How do you react to repeated transgressions of your child?

As parents, we play an important role in how children develop. We have a lot of influence on what they consider important and how they behave. But how we can best fulfill our role as a parent is not always easy to imagine.

"Nothing works with that boy!"

A while ago I was sitting at a party next to a father. His son was further up the room. He sighed despondently: “We don't know what to do with that boy. We have already tried everything: punishment…. reward…. nothing works! ” This is an example of how quite a few parents have few other ways than punish and reward for getting things done by their children.

Clear expectation plus rationale

An important way to get something done from children is to clearly explain what you expect from them and give a clear rationale. The rationale explains why you expect it from them. By giving a rationale, you give the child an opportunity to understand and internalize the goal or rule. This way the child can endorse the behavior you expect from him or her.

How do you respond to (repeated) undesirable behavior?

But is it that simple? Research has shown that such an explanatory strategy does not always work immediately, especially with somewhat younger children (see e.g. Mageau et al., 2018). And what do you do with repeated transgressions of your child? Think, for example, of not adhering to a rule or not keeping an appointment. Do you have to calmly explain it again? Do you have to get angry? Is it best to ignore the undesired behavior? Should you impose restrictions (such as confiscating a cell phone)? Do you simply punish the child?

Research Robichaud et al.

In a new publication, Robichaud et al. (2020) investigate the different effects of punishment and working with a technique called the logical consequences approach (N = 214). Previous theory and research has suggested that this approach can lead to both the child doing what you ask and the child understanding and internalizing the purpose behind the question. Using an experimental vignette methodology, the researchers compared the logical consequence approach with some other strategies.

The participating high school students were presented with a few comic-style scenarios between a mother and an adolescent in which the adolescent had broken a rule and the mother applied one of the strategies studied. The situation is that the child watched a TV program in the presence of his younger brother and sister who had a nightmare as a result.

Comic scenarios

The comics consisted of four images. The first three pictures were always the same. In these first three pictures, the mother explained the rule in an autonomy-supportive way. She explained the rule, acknowledged their child's feelings, gave a reason for the rules, and made it clear what they expected. The fourth picture varied across the four conditions. In this fourth picture, the child had broken the rule again and the mother responded in one of four ways:
  1. The logical consequence approach: “I see that you keep watching that scary program in front of your brother and sister. As long as I cannot be sure that you are using television responsibly, you cannot watch it.”
  2. Mild punishments (imposition of restrictions): “I see you keep watching that scary show in front of your brother and sister. Because that happened, you are not allowed to go to your friend's house tonight.”
  3. Reasoning (explaining the importance of the rule or goal): “Christophe, this program scares your brother and sister. If you are alone with them, it is your responsibility to make sure you don't upset them.”
  4. Don't intervene: Christophe, it's time to go to your friend's house.


These results show that the adolescents preferred the logical consequences approach. They rated this as the most acceptable and, together with the mild punishment approach, also as the most effective. Older adolescents did not feel that inclination to obey would depend on the parent's strategy. Younger adolescents expected that they would obey more if they had internalized the reason through the logical consequences approach (compared to the mild punishment approach).


If children repeatedly break rules or fail to keep agreements, a strategy of non-intervention is probably the most unwise. The child infers from this that there are no consequences for non-compliance with the rule. A strategy of just explaining again why the rule is important is also not advisable. This strategy is perceived as acceptable, but is probably not as effective. Children can deduce from this that they can determine for themselves whether or not to comply with the rule.

Mild punishment is seen as reasonably effective and acceptable, but it can hinder the internalization of the rule. The logical consequences approach has the most advantages. It is seen as effective and acceptable. Its great strength is that the restriction imposed on the child (not watching TV) has a direct relationship to the subject. The reason for the limitation can therefore rather be seen as understandable.