Allowing for Natural Consequences to Encourage Behavior Change

    Just as road signs and guard rails help us navigate the road safely, limits and boundaries help us navigate life. When your child crosses a boundary, you have a choice whether to allow them to experience the natural consequences of their actions, or shield them from the full impact.

    Allowing a child to experience consequences is a valuable tool in guiding them toward behavior change.

    Rules & consequences

    Limits and boundaries help establish what is or isn’t acceptable in all types of settings, not just at home or with regard to substance use. Consider rules around:

    • Being home on time and responding to check-in calls or texts
    • Handling household chores
    • Meeting expectations at school or work
    • Respecting others and their property
    • Meeting requirements to participate in sports, music or other interests

    In addition to being clear and consistent on rules, the consequences of breaking those rules need to be clearly communicated as well. There are two kinds of consequences: those you impose and natural consequences that occur as a result of your child’s actions with no interference on your part.

    How to allow natural consequences

    The desire to protect your child from emotional pain or damage — even when resulting from their own actions — is pretty instinctual. But allowing your child to “feel the pain” can be a powerful influence on their future actions. Jumping in to fix the situation prevents an opportunity for them to learn from the experience, and creates an expectation that you’ll save them again the next time.

    Consider the following scenarios:

    • Your young adult child promises to get a job, but spends most of their time smoking pot and playing video games. Their rent is due, but they can’t afford it. Do you help them out with a promise that they will pay you back, or do you let them experience the consequences of missing rent?
    • Your high school aged child has a term paper due Monday. It’s Sunday night and they haven’t even started. Do you write the paper because you don’t want them to get a lower GPA? Or do you allow them to face the consequences of procrastinating?

    What if the natural consequence is too severe?

    When it comes to substance use, there are circumstances where allowing for natural consequences to occur can be unsafe or beyond your ability to tolerate.

    For example, knowing that your child has been drinking and allowing the natural consequences of what could happen if they drive is unsafe and inadvisable.

    The natural consequences of substance use can include legal troubles, including a criminal record and its impact on future employment. This may be more than you’re willing to allow. It’s each parent’s choice to determine their own threshold for natural consequences.

    When natural consequences aren’t practical or meaningful, you can consider imposing your own. Consequences are most effective if they are reasonable, directly tied to your child’s actions and enforced consistently.

    Consequences as the result of negative actions together with positive reinforcement is a powerful combination for guiding your child toward healthier behavior.

    Learn how to put consequences into action

    Our online skill-building course for parents and caregivers will help you adopt simple techniques that are proven to help change challenging behaviors.

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