Tips for Using Negative Consequences Effectively

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Clear and consistent limits and expectations are essential for helping kids with ADHD manage their symptoms and behavior. They help keep behavior that is impulsive, oppositional, or defiant to a minimum. But even in the most consistent situations, all kids with ADHD are going to cross the line at least sometimes. Kids who are on the more impulsive or oppositional end of the spectrum may even cross the line often, causing parents to hand out negative consequences frequently.

Many of the parents that I have worked with have concerns about using negative consequences with their child. They either feel like they are using them too often, find that negative consequences aren’t helping change their child’s behavior, or worry that the consequences are hurting their relationship with their child.

Research has shown that when negative consequences are used sparingly, they are helpful for kids with ADHD. In general, punishments and negative consequences work best when they are used only for behaviors that are unsafe or for negative behaviors that the child finds so inherently rewarding that no amount of praise or rewards will motivate them to change their behavior.

Research also tells us that punishments and negative consequences that are given too often or are too harsh aren’t helpful. In fact, they can be harmful. Excessive use of punishment and consequences can erode a child’s self-esteem and harm their relationship with their parent. On top of this, consequences don’t actually teach a child new behavior to use in place of their negative behavior. Instead, excessive negative consequences teach a child to be sneaky and avoid getting caught by their parents.

When a child is receiving too many negative consequences, I always recommend that parents take a step back and think about the specific behaviors that are driving the punishment. How many of these behaviors fall into the “unsafe” or “behaviors that are too rewarding” categories? These are the behaviors that will probably need a negative consequence or punishment, at least in the short term.

All other behaviors can probably be handled with more positive strategies – like providing support and skill-building to set the child up for success and motivating them to improve their behavior through the use of praise and rewards. For example, failing to finish homework on time, not getting through a morning routine on time, or not following directions are examples of situations that are handled much more effectively with positive strategies than with negative consequences.

When you do need to use a negative consequence, make it effective by following these guidelines:

  • Never use physical punishment. Decades of research have shown that physical punishment, including spanking, is very harmful to kids in both the short-term and the long-term. It’s also not effective at changing behavior over time. Instead of physical punishment, effective negative consequences can include things like taking away access to screens (or something else that the child really enjoys) for a set period of time, having the child pay for something that they damaged, or not allowing the child to participate in a planned fun activity.
  • Stay calm. When giving your child a negative consequence, stay calm. If you issue consequences when you are upset, you will be more likely to escalate the situation and/or will hand out consequences that are too harsh. So, take time to calm down and think through the consequence before talking to your child.
  • Don’t give in. Do not end the punishment earlier than planned or allow your child to earn back the privilege or object that has been taken away. When you give in, you teach your child that you don’t really mean what you say. If you allow your child to earn back what they lost, then the punishment will lose its meaning. They will see it as no big deal because they know that as long as they improve their behavior for a short time, the punishment will end.
  • Keep it short. Studies have shown that short punishments are just as effective as long punishments at changing behavior. So, in most cases, taking away your child’s video games for a day (or two) will be just as effective as taking them away for a week. Perhaps most importantly, it is much easier for parents to be consistent and avoid giving in when punishments are kept short.

When negative consequences are used sparingly and effectively, they can help your child improve their behavior. You’ll know that negative consequences are working when your child’s behavior improves over time. If you’re not seeing an improvement and have fallen into a repetitive cycle where your child misbehaves in the same way and receives the same punishment over and over again, then that’s a sign that you need a new strategy. If you feel stuck in a negative cycle with your child’s behavior, reach out to an experienced therapist who can help you identify the strategies that will work best with your child.



Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


Huntington Learning Center is the tutoring and test prep leader. Its certified tutors provide individualized instruction in reading, phonics, writing, study skills, elementary and middle school math, Algebra through Calculus, Chemistry, and other sciences. It preps for the SAT and ACT, as well as state and standardized exams. Huntington programs develop the skills, confidence, and motivation to help students of all levels succeed and meet the needs of Common Core State Standards. Founded in 1977, Huntington's mission is to give every student the best education possible. Call us today at 1.800.CAN LEARN to discuss how Huntington can help your child. For franchise opportunities please visit

This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.

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