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Children: Choices and Consequences

Aug 17, 2007
Have you struggled in vain to get your child to comply with rules? Do you feel like you are always yelling, but never get through? While no one method will work ALL the time, here's an easy to remember way to set a limit. Use the A.C.T. model.

First, the A - acknowledge the feeling behind your child's undesirable behavior.

Second, the C - state the consequences for the undesirable behavior.

Third, the T - target an acceptable alternative.

Here's an example:

A - Johnny, I can see you are really eager to make a picture with your new markers.

C- But walls are not for drawing pictures. If you choose to draw on the wall with your markers, you are choosing to have them put up for the day.

T - If you want to draw with the markers, you can use this piece of paper. Which one do you choose?

The secret to this using the A.C.T. method is in the way you apply it. Select a specific behavior to focus on. The first step is to notice the feeling or desire behind your child's behavior. Try to get eye contact with your child as you do so.

Acknowledging the feeling first will help your child to feel understood and will decrease resistance to the message that follows. It will also help your child learn the connection between feelings and actions.

It may be necessary to repeat this part more than once, paraphrasing it in different ways. For example: "Johnny, I can see you are really eager to make a picture with your new markers." (Johnny continues to take the cap off every marker.) "It looks like fun and you can't wait to get started!"

Remember, saying what you think your child feels only means that you understand what it is like to be him at that moment. It does not mean you agree with what he wants to do.

The second step is to state the consequence for the behavior clearly and calmly, making it clear the choice belongs to the child. Notice how our example uses the word "choose" 3 times.

Finally, you MUST follow through with the consequence immediately if the child continues with the undesirable action. Remember, children need guidance, so offer an alternative action that you find acceptable.

This model can also be used to guide older children in their decision making. Here's another example:

A - Jill, I know it is important to you to wear designer jeans.

C - If you choose to buy those jeans, we won't have enough money left to get the new shoes you want.

T - If you choose the less expensive jeans, we will have enough money to get both the new shoes and the jeans. The choice is yours.

In this example, it is important that the parent truly be willing to let Jill make her own decision, and not "rescue" her from the consequences of her choice. If she chooses the expensive jeans, she'll have to do without the new shoes.

Here's one more example:

A - Jeff, I know you are in a hurry to get to your friend's house.

C - Remember, you have a choice as to how you drive. If you choose to drive over the speed limit and get a ticket, you will be responsible for paying it and you will lose your driving privilege for one week.

T - If you choose to drive within the speed limits, you will be able to keep on driving and you will be able to spend that money on other things. The choice is yours.

As a parent, part of your job is setting and teaching limits to your children until they internalize these and no longer need your guidance. Small children need to be given small choices appropriate to their age. Older children will need to make bigger decisions, still within the limits of what is acceptable to you as the parent. When you give your children choices, make sure you are willing to live with any of the options.
About the Author
Susan Huebert and Rhonda Hildreth practice counseling in Wichita KS at
Child Therapy Specialists.
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