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How to Hand the Problem Back Instead of Losing Your Cool

How to Hand the Problem Back Instead of Losing Your Cool

The second rule of Love and Logic says that when children create problems, adults should hand these problems back in loving ways.  “Handing the problem back” means allowing children to experience the consequences of their actions.  The best way to make this happen is to deliver a strong and sincere dose of empathy before you deliver the consequence.  However, here’s the problem—when kids do the unexpected (or the extremely upsetting), how many of us find it easy to deliver empathy and at the same time come up with an immediate, meaningful, and legal consequence?

Under these circumstances, do you typically have a strong dose of empathy on the tip of your tongue?  Does a wonderful logical consequence pop into your head in a matter of seconds?  If your answer is “No,” don’t feel guilty!  Not many parents or teachers do.

I gave a workshop for five hundred practicing psychologists in Detroit, Michigan. I stood in front of all of these trained professionals and I asked, “How many of you are good at coming up with immediate and meaningful consequences with kids?”  No hands went up.

Finally, one guy said, “Hey, we don’t apologize for that. If you want to come up with consequences that are meaningful, you have to take a little time. It usually means several adults get together and brainstorm it. They think about the unique kid and the unique situation. And you take your time. It can’t be immediate.” Then he said, “We can’t do that.”

Although “experts” often preach that we must always deliver immediate consequences for misbehavior, there are many reasons why this isn’t always such a great idea.  Immediate consequences work really well with rats, pigeons, mice, and monkeys. In real-world homes and classrooms, they typically create more problems than they solve. Here are some of the problems with immediate consequences:

  • Most of us have great difficulty thinking of an immediate consequence while we are in the middle of the problem.
  • We “own” the problem rather than handing it back to the child. In other words, we are forced to do more thinking than the child.
  • We are forced to react while we and the child are upset.
  • We don’t have time to anticipate how others will react to our response.
  • We don’t have time to develop a reasonable plan and assemble a support team to help us carry it out.
  • We often end up making threats that we can’t back up.
  • We generally fail to deliver a strong dose of empathy before providing the consequence.
  • Every day, we live in fear that our kid will do something that we won’t know how to handle with an immediate consequence.

What if I could give you a technique that had the power of an immediate consequence but gave you time to think (and plan) when your kids pulled the unexpected?  Would a technique like that lower your blood pressure?  The next time your kids do something upsetting, experiment by saying the following:

        “I’m going to have to do something about that. We’ll talk later. Try not to worry.”

The awareness of a consequence being on its way can serve as a consequence in itself—as long as you use the words, “Try not to worry.”  When you do this, what happens? The child starts to imagine what might happen, what can happen, what they are going to do, and so on.

This technique also gives us plenty of time to get our friends to help us figure out what to do.  In addition, it gives us time to plug the holes and get ourselves calmed down so that we are not angry when we deal with the problem and we keep everyone’s dignity intact.  It helps us be empathetic instead of angry.

The next time your child does something inappropriate, experiment by saying, “Oh no. This is so sad. I’m going to have to do something about this! But not now, later, try not to worry about it.”  The Love and Logic delayed or “anticipatory” consequence allows you time to “anticipate” whose support you might need, how the child might react, and how to make sure that you can actually follow through with a logical consequence. This Love and Logic technique also allows the child to “anticipate” or worry about a wide array of possible consequences—without you losing your cool!


Thanks for reading!

Dr. Charles Fay