SANE consequences

We’ve been talking a lot about challenging behavior lately. And yeah, even us Science of Parenting folks have children who challenge us!

Today we want to look at how we can respond to challenging behavior. Maybe your preschooler has been testing out new lies, or your school age child has been skipping homework, or your preteen is throwing attitude around like it’s confetti, or your teen is not touching base when they are out and about. Whichever one resonates with you, finding a way to respond to problematic behavior can be a challenge. How do we strike a balance between too harsh and too lax?

Luckily, the National Institute on Drug Abuse looks at research on how parents can help their kids stay on the right path, and they have a handy little acronym for helping parents identify appropriate consequences – SANE (and I mean that acronym has all kinds of double meaning, am I right?).

  • S – Small consequences are better 
    • When we are especially angry or frustrated with our child, chances are we are more likely to fly off the handle a bit with our consequences (Stop. Breathe. Talk. to save the day again!). Instead, try to find small consequences that relate directly to the child’s behavior. Like if your child is being difficult at bedtime because they want to watch more TV, you might consider taking away TV privileges for a few days.
  • AAvoid consequences that punish you
    • When we give consequences to our child, it needs to be something we can and will follow through on. But when we choose consequences that make our lives as parents more difficult, we might be less likelihood to carry out the consequences like we originally planned. So if your teenager is abusing their school permit, you may decide that they need to lose that privilege for a few days. You can avoid this from punishing you (by you having to drive them) by having your teenager have to find their own ride to school or maybe ride the bus.
  • N Nonabusive responses
    • Yup, we sometimes are very angry with our kids when they don’t meet our expectations, but we don’t want that anger to have so much power that we respond to our children in unhealthy ways. As we say at Science of Parenting, “Hitting Harms. Yelling Hurts.” (Another place where Stop. Breathe. Talk. can be our saving grace!)
  • EEffective consequences
    • Effective consequences are consequences that are under your control and that actually help deter your child from wanting to do that behavior again (non-rewarding). Of course, this is the whole point of consequences right!

So when we are thinking about consequences, try to stay SANE (you see what I did there?).



Mackenzie Johnson

Parent to a little one with her own quirks. Celebrator of the concept of raising kids “from scratch”. Learner and lover of the parent-child relationship. Translator of research with a dose of reality. Certified Family Life Educator.

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Stop. Breathe. Talk. in Action

I wanted to share this comment I received from a reader. Thank you Mackenzie for allowing me to share your thoughts with our readers.

“I’m a parent of a mostly happy seven month old daughter. I’m also an adult educator who helps parents understand the important difference between reacting (when we let our immediate emotions decide how to react to a child’s behavior) and responding (when take a moment to stop and think about how we actually want to respond to our child’s behavior). One simple way to remember this difference is to tell yourself to “Stop. Breathe. Talk.” It sounds so simple, right? And most people assume I must get it right every time, but that is NOT true… In my head I know that my daughter feels things intensely (like her momma does) and responds with the same intensity because she doesn’t have the skills to cope appropriately yet. And still, in the heat of an overwhelming moment, I definitely have to take that second to think to myself, “Stop. Breathe. Talk”.

“Like last night, my teething daughter was up for the second time in the middle of night (a phase I thought we had finally made it through). I picked her up from her crib and tried to soothe her back to sleep for a few minutes. When she calmed down, I set her back into the crib and headed back to bed. Seconds after I get back under the covers, I hear the crying start again. It’s the middle of the night, I’m tired. I start to huff back to her crib irritated. As I walk I’m saying to myself, “Just sleep! Why won’t you sleep? I’m so sick of this!” I walk up to her crib… “Wait,” I think to myself. “She isn’t doing this to you. She is having a hard time and needs her momma to help her through this.” So I stop. I walk into the hallway. I take a deep breath. I walk back up to her crib. In a calm voice I say, “I know, sweet girl. Getting teeth is hard work. Mommy is here.” I pick her up and rub her back. Her body relaxes and after a few minutes, I set her down in her crib, totally asleep.”

“Even as someone who teaches these skills to fellow parents, I know I don’t get it right every time. But in the moments where I remind myself to “Stop. Breathe. Talk”, I do better. That extra second gives me the chance to consider my emotions and reaction, and change it into the kind of response I want to have. ”


Consider one of the last frustrating interacting you had with your child. Would it have ended differently if you had chosen to Stop. Breathe. Talk.? Comment and tell us about a time when this strategy has worked for you! We’d love to hear from you!”

Lori Korthals, M.S.

Mother of three. Lover of all things child development related. Fascinated by temperament and brain development. Professional background with families, child care providers, teachers and community service entities.

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