“But they can’t get off scott-free!” I frequently hear reactions like this from parents in response to their children’s baffling behaviors. “X behavior isn’t okay!” I hear this, too. Misbehavior is not okay. It is still wrong. Behavior makes sense in context, though. If caregivers can understand why children are engaging in this misbehavior, then they can consider consequences, and if consequences are appropriate how and when to go about them.
What are the differences between consequences and punishment?
Consequences and punishment are not the same. Consequences are simply the result of an action (Levy, 2018). Every cause has an effect. Punishment, however, inflicts harm or pain. The point of consequences is to learn. The point of punishment is to make the child hurt. Consequences usually tend to be situational. Punishment tends to be more global. Parents and caregivers can enact either consequence or punishment in response to a behavior, but consequence usually takes more thought.
So why do kids misbehave in the first place?
Kids misbehave for many reasons: sometimes willfully, but for kids from hard places, more often times not. Trauma has pruned the brains of these children to engage in fight, flight, and freeze responses more readily, and often these types of responses translate in protective, rather than productive behavior. The behavior is not necessarily meant to hurt themselves or anyone else, but is a primal response that they feel in regards to fear and not being in control (Purvis, Cross, & Sunshine, 2007). Children from hard places also tend to have high anxiety, in association with the post-traumatic stress symptom of hypervigilance (Glass, 2016). These children may act out in an attempt to assuage their anxiety, even if the acting out is not the best way to reduce their unwanted feelings. When misbehavior is subconscious, more than conscious, punishment really does not work. In fact, punishing kids from hard places may result in more misbehavior, as it further triggers a protective response.
What’s a caregiver to do?
So what’s a parent or caregiver to do when their children chronically misbehave, even if the misbehavior is a result of trauma? The short answer is to follow the regulate, relate, reason framework (Info NMT, 2020). Yes, even if consequences are eventually in order.
Regulate. When kids misbehave, parents and caregivers first need to check if kids are regulated. Robyn Gobbel (2020) says, “regulated connected kids who feel safe behave well,” so chances are, a misbehaving child is not feeling regulated, or connected. A dysregulated kid has a “’flipped lid,’” or a disconnected thinking brain, meaning they are not able to logically process in the current moment (Whittaker, 2019). Assigning consequences, or even punishing the child in this state will have no effect, as the child cannot connect cause and effect. They first need to be grounded. Grounding/regulating activities can include exercise, deep breathing, mindfulness, or taking a break to do something nutritive such as eating a snack. If and when the child is regulated and able to think clearly/calmly, then parents can proceed to the next step.
Relate. Kids from hard places have often received injury (physical, mental, spiritual, or emotional) from caregivers. They need to know that they are safe with caregivers before they can receive feedback. Therefore, it is important to help a child feel safe by building trust, yes, even in cases of misbehavior (Purvis, Cross, & Sunshine, 2007). Kids need to know that there is structure, that caregivers will follow through, that caregivers want the best for them. Sometimes parents need to lead with the statement, “You know I want the best for you” before even broaching a topic of misbehavior when the child is in a regulated state. The caregiver who relates to the child is able to not only provide safety to the child, but also see why a behavior might have emerged.
Parents and caregivers who relate to their children can ask questions: Is there an underlying need? Great! They can fix it. Does the child need extra support to engage in the preferred behavior? Wonderful. The parent can co-regulate (Gobbel, 2021). Is a consequence really needed? Or will connecting and practicing a re-do create pathways for change in the child (TBCH, 2017)? Often times even consequences have a dysregulating effect. Helping children do the right thing, on the other hand, can have a regulating effect.
Relate. When are consequences appropriate, then? Consequences are appropriate when they relate to the problem at hand, and when children are in a regulated, related state to receive them. Did the child break a cup by purposefully dropping it on the floor? An appropriate consequence might be to help the caregiver clean up the mess. Did the child break a rule at school? An appropriate consequence would be to let the school hold the child in for detention at lunch time, as it makes sense that the child “owes” the school time for disrupting class. Children might need scaffolding, too, as children from hard places are often not their developmental age, meaning they need consequences simplified so as to remain in their window of tolerance and keep from flipping their lids. Consequences need to be child-centered, rather than blanket, as child tend to perceive blanket consequences as punishment.
What Not to Do
Children from hard places need to have regulation and relationship in order to understand the reasoning of consequences. Taking away regulatory activities (e.g. physical exercise, baths, or other self-care type activities) is more punishment than consequence. It denies children a basic need and results in lack of connection between misbehavior and its effects. It may also result in further dysregulation. Removing children and placing them in time-out for a misbehavior also has a detrimental effect. It sends a message that relationship can change based on behavior, and this can deepen attachment wounds (Mercer, 2021). [Rather than time-outs, parents and caregivers might try time-ins, having children stick with caregivers for a set amount of time, promoting, rather than damaging relationships (Mercer, 2021)]. Extending consequences past the present moment (e.g. grounding for a week past the offense) can come across as lack of forgiveness or ability to move on. Children can perceive this as punishment, mitigating the cause and effect relationship of the consequence.
Children from hard places do not escape consequences. Their consequences just might need to look different in order to be effective. Regulation and relationship are key if kids are going to able to reasonably change their behavior and function better in the future, for the future. Consequences are not bad. They just need to be in the right context.
Glass, K. (2016). Hypervigilance. The Fostering Network. https://www.thefosteringnetwork.org.uk/blogs/cathy-glass/hypervigilance
Gobbel, R. (2020, January 9). Regulated connected children who feel safe behave well. RobynGobbel.com. https://robyngobbel.com/regulated-connected-kids-who-feel-safe-behave-well/
Gobbel, R. (2021, October 21). But-What about a consequence? RobynGobbel.com. https://robyngobbel.com/whataboutaconsequence/
Info NMT. (2020, April 2). 4. Regulate, relate, reason (Sequence of engagement): Neurosequential Network Stress & Trauma Series [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNuxy7FxEVk
Levy, T. (2018, March 15). Consequences versus punishment. Evergreen Psychotherapy Center. https://www.evergreenpsychotherapycenter.com/consequences-versus-punishment/
Mercer, H. (2021, August 12). Child discipline techniques for foster and adopted children. Very Well Family. https://www.verywellfamily.com/child-discipline-foster-or-adopted-children-27010
Purvis, K. B., Cross, D. R., & Sunshine, W. L. (2007). Disarming the fear response with felt safety. The Connected Child (pp. 47-72). New York: McGraw-Hill.
TBCH. (2017). What is TBRI? Part 4: The correcting principles. Texas Baptist Children’s Home. https://www.tbch.org/blog/2017/07/26/what-is-tbri-part-4-the-correcting-principles/