"Logical consequences are so much more powerful than any parental sanctions or lectures!"

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Episode 113 -- May 13, 2021

Logical Sense: Reaping the Benefits of Consequences

In his book What's Wrong with My Kid? When Drugs or Alcohol Might Be a Problem and What to Do about It, mental health and addiction recovery advocate George E. Leary offers a judgment-free guide to the warning signs of drug use or addiction in our kids. The book educates parents about the truth of addiction and provides helpful advice on finding effective treatment.

As parents or guardians, we may find it difficult to take a step back when our child is struggling with addiction. We are often quick to react against mistakes without distinguishing whether the situation could be a potential learning opportunity. In this excerpt, Leary defines the difference between natural and logical consequences. We learn how allowing these consequences to flow uninterrupted can help prevent parent-child struggles while effectively addressing substance use.

Those of us who are in recovery but do not have children with substance use disorders can also relate to growth that comes from viewing our mistakes as learning opportunities. We see this in our own experiences as adults. This excerpt can help lessen the negativity that we usually associate with consequences, as Leary provides multiple examples of how we can use them as teaching tools instead.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

Parents have always imposed mandates, codes of conduct, standards, and expectations upon their children. This domineering model of parenting was widely accepted for generations, and given the social context of earlier decades, it operated as a functional style of parenting. Today, however, parents find themselves raising sons and daughters in a society that is still reeling from the rapid and dramatic cultural transformations of the past half century. Fear of being investigated by child protective services, while operating in a fluid society that increasingly diminishes past morals and values, leaves today's parents understandably bewildered and confused. Parents legitimately ask, "What am I supposed to do? The old methods simply don't work!"

A solution to this quandary lies in the work of social psychiatrist Alfred Adler, whose doctrine of natural and logical consequences postulates that a person can expect certain consequences to happen whenever a specific action occurs. These consequences proceed directly from the act and have the potential to render beneficial learning outcomes. Since consequences are much more meaningful and powerful than any parental sanctions, parents are urged to allow consequences to flow unimpeded. Natural and logical consequences also allow parents to step back and thereby avoid parent-child struggles while leaving addicts to struggle with the consequences of their drug-centered actions.

A distinction between natural and logical consequences must be made before we can continue our discussion. Natural consequences are those consequences that flow directly from the nature of the act. An example of a natural consequence would be a toddler who touches a hot stove, despite parental warnings. The painful consequence of being burned teaches a powerful, painful, and unforgettable lesson to the toddler, one that is far more meaningful than anything Mom or Dad can say or do.

Logical consequences flow not from the natural order of things, but from standards and regulations that society designs so that our social order can be maintained. Being pulled over by the police and getting a ticket for running a red light is an example of a logical consequence. The need for traffic safety requires laws and consequences when the established principles are violated.

Stepping back and allowing consequences to flow would seem easy to do, but for most parents, getting out of the way and/or doing nothing while a loved one suffers discomforting consequences is contrary to all that is instinctual—an instinct that begins when their child is an infant. Because children need to be protected from immature and impulsive actions, a strong parental tendency develops to intervene in the name of safeguarding the child. This tendency is strengthened daily as parents respond to the baby's needs. When the infant grows into a toddler, parents find safeguarding the child requires more and more time, energy, and alertness. At times, the need for protection necessitates a swift and authoritative response, such as when a child suddenly dashes toward the street. Immediately rushing to grab the youngster, the parent obstructs the consequences of dashing into the street, thereby safeguarding the child from harm.

This is a totally appropriate and laudable action, but this mandate to protect the child conditions the parent to habitually interrupt consequences, even consequences that could offer beneficial learning without any physically harmful outcomes. This tendency to thwart consequences becomes so deep-seated that parents react without taking time to distinguish between behaviors presenting imminent danger and those offering beneficial learning opportunities.

Let me illustrate this with an incident that is initially free of any drug-related overtones. A second grader, Johnny, leaves the house to catch the school bus and forgets to take his lunch. Finding the forgotten lunch on the kitchen table, Johnny's parents have three options. First, they can personally take the lunch to Johnny's school, inconveniencing themselves but ensuring Johnny gets his lunch. Second, they can call the school and ask them to advance Johnny lunch money that they will pay back the next day. This option offers less inconvenience, and still ensures that Johnny gets lunch. Finally, Johnny's parents have the option of doing nothing and thereby allowing their son to experience the consequences of his irresponsibility.

Many parents, uncomfortable with the idea of Johnny missing lunch, will choose one of the first two options. Some, however, will do nothing, and through their inaction they will allow Johnny to experience minor hunger pains, a natural consequence of his irresponsibility. For each of these options, the question must be asked, "What have you taught Johnny by the choice you made?" For those parents who made sure food was delivered to Johnny, the answer is that Johnny learned absolutely nothing except what he already knew—his parents will rescue him. If his parents choose the third option and permit their son to go without lunch, will Johnny face serious harm? Of course not, but he will experience some minor hunger pangs and, more important, develop an appreciation for the need to be responsible—a lesson learned without any effort on his parents' part.

How many forgotten lunches do you think it will take for Johnny to make sure he takes his lunch to school each day? By allowing him to experience the natural consequences that flow from forgetting his lunch, a valuable lesson about responsibility has been taught, something that couldn't occur if his parents go out of their way to make sure he gets lunch.

While this example may seem like a small event in the grand scheme of things, it does illustrate the power of consequences as a teaching tool that promotes healthy maturation. Let Johnny feel the consequences of being irresponsible. Let him appreciate the discomfort and hunger that comes from irresponsibility. Let him experience this consequence so that an invaluable lesson about responsibility is learned in an effective manner.

Logical consequences are so much more powerful than any parental sanctions or lectures! The following point enhances the powerful learning experiences that logical consequences offer.

Logical consequences should be action centered. The fewer words, the better. Since kids develop a unique ability to let your "words of wisdom" flow in one ear and out the other, talking doesn't work. This is particularly true when it comes to drug use, so let the consequences do the talking for you. The effect is dramatically greater.

Sometimes action means doing nothing, such as when Dorothy is arrested for possession of drugs and her parents decide to allow the consequences of her actions to fall on her shoulders. Her parents do not go to the police lock-up when the arresting officer phones them, a very logical consequence. They do not contact the family lawyer, which forces Dorothy to go through the trouble of acquiring a public defender and being represented by an overworked, underprepared lawyer. They do not post bail, thus allowing their daughter the opportunity to fully experience another logical consequence of drug use—incarceration. By choosing to do nothing (which can be a powerful act), parents conduct themselves in a manner that is much more effective than anything they could do.

Allowing consequences to happen allows parents to avoid resorting to old, reactive behaviors like lecturing, screaming, shouting, leveling unenforceable threats, and giving arbitrary punishment. When parents step back and allow natural and logical consequences to flow unimpeded, they address substance use and its associated behaviors in a manner that is less taxing and much more effective than traditional parental reactions. By allowing your young person to experience natural and logical consequences, a powerful weapon to combat addiction is deployed. Begin to use it, no matter how heart wrenching it may be. This weapon is the centerpiece of your war on drugs weaponry.

About the Author:
George E. Leary Jr., M.A., provides mental health services to addicts and those living with HIV/AIDS. He established and operated two recovery houses in Baltimore, Maryland, and served for nine years on a mobile crisis intervention team.

© 2012 by George E. Leary Jr.
All rights reserved