Consequences for Preschoolers

“Help – I Don’t Know How to Manage my Preschooler!”

If you have a preschooler, you have probably had the experience of being in public and having your child disobey you. He keeps doing whatever you just asked him to stop doing.  You feel like all eyes are upon you and you just don’t know what to do.  You want quick and effective methods to help your child behave.

While there are effective methods for working with your preschooler, very little in parenting – especially with a toddler – is quick.  There are many reasons, starting with the preschoolers themselves.


Understanding Preschoolers

There are five components of development that partly determine each child’s individual make-up. Learning about these aspects of child development will help you to understand your preschooler and why he behaves as he does.

1. Developmental Tasks

As children grow, there are certain developmental tasks that they need to master at each age. 

Two-and three-year-olds

Children this age are learning to be independent, to do things for themselves, to be separate from their parents, and to gain a sense of “ownership” which helps them feel confident and develop a sense of himself.  What this means is that they often say “no” and are not good at sharing.

Four- to six-year-olds

This age child is learning how to use power, to explore the world on his own, and to take initiative. What this means is that he has his own ideas and does not always want to listen to you.


Having this knowledge helps you to manage these “challenging norms.”  Although you cannot change the behaviors totally, this information enables you to be more patient and understanding and even provide for ways for your children to accomplish their development milestones in ways that are acceptable to you.

For example,

Rather than expecting  your preschooler to share his new toy when friends come over,

  • you can talk with him beforehand about keeping his special toy in a special place where no one will play with it.

  • He can select other items in advance that he would be willing to share.

  • By taking these steps, you are acknowledging your child’s need to “own,” while guiding his behavior in a socially acceptable way.


2. Temperament

In addition, children have different temperaments, inborn traits that remain consistent throughout their lives and are not within your – or their – control.

Based on their make-up, some children are “easier” to raise than others.   Those who are happy-go-lucky, adaptable, not sensitive to lights or sounds or even tags, and are mild-mannered are generally considered “easy.”

While those who are more persistent, sensitive to sounds or smells or visual stimuli, intense when expressing their emotions, negative, or highly active can be more difficult.   You may find it harder to redirect such children’s  behavior and they may be more likely to dig in their heels in response to your requests. You can help your children learn to manage these traits, but not change them.

3. Stages of Growth

Preschooler holding ears

On top of all that, children cycle in and out of phases in which their behavior is smoother and times when it is more challenging.

Typically these periods of disequilibrium, when children are more stressed, tense, in conflict, and less confident, occur at the half year in this age group: 2 ½ , 3 ½, and 4 ½.  During the school-years, disequilibrium typically occurs during the odd years.

When your child is in disequilibrium, it may be time to choose battles more carefully and let go of some things – the undesirable behavior may disappear on its own when your child moves into equilibrium.
For example,

Your 2 ½ year-old may fight you when you try to buckle her into her car seat, insisting that she can do it on her own.  When she emerges from disequilibrium, she may happily allow you to buckle her in as she looks forward to going on an outing with you.

In addition, if you have a spirited child who is in a period of disequilibrium, you may find yourself in the middle of a real battle as you try to change a behavior. You may find it easier to wait until your preschooler’s reactions are more even before attempting to push him to grow and accept more responsibility.

4. Environmental Factors

To complicate matters, children frequently have external stresses such as starting a new school, a change in childcare givers, a new house, or the birth of a sibling that add another layer of drama.

5. Maturity

Sometimes you just have to wait for maturity to kick in for your children to outgrow certain behaviors. They need to be willing and able to complete a task in order to have maturity related to that task.

In addition, kids mature in many areas:  intellectual, social, emotional, physical, moral, and relational. Parents frequently see maturity in one area, and then expect it in other areas. 

For example,

A child may have an advanced vocabulary, yet be unable to use these words in interactions with same-age playmates.


Using this Information

This does not mean that you let your preschooler “run wild” and accept any and all actions.  None of this is an excuse for bad behavior.

You can still guide your children and teach them what is “right.”  It may just take a while to get there. And as you do so, you want to look beyond their behavior to consider how they feel about themselves.

Ultimately, children who see themselves as capable and worthy of attention will be children who want to live up to their highest abilities. Children develop this inner strength through their relationship with their primary caregivers.

Therefore, as you guide and curtail your children’s behavior, you want to do so in ways that build – not destroy – your relationship with them.


The purpose of all discipline is to help your children learn how to behave, tolerate frustration, adapt to change, and delay gratification.   Often parents, not knowing how else to get their children to listen, use shame, humiliation, threats, corporeal punishment, or other, equally destructive methods.

Consequences are an effective way to help your preschooler learn appropriate behavior and consider the impact of his behavior on others, while still preserving your relationship with him.

What are consequences?

Consequences are the positive or negative results of behavior.  Everything you do in reaction to your children’s behavior is a consequence. However, consequences are more than imposing consequences on children when they do something wrong; for example, turning the television off when siblings fight about which program to watch.

Consequences have a larger purpose, which is helping children realize that their behavior has an impact, and they should allow children the opportunity to think about what they did.  Ultimately, you want to help your children realize that their behavior has consequences and that they need to consider possible consequences before they act.

For example, you can use consequences more effectively and intentionally by asking: “What did Mommy do after you pushed your sister down?” or “How do you think Will felt when you didn’t let him play with you and Sean?” 

Such questions encourage the development of empathy and help your children to see the results of their actions and how they can make things better.

Types of Consequences

There are three different kinds of consequences that you can impose:

NATURAL Consequence:

This first type of consequences – natural- happen all on their own without you doing anything.  Whenever it is safe morally, physically, or emotionally, let your child experience the direct results of his actions.

For example,

Not wearing a coat on a cold day will teach him more than any amount of your talking or forcing or cajoling. If it is really cold out, you can bring the coat along with you and give it to him when he complains about being chilly. 

At that point, you can make a simple teaching statement such as: “Even though it is warm in the house when we leave, we still need to have a coat when it is cold outside.” 

Remember – experience is the best teacher!

IMPOSED Consequence:

At other times, when there is no natural consequence or the natural consequence is too dangerous, you may need to impose a consequence. Sometimes it can be as straightforward as taking away a toy that is being played with inappropriately – such as when a child throws pieces of a puzzle across the room. First you can try the following:

  • You can state a rule:  “No throwing in the house.”

  • You can repeat your rule: “No throwing.”

  • You can offer choices: “You can throw the sponge ball or put the puzzle pieces on the board.”

  • You can try to distract your child to a more acceptable outlet. “You look like a child who has lots of energy.  Let me see how high you can jump.”

  • You can follow with a teaching piece about how puzzles are not for throwing: “A piece could get lost or someone may get hurt if the piece hits them.” 

  • You can present your child with a final choice:

    For example,

    “You can put the pieces on the puzzle board, or I need to put it away.” 

    If your child keeps throwing the pieces, then you can calmly say, “I see you chose to have me put the puzzle away” as you pick up all the pieces.  If your child protests, you can say: “Next time, you need to keep the pieces on the board.”

    The consequence for not playing with a toy appropriately is to lose the opportunity to play with it.


It is not the severity of the consequence that matters, but the certainty.
Barbara Coloroso in her book Kids are Worth It



Sometimes the situation may not be quite so straightforward.  Maybe your child is not only throwing the puzzle pieces, but is also hitting a sibling and yelling loudly. Or perhaps this afternoon, it is the puzzle pieces flying across the room; this morning he dumped all of his books on the floor; and yesterday the building blocks were left out.  Requests to help clean up continue to go unanswered.   You may feel at a loss as to what the right consequence should be.


Suspending Privileges

Under these circumstances you may wish to call a time out – during which all fun is on hold and all privileges are suspended.  The idea is not to punish your child but to get his attention. 

You do have certain parental obligations to provide shelter, medical care, proper nutrition and supervision, educational opportunities, and respect. But beyond that, much of what you provide is a privilege which can be withheld if your child is not behaving appropriately.

Your goals are to:

  • restore safety,

  • calm everyone down,

  • reinforce your rules,

  • teach your child what is acceptable, and

  • provide an opportunity to re-enter the situation and make amends.


What to Say

You can explain in simple terms that the two of you need to talk and until he is ready to talk, all extras are stopped.   Examples of “extras” could be desserts, treats, reading extra books, play dates, outings, television, or other screen time.

What is happening is serious and you are stopping everything so you can deal with the situation. You will need to talk with your child about his behavior and the choices he is making, and this means that all privileges cease until you have successfully discussed the issue.

It is not a “you against him” attitude. You are working with your child to help him make better choices.  The following information is adapted from Myrna Shure’s Raising a Thinking Child, which goes into more depth for working with your preschooler.

Words and Concepts to Teach

In order for children to be able to judge and understand the impact of their behavior on others, there are certain concepts they can learn that will help them. Just as you have to teach feeling words, you also need to teach them the words that will help them consider the consequences of their behavior:

  • same/different

  • some/all

  • might/maybe

  • is/is not

  • now/later

  • fair/not fair

  • before/after

  •  if/then


Questions to Ask

When there is a problem, you can help them to find better ways by having them answer these questions:

  • What were the facts? Who, what, where, when? What happened?

    What’s the matter? What were you trying to do? What happened before?

  • What were they feeling and thinking?  What were the other people feeling and thinking?

    How do you feel?  How does . . . feel? 

  • What was the consequence of their behavior?  What happened when you did that?

    Did that get you what you wanted? How did the other person respond/react?

  • What can they do differently in the future?

    Can you think of a different way to solve this problem?

  • Evaluate each idea: Is this a good idea or not a good idea?

    Do you think that there is a better way to get what you want? If the idea is a good one, try it; if not, let’s think of something different.    

  • What help do they need?

    Is there anything that I can do to help you?  Do you need me to . . . ?    

  • How do they feel now about it?   

    Are you still feeling  . . . ?

Here is an exchange between a mother and her three-year-old son, who will not stop throwing the puzzle pieces.  She has tried repeating the rules, giving him choices, distracting him, and repeating the rules yet again. At this point, she decides to stop all playMom and child talking until the issue is resolved.

Mom: Will, I need you to listen to me.  Stop throwing the puzzle pieces.

Will: Okay.  (Waits a minute and then throws it again)

Mom: (Walks over to Will, takes him by the hand and says) Will, you need to come over here with me so we can talk.

Will: What, Mommy?  I wasn’t doing anything.   I want to play with Jason. He was laughing. He likes it.

Mom: Will, you did do something.  Let’s talk about what happened.  Why am I not letting you play with Jason right now?

Will: Because you’re mean.

Mom: We’re not talking about me now.  We’re talking about what happened before I got mean.  What were you doing before I said you couldn’t play now?

Will: I was throwing the puzzle and making it rain puzzle.

Mom: What were you trying to do when you made it rain puzzle pieces?

Will:  I was having fun and wanted to play with Jason.

Mom:  So, you were having fun; are you getting to play with Jason now?

Will:  No. Because you’re mean and stopped me from having fun.

Mom: That may be – I don’t like when you throw puzzle pieces. So is throwing the puzzle a good way or a not good way to be able to play with Jason?

Will: Not a good way.

Mom: Can you think of a different game you could play?

Will: We could take turns jumping on the mats or we can go outside and play catch.

Mom: Do you think jumping on the mats would be a good way to get to continue playing with Jason?

Will: I think it would be a good idea.

Mom: I agree.  Do you need me to help you?

Will: Yes, can you help me move the mats to the center of the room so we can jump really big jumps?

Mom: I’ll be glad to.  First we need to pick up all the puzzle pieces. Once the floor is clear, I can pull over the mats. Are you ready to clean up?

Will: Yes.

Mom: You solved that problem really well and came up with some good things to do with Jason.


By stopping the play, this mother got her son’s attention.  On their own, consequences may not teach your child the lesson he needs to learn.  Consequences are much more powerful when combined with a teaching piece.


Teach your Children about the Impact of their Behavior

You can help your child to gain better judgment about his behavior by discussing the sequence of things that took place so that he learns to associate his behavior with its consequences. 

It could be good consequences – getting what he wants – or bad consequences – such as in this example, of not getting what he wants. Either way, he learns that his choices directly impact the results. This mom was able to work with her son to make better choices.

Teach your Children about Making Amends

Another important part of using consequences is helping your child to make amends. While that may seem like a tall order, there are many things that kids can do to remedy a situation.  

If someone or something was hurt, he may need to do one or more of the following:

  • apologize,
  • help another child rebuild a tower or clean up a mess,
  • offer his friend a toy,
  • draw him an “I’m sorry” picture.


In Summary

Parents often feel as though they need to impose consequences, but really the goal is to teach your children to realize that their choices have consequences.

Your imposing consequences just stops the activity so you can point out the impact of the behavior and what better options your child can pursue.  Once he has completed this process, then all privileges are reinstated.

Again the goal is not to punish, but to teach your child the consequences of his behavior, so that in the future he can make better choices about how to handle situations and get what he wants in appropriate ways.  Once this mission is completed, then good feelings and privileges can flow again.


For more information about discipline check out the following books. Purchasing books from our website through supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.

Kids Can Cooperate by Elizabeth Crary Kids, Parents and Power Struggles by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka

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