Why Consequences Don’t Work!

I counsel many parents in my counselling practice trying to find new ways to address their children’s behaviours.  Many of my counselling parents have read many parenting books which largely focus on behaviour and “logical consequences” as a preferred way of influencing children.  In parent counselling,  I like to counsel parents to put on a new pair of lenses and take a whole new approach to their children.  But first, I must address…

Why Consequences Don’t Work!

Consequences have become a primary tool in our parenting tool chest, from the time out chair for a young child, to being grounded as a teen.  However, using “the consequence” offers a style of parenting which in effect is not very far removed from punishment.

“Wait till your Father gets home!”

The 1950’s conjures parenting images of Dad being the heavy disciplinarian even getting out the strap if children were out of line.  We pride ourselves in the fact we have evolved beyond this punishment based authoritarian style to a more “consequence” based parenting approach.  We are parents who want our children to grow into well adjusted adults, and parenting experts have trained us to discourage unwanted behaviours by using “the consequence”. In reality consequences make our children feel worse, not better.  They do not engage learning, reflection or motivation, and seldom evoke the kind of self reflection we are expecting.  While we may not be comfortable with the word “control,” in essence “the consequence” is a form of child control and the underlying belief that we can or should control our children’s behaviour has many complications.

 Consequences are in fact a way of controlling your child’s behaviour so that he will act and do what you want.

 So, you ask, why is this a problem?  The simple answer is consequences rarely work.  If you have a teenager you probably are quite clear by now that controlling or even influencing behaviour using consequences is a bit like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the hill only for it to come rolling down again.  By the end of the day, the harder you try to control, the more resistance you encounter, and the more anxious, fearful and upset you and your child become.

In essence, using consequences is really parenting from a posture of control and fear.

First, let’s explore what I am referring to as parenting from “control and fear” a little further:

Your teacher called.  You failed your test.  Did you study for that test?  How long? You have three assignments due tomorrow. I talked to your teacher.  You should get to work.  If you don’t take school more seriously you’re not going to that One Direction concert.  CONTROL AND FEAR

No you cannot go to parties.  There is drinking at parties.  You better be home by 10:00.   I don’t care what the other kids do.   If you are not home by 10:00 you won’t be going out next weekend.  CONTROL AND FEAR

I don’t know why you hang around with her.  Melissa is not a nice kid and not a good friend.  You need to move on and develop other friendships; you’re just going to get hurt again.  CONTROL AND FEAR

When you parent from a place of control or a locus of control you grow very anxious about your child’s behaviour and performance.   When children are young you may be able get away with this style, since youngsters may be willing to listen and comply. Yet, what happens when you are no longer successful?  When your child decides to push back?  With this lack of compliance you begin to become more and more fearful and more and more anxious, now trying harder to influence in order to lower your own anxiety. It becomes a miserable cycle, culminating in the sacrifice of your own well-being .

lack of compliance + increased fear /anxiety = loss of well-being

Needless to say, parenting from a locus of control is not a good place to be …..for you or your children.  Edward Runkel in his book Scream Free Parenting suggests that in this situation children have two choices, “How can I keep my parents calm by behaving, or how can control my parents by making them crazy?”  All to say, you have become a victim to your child’s behaviour and your child is actually controlling you.  Underlying it all your own personal well-being depends on how your child behaves.

So, you ask, “What do I do? How do I make my child behave and not lose my mind?” 

The simple answer is “you” don’t.  The basis of parenting is not a bag of tricks, saying the right things, or giving the right consequences.  Parenting is relationship building.   Your goal is not to make a something (a well-adjusted child, a supreme athlete, an honors student) your goal is to build a fully-connected loving relationship with your child, giving her the grounding of security and self to flourish in this disordered world.   When you move from a locus of control to a locus of relationship you are parenting from a place of unconditional love and regard.  This is how your child will grow into who they are meant to be.

 Relational parenting is a posture of unconditional love, regardless of attitude, behaviour or person.

So what does this relational parenting look like? I’ll give you an example to which you can relate.  Imagine you are at the office and you somehow manage to make a very large mistake which affects some valuable clients in a very negative way.



 Your boss (the parent) can;

  1. Take away your parking spot (punishment) You feel angry, small.
  2. Demote you to work with less valuable clients (logical consequences) You feel  sad, angry, small.
  3. Brainstorm with you how to reconcile with the clients and find ways of avoiding this mistake in the future  (relationship) You feel empowered.

Which of these styles is going to motivate better behaviour and increase competence?  Which one is going to generate a better relationship with your boss?  In episode 3 you are left with a good relationship, a sense of autonomy to make right your mistake, and your self esteem intact.

In the same way you can move toward a relational parenting stance with your child which will allow for support, encouragement, love and direction, but also keep his autonomy, self esteem, and respect intact.

Here are some of the underlying values of parenting from a locus of relationship – Relational Parenting:

  • Deeply connecting to your child as another human being
  • Loving unconditionally, bad choices, warts and all
  • Being responsible to your child not for your child
  • Being more concerned with your child’s needs than your own
  • Making choices based on relationship building, not behaviour modifying
  • Allowing your child to make bad choices, mistakes, and even fail and learn on their own
  • Knowing when your interactions are truly void of control/anxiety/fear the situation will work itself out
  • Knowing behaviour of your child is your child’s behaviour, not yours.
  • Approaching situations as an opportunity to create connection, develop thinking skills and autonomy

So now let’s look again at our original examples using a locus of relationship:

You failed your test?  How are you feeling about it; tell me what happened?  Do you have any ideas about how to make it different next time?  I am happy to help if you need me, let me know.   You are not responsible for your child’s performance, you are responsible to your child to develop a loving secure relationship, offer guidance and help if needed.

Let’s talk about this party.  What do you think is going to be happening there?  Are these things you are comfortable with?  How can I be assured you are safe?  Are you ready for this?  Why don’t you decide how you want this evening to look and we can agree on a plan.   If you are building relationship you are building trust.  Decisions like this are made so the needs of both parent and child can be met.  If you say no too many times she is going to lie and say she is at Melissa’s and you will have no idea what is going on.

How are you feeling when Melissa (name exact behaviour without judgement) invites the other girls over and does not invite to you? I am curious about your thoughts.    Always remember, it is better NOT to give your teen (or precocious child) advice.  Have a conversation about feelings and thoughts, and just listen, listen, listen.  Simply reflect back to her using her own words so she knows you are listening deeply.


1.     If we controlling or reacting to our children in fear we are not able to connect on a relational level.  In a place of fear we connect from an anxious place often creating more misery.  

2.     Consequences are actually a form of control.  When we use consequences in this mix our children feel badly, hindering the opportunity to learn, think, or develop autonomy.

3.     Relational parenting is to move from a locus of control to a locus of relationship.

4.     Parenting is relationship building.  Your goal is to build a fully-connected loving relationship with your child giving her the grounding of security and self to flourish as a human being.

 5.     When you move from a locus of control to a locus of relationship you are parenting from a place of unconditional love and regard.  This is how your child will grow into who they are meant to be.


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