Parenting: When Being Consistent Backfires

As a psychologist, I frequently hear the same complaint from frustrated parents.  We have made every effort to be consistent in disciplining our child, they say, but our child’s problematic behaviors won’t go away.

In other words, what should you do when consistency fails?

Consider “Maya”, who as a toddler was pegged as a “spirited” child. In her early years, she loved pushing limits, and later she routinely refused to do chores or homework, sometimes even striking out at her parents.

Her pediatrician explained that children like Maya benefit from highly consistent routines and discipline. Her parents began utilizing a detailed chart to measure Maya’s accomplishments and dole out consequences for her behaviors.  At 10, Maya misbehaved so consistently that her parents revoked nearly all of her privileges.  With nothing left to take away and no rewards sufficient to persuade her to improve, they grew increasingly exasperated.

Why does consistency sometimes backfire? In part because we often misunderstand the causes of behaviors. The same behaviors often result from different underlying causes. If a parenting strategy isn’t working, it’s probably because we’re overlooking or misunderstanding the underlying triggers. Responding with too much consistency based on a rule rather than the child’s unique needs and makeup can create additional problems, such as the child feeling misunderstood.

That’s not to say that consistency, rules, and expectations aren’t necessary and important. But consistently applying ineffective strategies often exacerbates problems rather than solving them. 

I often use the analogy of an iceberg.  Above the water’s surface, we can see only the concerning behaviors. But hidden underwater are the myriad potential causes or triggers that lead to the behaviors. The challenge: Certain behaviors are impervious to consequences. Why? Because the consequences fail to address the behavior’s root cause, a subconscious state of stress in the brain and body known as faulty neuroception, when a child feels unsafe in mind and body.

Children experiencing faulty neuroception aren’t receptive to learning from consequences. Instead, they are in a defensive position—a stress response—and react by running away, fighting, or shutting down. Stress responses are not intentional bad behavior. When we punish children for having a stress response, we can cause the child to feel even more threatened and unsafe, causing more behaviors that are impervious to discipline. This is the main reason that discipline strategies often fail.

Think of it this way: consistency turns into rigidity when we make surface behavioral goals a higher priority than emotional development and security.  This approach revolutionizes the way we think about discipline.  As Tina Bryson and Dan Siegel write in the timeless parenting book No Drama Discipline, we should be consistent yet remain flexible, because connection moves a child from reactivity to receptivity.

If a child isn’t responding to consistent consequences, remember these priorities:

Focus on cause. To create effective consequences, first make an effort to identify the triggers, reasons, and causes that have made the child feel unsafe in body and/or mind.

Safety first. When children feel safe and secure, they’re more open to learning. Make emotional safety a priority before introducing complicated systems of rewards and consequences.

Pay attention. Before focusing on consistency, make sure the child is in a physical and emotional state to receive the rule, limit, or demand.

Often, sensitive and vulnerable children don’t have enough conscious control of their behaviors for rewards or consequences to be effective. In fact, trying to use such strategies can make the child feel worse, because the child wants to please adults but can’t.  This is a difficult concept for many parents, educators and professionals to understand because it flies in the face of the current cultural bias that all behaviors are intentionally driven.

I explain the iceberg analogy and how professionals can use it to better understand how to help children with challenging behaviors in my book on social and emotional development.

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