How to discipline your children is one of the toughest decisions parents have to make. Does it vary based on the personality of each child, on the circumstance, or on your chosen parenting style? A seemingly simple system of rewards and consequences is the go-to model many adults use to keep children motivated to behave. Reinforcing positive behavior and allowing natural outcomes be the result of less than desirable behavior is an approach that works for some children but not all.

According to Mona Delahooke, Ph.D., a system of rewards and consequences, although well-meaning, can sometimes make behavior challenges worse. Especially when factors such as ADHD, emotional regulation, or sensory disorders are involved. You may wonder if rewards or consequences don’t work, what should you do instead?

“When we examine what is underlying the behavior, instead of seeing discipline as the only option, we can truly “see” the child. Instead of punishing the child, we can appreciate the behavior for what it’s telling us about what the child needs from his caresharers.”

As parents and pediatric occupational therapists, we encourage parents and caregivers to go beyond managing surface behaviors and look a little deeper. Children’s overt behaviors often reflect unmet needs, whether relational, emotional or physiological. Shifting to an approach that’s grounded in neuroscience helps us focus on causes and triggers in order to prevent the negative behaviors, rather than fighting a constant battle of trying to alter challenging end behaviors.

Negative behavior is often the result of an unintentional stress response. A system of rewards and consequences assumes the behavior is intentional, so as a result, children are “punished” for automatic responses to triggers. Naturally, the result is increasingly challenging behavior.

When we begin shifting our view of “bad” behavior, what ends up looking like defiance or a tantrum may very well be a child’s attempt to feel better, which often is a cry for human attention and the need to feel relationally secure. Once we truly “see” the child and try to understand what the behavior is telling us, we can clearly see discipline is not the only option.

Look beyond behaviors for triggers such as fears, shame, embarrassment, and physical sensations to find options that respect the child’s neurodevelopment and promote a sense of security. That’s what behaviorally challenged children – and all children – need most of all.