Natural consequences are when something in the environment that naturally happens next after an unhelpful behavior that leads to learning.
In short - you don’t study for the test you fail OR if you sneak video games all night you might have a hard time getting up in the morning and miss eating breakfast as you rush to the school bus.
For adults and grownups? If you park in the no parking zone (for just like a minute) you may come back to find a ticket. You forget to pay your internet bill? Well the internet gets shut off.
Second best to natural consequences? Related consequences! Consequences that are directly related to the difficult or unhelpful behavior. Check out more about all the different kinds of consequences and the truth about punishment HERE!
Well…what about when natural consequences are nowhere in sight and as a parent or therapist you are racking your brain and coming up empty handed? Because the secret is that every difficult behavior doesn’t have a nice neat packaged natural or related consequence.
Don’t fear - all is not lost! Now, natural consequences and related consequences usually have more power and are more effective for teaching and learning, but unrelated consequences can be effective as well!
Check out these 6 Tips for When A Natural Consequence Is Hard To Find:
Work on regulating yourself
Check out more on that HERE and a free downloadable cheat sheet for parents to regulate when things are heating up. When parents can be calm the brain opens up, stays in the prefrontal cortex, and parents can be more intentional about what consequences are selected.
A second bonus of grown ups focusing on regulating when giving consequences that when anger takes over kids can miss the point. They can come up with external control narratives like “mom is mean” or “dad’s in a bad mood today, it’s not really a big deal”. This significantly detracts from handing the child back the problem and ownership and takes away from any learning or teaching.
Don’t feel like you need to act immediately
Usually under pressure we develop consequences as …well… not the best version of ourselves. When grown ups act quickly it usually leads to regret and walking back whatever consequence comes out in the heat of the moment (think along the lines of all your Halloween candy is going in the garbage or I’m taking away your birthday kind of moments.) If we look under the lens of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, just stating there is a consequence and you need some time to think about it is actually a placeholder for the consequence itself AND parents usually develop consequences that are more effective for teaching when they take a minute to breathe.
For parent’s it is so important to know and remember that you don’t have to have it all together in the moment, and it’s okay to take some time to think it over or breathe. Another piece that goes with this is actually circling back to the consequence and not forgetting it!
Identify the essence of what was lost or impacted
When grown ups think about the impact of a child’s unhelpful choice, the consequence may become more clear. Love and Logic has an amazing term for this as the “energy drain”. With this concept the thought is at the end of the day if nothing else, energy is drained from a parent by having to deal with the problem. On that note if a caregiver needed to spend 20 minutes of time handling the problem, then, what is something that could help a parent get that time or energy back? If a parent’s energy is drained in some other way how can their child fill their cup back up?
The most common impacts are time, money, and energy - so these are great places to start! Sometimes filling up a parent's cup can be helping out with a typical parent task (helping with dinner), having the allowance go towards something for the parent (maybe a favorite snack or book), or skipping something extra a parent would have to take time out of their day for transportation. This last one might look like “yes you can have a friend over, but I’m not taking you to the mall because I need this extra time to finish the things I had planned and couldn’t do”.
Identify what has and appropriate value
Have you ever heard the saying “let the punishment fit the crime?”. Well…. that’s what this tip is all about! When parents think of consequences, consider the impact or level of unhelpful behavior and the impact of the consequence. Taking away computer and tablet time for a month for a snuck treat…well that’s a little out of proportion for the unhelpful or undesirable behavior. AND for the child that was just aggressive with their sibling and put a hole in the wall, a 30 second regulation break is likely not helpful either.
This last one is one of my favorite tips. Sometimes as grown ups we feel like we need to have all the answers, come up with the perfect solution, or know just the right thing to do. However, sometimes the biggest expert is the child! When a grown up pairs with a child against the behavior it leads to more positive and connected relationships. AND oftentimes children are excellent brainstormers (is that even a word?) of how they can fix and solve the problem. This not only helps with repair but allows a child to increase decision making, personal responsibility, and actually improves self esteem. It allows the child to have cognitions that they can have power to fix problems and they can make things better. It creates a more internal locus of control!
There you have it! My 7 tips for when a natural or related consequence is hard to find. What about you? What are your best tips for parents? Share below!
There are a lot of buzz words when it comes to parenting and behavioral change - consequences, logical consequences, natural consequences, and punishment. And sometimes it can be hard to make sense of it all! (Check out more about limits, boundaries, threats and consequences HERE and dive deep into how clear boundaries and limits should always come before consequences.)
One thing I want to clear up right away - punishment often gets a bad rep. In the pop culture sense when we think of punishment we think of yelling, scolding, sitting on the “naughty step”, and finger shaking.
AND all of these can be seen technically as punishment - but the examples also include the important distinction of shame, which isn't a part of punishment. And with shame, we fragment the attachment relationship and negatively impact self esteem. Also wrapped in with shame can include grown ups getting needs for power and control met in unhealthy and unhelpful ways.
In the short term these techniques miiiigh be effective - but long term it can be detrimental to the attachment relationship and the child’s self worth.
So what does punishment actually mean? In pure behavioral terms it is something that we give (positive punishment) or take away (negative punishment) to decrease behavior. We might give an extra chore or take away media time to get an undesirable behavior, for example not telling the truth, to lessen.
That’s it. Something given or taken away to promote behavioral change in the form of decreasing the behavior. And to be honest? We can't expect children to regulate their big feelings and make excellent choices if the grownups in their life can't.
And it is my strong believe that punishment should be given in a way that is connected, regulated, and respectful by the grown up in charge.
So then, what is a consequence? Well…according to the CDC it is what happens immediately after a behavior. The CDC also breaks down consequences into natural consequences and logical consequences. So, consequences can improve behavior (ie studying for a test and getting an A) or decrease undesirable behavior.
Now, let’s break down the different types of consequences!
Natural consequences are what happens next in the world without a parent having to intervene. A child who doesn’t study for a test or turn in their homework may get a lower grade than they would like. A child who says unkind things to their friends without apologizing may not get invited out as often. A child who throws their video game controller at the TV doesn’t have a working TV to play video games on anymore.
Logical consequences are something that is directly related to the undesirable behavior. Logical consequences needs the support and intervention of a parent and should provide teaching and learning. For this one we might think of the child who can’t transition off video games takes a break from playing video games. A child who puts a hole in the wall in anger should need to be in charge of helping fix and pay for the repair. A child who sneaks treats has the treats removed from the home.
In the text Child Centered Play Therapy VanFleet, Sywulak, and Sniscak break it down a little deeper in a way that I LOVE to be natural consequences, related consequences (or logical consequences), and unrelated consequences. They identify unrelated consequences as something that doesn’t relate to the undesired behavior, but is used to help decrease the undesirable behavior.
Unrelated consequences make so much sense because sometimes natural consequences are hard to find. An example of this would be the child who wakes up late for school and nearly misses the bus loses video game time. Now, I would argue that under certain circumstances this could be a related consequence, for instance if this child was sneaking video games and up until 3am leading to difficulty in sleep and waking up on time.
So overall, when you are working with parents on parenting skills and techniques whatever word or term you are using the two most important questions to ask are:
Parenting and behavior change is a wildly complex and deep topic, with no one-size-fits all. We need to consider a multitude of things when working with family systems including attachment, trauma, and culture.
Overall, the clearer we can get about what specific techniques to use, when, and why the more we can empower parents to be the most effective versions of themselves, all while keeping the attachment relationship intact!
Another resource that might be helpful when thinking about consequences? Looking at what need is underneath the behavior and grab this FREE downloadable worksheet for parents!
What about you? When you are working with parents what are your favorite recommendations for reducing undesirable behaviors and increasing positive, adaptive, and connecting behaviors? Drop a comment below!
Staying calm and regulating when a child is melting down, tantruming, or losing control is one of the most difficult tasks of parenthood. One of the reasons is something called mirror neurons - where when you observe the behaviors or emotions of another the neurons in your brain fire as if you were having that same experience. This is why if you are walking down the street and see someone smile, well… you start to smile too!
The sad news is that when the person in the room with you is a very angry, distressed, or enraged child - your neurons in your brain start to fire the exact same way too, leading to you as the grown up to become dysregulated too!
Our nervous systems also “talk” to one another and can pick up energy, cues, and clues from other human beings. This is why you can walk into a room where an argument just occurred and something “feels off”. We are wired to get clues of safety or danger from other human beings and just being in the presence of a dysregulated nervous system can make your nervous system dysregulate too.
And sometimes? The behavior of children can be pretty dangerous or aggressive, so a parent's nervous system is doing exactly what it thinks it needs to do to keep itself safe. By powering up your body with a fast heart, fast breathing, and chemical responses, it is getting their body ready for action to fight or run away.
But, here is the hardest part, the number one thing children need from grown ups is to be a container for regulation, or as Dr. Alan Shore refers to it as external co-regulation. It’s the task of using your regulatory capacities as a grown up (with a fully developed prefrontal cortex) to help co-regulate with the child from a dysregulated to regulated state.
So, in order to help young people calm down and regulate - you have to first start with yourself. I wanted to give you my FREE guide for the 9 ways I discuss helping parents regulate themselves and co-regulate with their child.
In this free downloadable guide you will get the exact ways and phrases that I use to support parents in regulating themselves when their child is dysregulated as well as the specific skills they can use to co-regulate.
This is an excellent resource to give parents a quick step-by-step guide for co-regulation and helps increase parent buy-in by covering some of the brain science behind regulation. This is also a great resources for busy parents who don't have time to read an entire book or go through a class, but are in need of regulation skills now!
How much time do you spend at the beginning of the therapy process with children setting expectations?
Let me backup a minute.
A huge stress of being a child and adolescent therapist is that you are working with so many invested parties. First and foremost you have the child, their symptoms, and what they want to get out of the process. AND this can be tricky because most children don’t sign themselves up for therapy and sometimes, frankly - they just don’t want to go or engage. They can also deny their symptoms (no, I never have outbursts or get upset) or not see them to be an issue (my brother is too sensitive, he needs to get over it).
Then there is the perspective of their parents. Parents are likely impacted by their child’s mental health and may have an agenda of what they want to see happen, how fast it should happen, and what is the path forward that may or may not be in line with your clinical opinion for therapy or what the child wants.
And, this is further complicated if you are working with divorced, separated, or high conflict co-parents who may have opposite thoughts and perspectives than one another. One parent thinks everything is fine and their child has no difficulties while the other one is overwhelmed, struggling, and seeing their child in pain.
Next, we have other invested parties like school or daycare that may be observing behaviors, symptoms, or patterns they are concerned about.
So when we start the therapy process with all of these different perspectives and agendas taking time to set expectations isn’t just a nice thing to do - it is essential to the child’s success in therapy.
Imagine how disappointed and frustrated a parent could be if their belief is that they can drop their child off with you, you will “tell the child what to do differently”, the child will magically do it, and in 4 weeks this problem they have been dealing with for the past 2 years will be gone.
My experience is that it never goes this way. And in fact therapy in this way is not how I do therapy.
Parents may also be informed by a medical model that is more fitting with the doctors office where they go in for a concern or difficulty, get medication or ideas, follow up in 6 weeks and have rapid resolution. This can be a fitting expectation for medical conditions like mild rashes, some broken bones, or transient illnesses, but typically not with mental health difficulties that have likely been present for months (and more likely years) before they present in the therapy office.
And other times they might have had an experience with another therapist or heard about therapy from a friend or a family member that might not be exactly how you do things.
AND the exact ways in which I operate in my therapy practice are likely not exactly the same as yours - and all of that is okay!
Clear expectations from the beginning of therapy with things like schedule, timeframe of therapy, and parent involvement actually makes parents (and children) happier and more engaged in the process. Research also shows that increased parent involvement in therapy and goal setting leads to better therapeutic results.
I have developed an Informed Consent process where I clearly explain to parents and children during the first session the expectations for therapy. I like to say that therapists are like teachers - two can teach the same subject but don’t do so in exactly the same way.
By taking the time to explain to parents and children the structure of therapy and participation you are giving them the opportunity to continue therapy with you (fully knowing the process) or seeking out someone else that might better fit their needs.
This also avoids the distress of 6 weeks into the process parents stressing because their child has not had rapid symptom improvement, is frustrated because they have to take time out of their day to be present at the therapy appointment, or having confusion about why you are “just playing” with their child.
So how exactly do you incorporate this into your therapy practice?
First things first, sit down and clarify all your policies and procedures for how you work with children. See my free downloadable Informed Consent that has my checklist of how I communicate my expectations and practices with families.
You can have this as a printable document, a page on your website (like mine here and here on my practice website), or as a checklist for yourself (like I do) that I go over the first session.
The expectations I find it most important to clarify for parents include my expectation that parents will be an active and involved part of therapy (see more about my parent check in HERE).
Next, I find it essential to clarify how long the therapy process will be and what factors go into determining therapy length. Dive deeper into the 12 factors I talk about with parents when discussing therapy length.
Then, if I am seeing a child with divorced or separated parents I am extremely clear in my role as a mental health therapist, not that of a custody evaluator, mediator, or parenting consultant. And lastly I find it crucial to discuss my schedule. Parents sometimes will come in for an intake at noon, but expect after that to get a 5:00 spot on a Tuesday for the rest of their child’s therapy. Setting expectations with schedule increases your chances of the parent being able to consistently bring their child to therapy sessions. If you need scheduling support check out this course HERE.
I encourage you to set some time aside to get really clear about how you clarify expectations for parents and implement some of these practices into your intake process! What else am I missing? What are other ways or topics you find essential to clarify with parents?
Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy is one of my top Play Therapy theories you can see me using in the Playroom! Check out more about Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy HERE! And check out some of my favorite interventions and free downloads HERE, HERE, and HERE!
During one of my Play Therapy Consult groups the topic came up of the need that Play Therapists have to limit or pair down play supplies. One of my consultees asked “if you could bring any three toys to a session, what would you bring?”, and my goodness I LOVED that question.
First off I loved it because I always love a good challenge and creativity. Secondly, I loved it because being selective with toys is a reality that many Play Therapists go through, like, in cases of sending Play Therapy Kits home with clients, Play Therapists who travel between schools, or do in-home Play Therapy.
Now, each Play Therapists is going to respond to that question differently BUT after some deep thinking here are the three that I came up with and why!
Crayons and Paper
This is a pretty classic artistic and play material. And with this one the sky is the limit. You can make all sorts of things with paper from art, drawings, fortune tellers, paper airplanes, or with some tape and a little creativity even big feeling eaters! You could draw your own Rainbow Regulation activities and play a number of different artistic games or prompts about emotional regulation.
This is a close second because there are so many games to play with a simple deck of cards. Children can demonstrate mastery or self esteem skills by being the leader and teaching you about a card game OR you can practice experiential regulation and modeling in the moment if a card game gets a bit intense. There are also so many games you can pair therapeutic rules with such as this activity HERE!
This last one was the toughest one for me. As I was thinking about a Play Therapy kit I wasn’t exactly sure if saying “sand tray and miniatures” was quite fair because that could literally mean 1,000 different toys. To keep with simplicity I went with Legos due to the dynamic nature and creative adaptability of Legos. You can build worlds, people, or other activities that help children express feelings. There are even therapists such as Althea Simpson, LCSW, RPT-S that have significant expertise in using LEGOs in Play Therapy. Check her out HERE and HERE!
What about you? If you only had three toys that you could bring with you to a Play Therapy session what would you bring and why? Share in the comments below!
AND if you are looking for more tools for your Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy Toolbox check out this training HERE!
I'm Ann Meehan, an LPCC,