Reasons and excuses

A client recently asked me about consequences for their child, as the child is going through a hard time and they don't want to make it worse.  This is something I've encountered a lot, and I always break it down like this.  I always tell my clients that there's a difference between a reason and an excuse.  Take, for example, a child in foster care who was taken from their home because their parents physically abused them.  The child is acting out, hitting, yelling, not following rules, etc.  It's completely understandable why they are doing that, they are scared, hurt, missing their family, mimicking what they have seen.  We can understand the reason for their behavior.  However, it doesn't give them an excuse to do anything they want.  They don't just get a free pass to do whatever and not get in trouble.  That child still needs to learn healthy behavior and coping skills, or else we are bound to find ourselves in the same position 20 years later, this time with their own child in foster care.  You still need to set rules and consequences for a child no matter what difficulties they are confronting.  Kids learn very quickly how to manipulate, and it gets harder and harder to correct that behavior the longer it goes on.  If a child starts to realize that s/he can get away with poor behavior as long as s/he makes a disparaging comment about himself/herself, threatens suicide or self-harm, or even cause a bigger fuss so that the parent will want to give in so the child calms down, then s/he will soon learn to use that to his/her advantage, whether s/he actually feels that way or not. 

However, it's still helpful to understand the reason for someone's behavior because it may inform your decision of how to consequence an action.  You can still find appropriate ways to discipline while being mindful of the child's feelings.  The biggest thing is to not bring emotion into it yourself.  By that, I mean, never give out a punishment out of anger, it should be matter-of-fact, clear cut, straightforward rules and consequences.  Remember, when we discipline our children, we are teaching them rules and laws of the world so they can function appropriately as an adult.  If you get into an argument with another child and hit them, you might get a time out or have something taken away for a period; however, if the same thing happens as an adult, you could be arrested.  So when you discipline your child, remind him/her that s/he's not in trouble because you are angry and don't love him/her anymore, but that s/he has to learn appropriate behavior now while the consequences are much smaller.  Remind him/her that you still love him/her and s/he's still a wonderful child, s/he's not a bad person but just made a bad decision that you want him/her to learn from.