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Rewards and Consequences: Why Don't They Work for My Child?

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Throughout my years of working with children, one of the most common questions parents ask me is, “Why don’t rewards and consequences work for my child?”

This is a fair question. Many of the parenting books you can read, television shows you tune in to, teachers you talk to, family members you confide in, will first and foremost recommend using rewards and consequences to assist in eliminating or increasing a behavior. All of the sources this advice comes from are well meaning, and for some children, rewards and consequences really do work. Some children thrive when they are able to see tangible proof of their progress (like a sticker chart) and consistent reminders help to increase desirable, appropriate behaviors. Using a reward system, or consequences, to try to teach a child what behaviors will be permitted and which will not is not a bad idea — it’s just not always the best idea, depending on your child’s personality, sensitivity levels, and perception of the world.

Children are born with innate and distinct personalities, and while the nature versus nurture debate is still alive and well in the field of psychology, I have personally found that nurturing a child’s nature makes the most successful combination. It’s not about envisioning a difficult life for your naturally sensitive child, or about blame for where you feel you may have gone wrong (if I had just interrupted this behavior sooner, if my child just didn’t inherit my stubborn streak…), but taking what you know about your child and working with it.

So, why don’t consequences and rewards work for some children? The answer is both complex and simple. As mentioned earlier, for some, it is just not in their nature to want to pursue a material goal. Your child might enjoy time and experiences rather than tangible items.

Or, your child may be hurting, and you just don’t know it. I have found that hurting children — those who are bullied in school, have experienced a life change (a recent move, a divorce, a new sibling being born) or a loss (death of a loved one or pet, losing a friendship) have difficulty molding and changing their behaviors based on rewards and consequences because they don’t believe they deserve the rewards. A child might not always be able to express that — in fact, many won’t be able to, because they are unaware of it and because it is such a deep rooted feeling in their subconscious, they simply do not have access to it. All a child will know is that a reward does not sound appealing to them, and a consequence they will just take while shrugging their shoulders.

Have you had this experience? Have you tried to tell your child you will buy them a new video game if they don’t act up in class all week, only to find that they end up acting up within 48 hours, absolutely eliminating the chance for a reward? Have you ever confided in someone that you have “taken everything away” from your child, and it just doesn’t matter, they still “act up?”

These behaviors do not make the child bad, unintelligent, or unwilling to change. Quite the opposite, actually. That’s right, your “difficult” child is actually a good kid who wants to do better, but does not know how. We will cover that in another post, but for today, what do to when your child does not seem phased by rewards and consequences?

Simply, or, not so simply: do not use them in the way you have been using them. Throw away the label of rewards and consequences. Throw away the word “if.” Children who are sensitive, or who are hurting, do not benefit from the word “if” because it sounds like they don’t deserve this reward unless they act the way you want them to. And essentially, this is what you are saying to them. That is not your fault, parents, you are trying your best!

However, children who are hurting do not have enough self esteem or self worth to handle an “if” situation. These children need to know they are loved and worthy no matter what.

How do you do that?  Reach out to a therapist who is trained to work with children to talk about your child’s unique personality, needs, and strengths, and ways you can help your child behave in the most positive way possible — without hours of arguing and without taking everything away from them. Remember, your child wants to do well, they sometimes just don’t know how. This can be changed! There is hope.

Unsplash image via senjuti-kundu

Originally published: June 20, 2018
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