how their actions made you feel. If they yell unkind words to you, tell them it hurt your feelings. Words have a lot of power and children need to know that. Make sure they understand that they can communicate how they feel about something without doing it in a way that insults or hurts another person. You may decide to set up a standard in your family that the “insulter” ask the “victim” who was hurt how they can make it right. This can be a good technique to use between siblings. Parents may find times they need to use this with their children when they mess up too. Often a hug and an apology is all that is needed. However, “sorry” isn’t always enough, so the victim should be able to choose what will make them feel better if they need more than a simple apology.
Unnatural consequences can seem random and unpredictable. Choosing to use natural consequences will teach your child how their actions have an impact on other people and the environment. This is more meaningful than removing a preferred toy or grounding them. It also helps children know what to expect when they lose control.
Alicia Kollmar MS, OTR/L