“Start with small consequences first; give yourself somewhere to go.”

Part of an occasional series about phrases that this therapist finds himself repeating, often.

As a clinician in private practice, one of the phrases that I hear myself saying over and over is this: “Start with the small consequences first; give yourself somewhere to go.”

This usually follows a long discussion about what sorts of consequences for behavior that a parent has used before: the timeouts or time-aways, taking away a phone/game/toy, grounding or restricting.

“Nothing works,” they tell me.

“Hmm,” I say. “Let’s think about this some more. Tell me about how you are using these things, for how long, and about what you are wanting to see.”

Usually what a parent is wanting to see is a light bulb fantastically emerge over their child’s head. This light bulb of insight glows brightly over the child’s head while they repeat this phrase: “Oh! I see it now! You are right! I should not have done [fill in the blank] or I should always [fill in the blank]!” Then said child wanders off and the behavior is never heard from again.

Yes, that is a fantasy. That light bulb is going to remain out of reach.

And why? Because behavior is shaped over time. Insight is overrated. Insight does not equal change.

Yes, you will get the “deer in the headlights” look from your child; but that does not mean that the behavior will change. Yes, you may even get your child to nod and agree to everything you say to them throughout the hour-long lecture; but again this does not mean the behavior will change. They are agreeing with you to get the lecture to stop.

So, how does this relate back to the original statement, “Start with the small consequences first; give yourself somewhere to go”?

Think about what many of us do when we try to get our “point” across to someone. When they do not understand what we are saying initially, we raise our voice. We up the ante. We get more forceful, louder and louder.

Then we act surprised when our child looks at us with wide eyes, frozen.

At that moment, we have triggered their freeze response, which leads next to “fight or flight”. Instead of engaging their brain’s pre-frontal cortex (where all the thinking occurs), we have instead triggered their amygdala and the parts of our brain that are centered on survival.

Our goal at that moment was to change the behavior, but by yelling or threatening we have shut down the parts of the brain that could understand and process. The response we are looking for is impossible now.

No light bulb. No insight. And no change.

So how does “start small” and “give yourself some room” work? Let’s use the example of screen time. Starting small means taking the screen (phone, console/PC) away in small fractions of time, say one minute per year of their age. And you are right, it is not a big consequence, but it is one that they will feel. Then return it so that they have a chance to try again.

Remember that behavior changes over time, so no, they will not immediately change the behavior. Repeat to yourself, “The light bulb is a fantasy.

Starting small does three things:

  1. We are less likely to trigger fight/flight because the child does not feel the screen is going away forever. If someone told me I could never have coffee again, I might freak out a bit. You tell me there’s no coffee this morning, I’ll adjust and remember to buy some more next time.
  2. Small consequences provide tight feedback loops. Your child has a chance to try to correct the behavior, rather quickly. This is the key to learning to change something: being able to try again. If you take away the console gaming system for a month, then there’s no chance to try again . . . or at least not in a meaningful amount of time for our brains to learn.
  3. Lastly, starting small means that if a behavior gets worse or escalates further, you have somewhere to go. Now, you can take it away again for another ten minutes. Then, you can take it away for another ten minutes, then another. But if you were to take it away for two months, then you are at a loss as to what to try next … except yell more, take “everything” away, or to hit your child out of desperation and anger.

So for those of you struggling a bit with parenting, or perhaps with another loved one in your house, consider starting small, taking steps, giving yourself some room.

And give up on the “light bulb moment”; there is no light bulb.

clinical social worker, spiritual director, author, husband, father, son, runner in Georgia, co-author of When Anxiety Strikes from Kregel Publications.

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