What to Do When Consequences Don’t Work

Ariadne Brill

Does this scenario feel familiar? It’s getting close to the end of the day, and you are expecting your child to clean up toys, wash up, help set the table, get ready for bed and go to sleep. The only problem is, every step of the way includes ignored requests and power struggles. Toy clean up is not done. There is a fuss about dinner. Just getting into PJ’s is a 20-minute ordeal. With the best intentions to teach your child, you find yourself dishing out consequences. But the consequences only make things worse. Not better. Sometimes consequences don’t work.

Your child is upset and whiny “Why are you taking my toys away, Moooooom! You are so mean!”

You are thinking – this totally DESERVES a consequence – except it makes no difference for tomorrow!

Why Consequences Stop Working

Very often consequences are just punishments in disguise, or at the very least, unpleasant power plays that take away a child’s sense of capability, wellbeing, and trust. Instead of helping and inviting cooperation, consequences are more often than not used in a way that chips away at your relationship with your child.

Yes, there are times when consequences can make sense and help a child learn. Other times, consequences, especially if they are not logical, related and connected, just don’t work to motivate or invite cooperation.

Here are 3 Positive Parenting Strategies to Try when Consequences are Just Not Working:

1. Problem-solving

Toys not getting picked up? Clothes never in the hamper? Every night is teeth brushing nightmare?

Daily struggles that keep repeating themselves are best seen as problems to be solved. Not bad behavior that needs to be punished.

When a problem repeats every single day, consequences aren’t going to help your child learn to do better. Solving the problem will. 

When it comes to repeat problems,  most parents will admit to using consequences because they feel like nothing else will convince their child to do what they are being asked.

This is a red flag that a problem needs to be solved.

Consequences keep your child stuck in the problem. Solutions help your child move forward. 

Instead of consequences for not cleaning up toys, not doing homework, not eating dinner, finding instead HOW to best help your child and you to overcome a problem makes a huge difference. Find a whole chapter on how to problem solve, including a list of helpful questions in the book 12 Alternatives to Time Out: Connected Discipline Tools for Raising Cooperative Children.

2. Reframe:  “It’s not Personal!”

So very often what we decide is bad behavior or naughty behavior is normal childhood stuff. A two-year-old refusing to brush teeth is developmentally expected. So is a four-year-old running most places instead of walking. And a six-year-old saying everything is stupid. A ten-year-old arguing about just about anything under the sun? Yes, all normal for their age and stage of development. Annoying? Certainly! And reframing the situation from “defiance” to “normal kid stuff” can help keep you calmer and better able to engage with your child’s needs.


  • It’s really not personal or manipulation.
  • It’s communication.
  • All behavior is purposeful.
  • Sometimes behavior is mistaken and still purposeful.
  • My child needs guidance and connection.

When you are able to pause and reframe a situation, from naughty to normal, bad to purposeful,  from taking it personally, to taking it as part of your parenting role, you can better respond, instead of reacting.

“My kid isn’t picking up toys, they are so naughty and uncooperative” becomes “My child is three, it’s the end of the day, all these toys were played with, explored, part of a story, it feels tough to end such a fun day.” Wonderful story from a mother and how she changed her perspective on toy clean up here (on the blog Dirt & Boogers).

“My ten-year-old is arguing about everything, what a sassy mouth on this child, where did I fail to teach her respect”, becomes “My ten-year-old is learning to be assertive, she has a strong point of view, I can listen to her AND model respectful conflict resolution.”

3. Relate so you don’t have to retaliate

Do you remember being 5, 6, 9 years old? Can you think of a time when your parent was asking you to do stuff and you would have much rather continued reading a book, playing a video game or eat one more piece of chocolate, even if it was just before dinner? If they didn’t give you a choice, did you feel annoyed, frustrated, upset?

Children benefit so much from learning skills and following routines like picking up toys and brushing teeth. Of course, our job is to help them not only do these things but hopefully also value them. To help your child care, it helps to relate to them.

Relating sounds like . . . 

  • “That games seems like so much fun, can you find a good stopping place? It’s time to set the table. You can tell me about the game while setting the table. ”
  • “Look at all these Lego cars and ships you built. Awesome stuff. It’s clean up time. How about you tell me about your creations while putting them up on the self?”
  • “I bet you wish you could have another piece of chocolate. I wish I could too. And it’s close to dinner time. Let’s save these for tomorrow. We can have it for a snack together.”
  • “You called me stupid. You must be so upset with me. I care about you. Let’s talk about what is going on.”

If you focus on relationship building, connecting, being part of the solution, then the sense that you must use consequences and punishments goes away (or reduces quite a lot!).

Staying involved and engaged in the early years builds the foundation for your child to do these things alone later on. The early years are not just the 0-3. Children that are 4, 6, 9, even 13 years old benefit from your presence, guidance, care, and concern.

We often have big expectations for our children and would like for them to be independent. Get on those PJ’s, clean up the toys, put away their laundry, brush teeth, taste new foods. Preferably without any reminders, on their own, quickly and while being cheerful, happy and grateful for all they have. The reality is that children are like us – imperfect and impacted by their daily surroundings. Accepting their limitations and meeting them where they are, each day is much more helpful to overall family happiness. 

If your child is refusing to help, having a hard time with the bedtime routine, or flat out refusing to help with chores, this doesn’t mean you have failed as a parent or that you have a brat for a child. It means that it’s probably a good time to try focusing on problem-solving, realistic expectations and relationship building.

Head to the Family Room for more parenting tips


What to Do When Consequences Don't Work

 This post was syndicated with permission to BonBon Break Media, LLC.

Consider these articles:

A Step-by-Step Plan for Setting Up Parental Controls

11 Ways To Raise A Grateful Child

Ariadne Brill specializes in helping parents find more confidence and calm in their parenting journey. She is a certified positive discipline parenting educator, has a B.S. in Communication and training in Psychology and Child Development. Ariadne has three children, she loves chocolate and avoids the laundry in favor of researching and writing about parenting and family life.