The Fine Art of Consequences – Part I
A mother called me a while back. “What consequence can I give her?” she started, “She just won’t behave at school and the teacher keeps sending home notes. The only thing I can think of, the only thing she seems to enjoy is going to our church’s Wednesday night events. If I take this away, will she understand and start behaving?”
Hmmm…this type of consequence makes logical sense in typical parenting world. We see our friends do this and we probably experienced it as children. Get in trouble at school, and you get in MORE trouble at home. We even hear today’s parents being chided for NOT enacting a “punishment” as a way to reinforce the teacher’s authority. Yet for our children impacted by trauma and struggling with attachment and relationships, such consequences are tricky.
“Do you know what she’s doing at school, and, more importantly, WHY she’s doing it?” I asked. “Is what’s happening at school because of her developmental trauma challenges? How is the school handling it?” I ask these questions because giving our children at-home consequences for things that happen in school almost never works, for three main reasons:
- too much time has passed for them to make the cause-and-effect connection
- you cannot leverage your relationship with your child in that way, nor do you want to damage whatever connection you have
- it might hurt us, the parents, as much or more than it affects them, our kids!
Today, I’m going to talk about that first point.
One of the hallmarks of trauma’s impact on brains is that it impairs cause-and-effect thinking. If the effect isn’t immediate, our kids are unlikely to make the connection. In other words, being consequenced in the evening at home for something that happened in the morning at school doesn’t compute for many traumatized children. In fact, this lack of cause-and-effect thinking makes any consequencing, except for natural and immediate consequences, very challenging.
Natural consequences – such as you “forgot” your coat; so now you’re cold at recess, or you spit in Suzy’s lunch so of course she doesn’t want to sit by you – are in most cases the only ones that truly have a chance at impacting their brains. For children whose perceptions of self and the world are so overwhelmingly negative, any other consequence, especially one that isn’t directly related to what just happened, will not stop their behavior. Instead, it will reinforce their view of themselves as bad, worthless trash. It will likely also reinforce the view that the world is unfair, no one cares about them, and they have no control over their situation. None of this is true, of course, but if these are the conclusions our children reach when we impose after-the-fact, unrelated consequences, well, you start to see why those consequences don’t work.
Coming soon… how “traditional” consequences can hurt attachment. Stay tuned!