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As an adoptive parent – and, you know, reasonably sensible, logical human being – I’m a big fan of natural consequences when it comes to behaviour management.
This is simply allowing your child to reap the consequences of the action they’ve taken, with no/little additional input from you.
You draw on the wall? You help clean it up. You spill the Cheerios? You sweep them up. You wrong someone? You repair the relationship.
Children or adults, we all go through life leaving some amount of destruction in our wake – we can’t help it. We’re human, and we’re sinful. But following that destruction comes some attempt to reverse the situation, make things better, seek forgiveness, sort the problem out.
When I once lost some concert tickets which had been gifted to us, I had to pay the same amount again – an expensive mistake, and one which reminded me of the importance of keeping tickets in a safe place! Some mistakes will be expensive financially and some will be expensive emotionally, but meeting that cost ourselves helps to deter us from making that mistake again.
And it works this way with our children, too. A child who’s had to waste precious screen-time cleaning up a mess they made, or who loses out on buying something they want because they have to replace something they broke, is much less likely to do this again. We learn from our mistakes only if we absorb at least some of the cost of them.
The importance of natural consequences for adopted/fostered children
For adopted children, teaching natural consequences is even more important. They may not have had much/any routine in their early months or years. They may not have had consistent meal times and bed times. Life didn’t necessarily follow a predictable pattern.
Consequently, they won’t have much understanding of cause-and-effect. If breakfast was never followed by teeth cleaning, or school was never followed by a snack, or dinner never followed by bedtime – or, more likely, if these things happened on some days and not others – a child will be far less able to understand that after each action, there is a consequence, whether good or bad.
But even when a child has never experienced abuse or neglect – like our twins, for example – my experience is that the ’cause-and-effect’ thinking is still under-developed. I’m not entirely sure why this is, but some possible reasons I’ve discovered so far (with, no doubt, more to come over the next few years) are: attachment disorder (the process of attaching to parents he/she didn’t have from birth), anxiety/high stress levels (meaning that certain pathways of the brain are blocked off as a child reverts to ‘survival’ mode), and the impact of drugs/alcohol in utero, which can affect memory and attention span.
So natural consequences are good for all of us – but especially for those who have had a traumatic start to life.
And yet, in my experience, there are a heck of a lot of situations where natural consequences don’t work!
“What’s the problem?”, I hear you cry. “Just whack in a logical/parent-issued consequence instead!”
Yep. Except – us adoptive parents? We’re a tricky crowd. We’re trying to re-parent children who haven’t had a great start in life. We’re trying to therapeutically restore their minds and hearts as they navigate life. And, largely, we’re doing this using therapeutic parenting methods, which are pretty big on natural consequences. When we don’t use them, we feel like we’ve failed as parents and carers. We feel we’ve let down the adoption agency who put their trust in us.
So, to reassure you, here are three natural consequences examples of when they just don’t work.
When the consequence puts someone in danger
This is kind of an obvious one. I mean, if your kid was about to launch themselves in front of a moving car, you wouldn’t allow natural consequences to occur would you? You’re not going to wait until your child’s lying in hospital with a broken leg and numerous other complaints before you say, “That wasn’t a very good idea, was it?”
I think this one is also important, though, when your child is about to put someone else in danger. I have interceded on many occasions when my child is about to hit one of their siblings. Now this isn’t something I do every time. If two of my kids are having a fight, much as I don’t like it, I will usually refrain from getting physically involved, and restrict my input to verbal warnings. And, more often than not, the whole thing is over pretty quickly.
But if one of my children is having a meltdown, and is about to hurt one of his siblings, who hasn’t provoked or interfered with them in any way and really is not looking for a fight – this is when, if I can, I will intervene.
Technically, in therapeutic parenting, you’re meant to let these things run their course. But when we have two or more children, we have a commitment to all of them, which means not allowing one to disadvantage another, more than is unavoidable.
Sometimes, the issue is between your adopted child and your birth child, and you need to intervene to protect your birth child.
Sadly, many birth children who grow up with adopted siblings end up feeling isolated from their family. Parents have to spend so much time caring for their adopted siblings, with their higher levels of trauma and attachment difficulties, that the birth children – ‘uncomplicated’, as they initially appear to be – end up feeling pushed out, which can cause mental health to plummet.
I don’t want my birth children to feel like this. They were a huge part of our adoption process, and they remain full members of our family. Sometimes their needs will take priority.
That is because they are all our children, adopted or not! Sometimes one child’s needs are prioritised, sometimes another – that’s the reality of having several children. But it all evens out over time – and, if it doesn’t, I need to adjust what I’m doing as a parent, because this is likely to cause resentment in the future if not right now.
Of course, you have to weigh up the risk of intervening with the likelihood of danger – but if you’re fairly sure your child is putting themselves or someone else at risk, intervention is a fairly logical response.
When the consequence negatively affects innocent parties
Imagine one of our children threw something at the TV, and it smashed to pieces. (It hasn’t yet happened – but our lounge does take a lot of flying objects, so perhaps it’s just a matter of time. I’ll keep you posted!)
The natural consequence of such an action is simple: the TV is broken, so no TV anymore.
This might work if you have just one child, and if you as parents are happy to watch programmes on your computer or handheld device. But if you have more than one child, or TV is a big part of your relaxation as parents, then this simply isn’t going to be very fair!
Is it right that everyone else in the family suffers because of one person’s actions? No! As I wrote above, especially in families with a mixture of biological and adopted kids, you really don’t want your birth kids growing up to resent their adopted siblings.
So even though it might be a natural consequence not to have a TV, I don’t think it would be a sensible or logical one.
My instinct would be to buy a new TV, but perhaps have the child contribute towards it, either financially, or by doing some jobs around the house to ‘earn’ a percentage of it.
Or, depending on circumstances, I might buy a new TV, but have a week-long ban for the child in question.
As Christian parents, too, we want to exercise grace as we discipline. This doesn’t mean that we let everything go, but that we take opportunities to show our children how much God loves and forgives us, and how that impacts our ability to love and forgive too. So a third valid response would be to buy a new TV with nothing expected towards its cost.
The response would very much depend on you, your child and the circumstances of the incident – but I would argue that a natural consequence in this case would not be very loving, nor very considerate towards the innocent parties in your family.
When the consequence results in shame
This is a biggie for adopted and fostered children. I wrote about shame here, and best heard it described as the sense of being bad, whereas guilt is having done something bad. Do you see the difference?
Children who have been in care often have a deep-seated sense of shame, which parents may spend the whole of their lives trying to unpick. But any child can feel shamed through the treatment of his/her parents.
When Meerkat was learning how to use the toilet, he kept having accidents. Like, ALL THE TIME. After a couple of months of this, with no real sense of progress, I frustratingly cried out for help on an online therapeutic parenting forum.
My request for help, or at least some insight, was met with a huge swathe of comments, but literally the only one I can remember went along the lines of, “He’s not ready. Put him back in nappies”.
Now this was coming from a position of natural consequences. The natural consequence of wetting your pants is to wear a nappy, is it not?
But I knew that my boy was ready for pants! I wasn’t sure how I knew, but it felt pretty obvious to me. He was so excited about his pants, and I could see he really was trying. So to put him back into nappies would not only be a huge waste of money and effort, but massively increase his sense of shame, at having apparently ‘failed’ at something I was expecting of him.
Two years down the line, I can say for certain he was ready, but it took around a year to stay mainly dry – and even now he has occasional accidents. Let’s just say that I have much more understanding these days of how his bladder and bowel control is linked to his sense of security and calm. When he’s feeling more wobbly, he is likely to have an accident. Remind me to write about this sometime.
I’m so glad I didn’t put him back in nappies. I’m glad for all the times I managed to stay calm and deal kindly with his accidents – and sorry for all the times I yelled, as I know now that the accidents were linked to his emotions, over which he doesn’t yet have much control.
Another example: last week, Meerkat was having a huge meltdown before school. He hadn’t eaten his breakfast and he wasn’t dressed. And there were about 10 minutes until we needed to leave for school.
I was leaving him to get dressed by himself, figuring that if he didn’t then I’d take him to school in his pyjamas, with his uniform in a bag to change into later – I’d previously warned his teacher that this might happen one day, so I know she’d be totally fine with this. And I repeatedly warned Meerkat that this would happen if he didn’t get changed. I didn’t shout, I didn’t succumb to his demands, I simply told him the facts.
But my husband overrided me – how dare he! – and went into our son’s room and patiently got him dressed. Meerkat went to school fully dressed, on time, even having had a small breakfast.
When I questioned my husband about this, his response was, “I just didn’t think it would be right to send him to school in his PJs in front of his friends. I thought he’d feel really ashamed, and he just doesn’t need that right now.”
DesertDad was absolutely spot-on. School is a place where Meerkat feels happy and settled. He thrives on the repetitive routine, and having clear expectations of what he is and isn’t expected to do. He also has friends there, and is getting on brilliantly in both academic and social terms.
To turn up at school in your PJs would be highly shaming, and Meerkat was so anxious on this occasion that his brain wasn’t able to link his action (not getting dressed) to the consequence (going to school in PJs) – so we had to help him.
Sometimes we have to forego natural consequences in order to build up our children, when their resources are few and their tanks are empty.
Natural consequences don’t work every time – so what?
I’m sure you can think of more examples when natural consequences don’t work, or when they’re not in the best interests of your child or the wider family.
So what? What’s wrong with adapting a parenting method, finding your own way – we all do that, right?
Yes. Yes we do. I’m convinced that no parent actually follows any ‘method’ consistently, whether it’s therapeutic parenting or baby-led weaning or elimination communication.
And yet the problem is that these methods demand that we DO follow them to the letter, every day, every hour, without fail. Inconsistency means we can’t possibly be using that technique properly.
The books and websites tell us, “This will work, but only if you follow it as written”, or “You must follow this technique step-by-step for good results”, or “If you divert from this method, it’s not going to work for you”.
It’s a lie – it’s all a lie.
These methods and techniques can be really helpful, and I’m all for using the wisdom of others where it benefits my family. But let’s take heart in the fact that these guides are written by humans who are imperfect, just like us! Their wisdom might be great, but it won’t be perfect. There will be flaws, and there will be times when it needs adapting, because each child is an individual, each parent is too, and each family is unique.
There is only one book I’m following to the letter, only one resource which is totally trustworthy, and that is the Bible, God’s perfect Word to us. God allows us to experience the natural consequences of our sin – and, occasionally, He deals out punishment (a non-natural consequence) – e.g. the flood which destroyed the earth, and from which Noah and his family were protected.
If you’re feeling conflicted today because the parenting method you follow needs adapting, take heart: it was written by flawed humans! Take what is helpful, discard what is not – and commit all of it, all your parenting, all the aspects of your precious child’s life, to the God who never lets us down, whose grace overflows, and whose love is everlasting.
Maressa Mortimer says
Just came across this, and loved it! With four adopted kids I find myself “failing” as a therapeutic parent more often than I would like, as well as struggling to balance wrong doings with natural consequences…Thank you for this article!
Thank you Maressa! And I’m so glad it’s not just me. I think the feeling of ‘failing’ as an adoptive/therapeutic parent is so, so common – very sadly so, in my opinion, as often people are doing an amazing job with wonderful, but challenging, children. Maybe this will become the focus of a whole other blog post!