Using Negative Consequences Effectively

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Every parent needs to give their child negative consequences or punishment sometimes. The trick, as I discussed last week, is to use negative consequences sparingly and use positive strategies, like coaching, modeling, praise, and rewards, as often as possible to teach and reinforce good behavior. When you do need to use negative consequences, like taking away a privilege or favorite game or toy, there are a number of things you can do to make it more likely that these consequences will be effective, and your relationship with your child will remain positive.

  1. Keep it short. Research shows that shorter punishments are just as effective for children as longer punishments. So, if you're going to take away videogame time, for example, consider taking it away for only one day rather than for a week or longer.
  2. Don't give in. Negative consequences will only work if your child knows that you won't give in by taking away the punishment early or skipping the punishment altogether. When you give in, your child learns that you don't really mean what you say, and he or she will eventually stop taking you seriously. Following step #1 and giving out shorter punishments will make it easier for you to avoid giving in.
  3. Be consistent. It's important to put a negative consequence in place every time the problem behavior occurs. If you let things slide sometimes, then your child will know that he or she might be able to "get away" with the behavior.
  4. Give your child a warning. When you consistently give your child a warning before he or she receives a negative consequence, the warning alone should eventually be enough to stop the negative behavior. But, this will only work if you consistently follow through with the negative consequence whenever your child does not stop the behavior after he or she has been warned. Remember, your child needs to learn that you mean what you say!
  5. Always make an effort to teach new behaviors. Negative consequences only teach children what not to do - for example, do not pick on your sister. They do not teacher children what to do – this is how you and your sister can have fun playing a game together. So, when you find yourself repeatedly using negative consequences for the same behavior, carve out time in your week to teach your child the skills he or she needs in order to be successful. Then praise and reward these new skills. When you do this often you'll find yourself relying on negative consequences less and less over time.

Having to hand out punishments and negative consequences to your child is not something that any parent wants to do. So, it's important to know that the negative consequences that you do use are actually having an impact on your child's behavior. How can you tell if you are being effective? Look for a change in behavior over time – not just a change in the moment. Does your child fight less often with his sister now than he did last week or last month? If the answer is yes, then your strategies are working. But if you aren't seeing a change in the behavior over time, then it's time to try something else. Think strategically about other things that you can do to make the negative behavior less likely to happen. Are there skills your children need to learn? Do they need more sleep so they are less irritable during the day? Do they need more one-on-one time with a parent so they don't feel the need to seek out negative attention? Are there certain games or toys that often lead to conflict and should be limited?

Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture will help you problem solve more effectively rather than just doing the same thing over and over again. When in doubt, get help from a professional who specializes in ADHD or child behavior challenges.



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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