The Fine Art of Consequences – Part II
–by Julie Beem
In my last post, I wrote about a mom in search of an appropriate consequence for her daughter’s misbehavior at school. I suggested that an at-home consequence (taking away Wednesday night church activities) for an in-school behavior might not be the best approach, in part because children with brains affected by trauma lack neurotypical cause-and-effect thinking. Today, I’m going to address two other reasons such consequences usually don’t work.
First of all, our kids don’t have a healthy attachment with us. Children who have developed healthy attachments to their parents since infancy want to please their parents, even when they’re exerting independence. They can envision that their actions might displease you, won’t want to disappoint you. Therefore, they will think twice before misbehaving, try to hide the behavior, show remorse, or some combination thereof. Children impacted by relational trauma simply don’t have this capacity, at least not yet. What’s more, imposing consequences on your child will not enhance that attachment. Remember, these kids don’t have cause-and-effect thinking. They will almost certainly see your “consequence,” no matter how well-crafted or well-intentioned, as arbitrary punishment. They may also feel low self-esteem, shame, rejection, or pretty much any of the other negative emotions in the lower three petals of the flower to the left. These strong negative emotions impede attachment.
The second reason is that the consequence can directly hurt the parents, in this case, the mom. During our conversation, it became apparent that Wednesday night church activities were something the mom really looked forward to: it was her chance to get a break, socialize with other grown-ups, and know her children were being safely cared for and engaged. Not allowing her daughter to go would mean revamping her own plans and staying home with her daughter. We should never give our children consequences that are going to hurt us in the process! This mom needed that Wednesday night time as much as her daughter did. Not having it could have created additional negative feelings such as inconvenience, annoyance, or even resentment, a.k.a. yet another barrier to attachment.
At this point, someone is thinking, “Wait! We can’t have our children misbehaving at school or thinking they can do whatever they want with no consequence…” You are absolutely right. It’s just that the consequence has to be immediate, and it has to be directly linked to the behavior. In this case, I suggested to this mom that she let what happened at school be handled at school. If the teachers wanted the mom’s input as to strategies she uses at home, she could meet with them, talk about the needs her daughter was communicating via her behavior, and brainstorm some responses.
The other thing you can do is remember that children communicate with behavior. If your child is doing something repeatedly, then it is crucial that you as parent look beneath the behavior for an explanation. This is why I asked the mom if she knew “why” the child had done what she did. Playing detective to find the “why,” rather than imposing a consequence that your child is likely not to understand and that, worse, might damage an already fragile relationship, is one of the best things a parent can do.
Besides, I suspect the need to “do something” may have been less because the school had asked her to give her daughter a consequence, and more because this mom thought that she’d be a “bad” mom if she didn’t respond to the misbehavior. I’ve been there! The thing is, Therapeutic Parenting – also known as Connected Parenting or “Whole-Brained, Whole-Hearted” Parenting – requires us to set aside those pre-conceived notions. We aren’t bad parents. Not at all. So forget traditional “consequences,” let go of what others think, play detective, and focus on rewiring your child’s brain and healing his heart. You’ll both be glad you did.
Coming soon: the first post from our newest ATN blog contributor, Hilary Jacobs Hendel