How to Determine the Right Consequences When Setting Boundaries

Boundaries with TeensNot long ago I (Dr. Townsend) took my kids and some of their friends to a major league baseball game for an outing. While we were watching the game, a young boy sitting behind us was making everyone miserable. He was out of control, loud, and rude.

His parents did try to manage him, but their efforts were ineffective. They shushed him, praised him when he was quiet, bribed him with food, and threatened to take him out of the game. Nothing worked.

Finally, one of my son’s friends turned to me and said, “That guy needs some serious consequences.” I made a note to myself to call his parents when I got home and congratulate them. I don’t often hear that kind of thing from adolescents.

If you are like many of the people I talk with, you may often have difficulty identifying and following through with appropriate consequences. Let’s take a look at a five simple principles that can guide you in determining the right consequences when setting boundaries.

1. Remove the Desirable, Add the Undesirable
A consequence is either removing the desirable or adding the undesirable to someone else’s life as the result of a rule violation. If you have a teenager, examples might include the removal of television privileges or the addition of extra chores.

In my experience, removing something other people want is usually more effective than adding something they don’t want. This is true for two reasons. First, many people today have a lot of extracurricular demands (sports, music, theater, church, and so on), so they have less free time to do whatever has been added to their already busy schedule.

Second, it requires more of your time and energy to supervise and monitor added responsibilities than it does to remove an activity. So, before you impose a consequence that involves adding something, make sure it is worth your personal investment.

2. Don’t Interfere with a Natural Consequence
Whenever possible, allow other people to face a natural consequence to an undesirable behavior or attitude. Don’t intervene. For example, allow the other person to:

  • Lose a relationship as a result of being selfish
  • Spend the night at the police station after being picked up for loitering late at night
  • Miss out on going to a movie, concert, or event as a result of having spent all their money

These types of consequences are powerful and effective. Even better, all they require from you is that you get out of the way! Of course, many situations do not have a natural consequence, and in those instances, you need to apply something of your own making.

3. Make the Consequence Something That Matters
A consequence must matter to the other person. He or she must be emotionally invested in it. She needs to want and desire what she is losing; she needs to not like what she is having to add. Otherwise, the experience doesn’t count for much. For instance, if you have a loner kid who loves her music, she likely won’t mind being restricted to her room with her stereo. That is why you need to know your own teen’s heart, interests, and desires.

This might lead some people to ask: What if nothing matters? You might be a parent who has tried everything, but your teen doesn’t really seem to care. Keep in mind that your teen may be engaging in a power play with you, holding out to see how far you will take this. If so, the consequences do matter to your teen, but she doesn’t want you to know, either because she’s so angry at you that she wants you to feel helpless. Or, she is waiting you out in hopes that you will drop the consequence. In these situations, you may need to talk with your teen about her anger and try to connect and defuse things while also keeping the limit going. In time, your teen will likely become aware that she is only hurting herself, and will begin to respond.

When you do see a positive response, be sure you are warm and encouraging with your comments. When people submit to a consequence, they often feel humiliated, weak, powerless, and alone, which puts them in a very vulnerable position. They need grace and comfort. So refrain from lecturing, making jokes, or showing that you were right. Treat others as you’d like to be treated in a similar situation.

4. Give the Most Lenient Consequence that Works
How severe is too severe? How easy is too easy? You’ll want to ensure that the consequences fit the violation appropriately. The time should fit the crime. When consequences are too strict, it can lead to alienation, discouragement, or increased rebellion. When they are too lenient, it can lead to increased disrespect and a lack of the desired change in the other person.

So, give the most lenient consequence that works. Keep your mind on the goal, which is a heightened sense of responsibility, accountability, and self-awareness. If a more lenient consequence changes behavior, and the change lasts over time, then you are on the right track. If it does not, and you are providing the right amounts of love, truth, and freedom, then you may want to increase the heat of the consequence over time until you see change.

5. Preserve the Good
Here’s another good rule of thumb: the best consequences matter the most, but preserve good things the other person needs. Impose consequences that are a big deal, but don’t remove activities that are good, such as participating in sports, taking music or art lessons, going to church, etc. These activities teach important lessons in discipline, cooperation, skill building, and coaching, and in so doing contribute to your child’s development or the other person’s growth.


Boundaries with Teens_small2Is setting boundaries and determining consequences with your teenage son or daughter driving you crazy? Dr. John Townsend provides the expert insight you need to help your teens take responsibility for their actions, attitudes, and emotions while gaining a deeper appreciation and respect both for you and for themselves. With wisdom and empathy, Dr. Townsend, a father of two teens himself, applies biblically-based principles for the challenging task of leading your children through the teen years. With his guidance, you will be able to:

  • Deal with disrespectful attitudes and impossible behavior in your teen.
  • Set healthy limits and realistic consequences.
  • Be loving and caring while establishing rules.
  • Determine specific strategies to deal with problems both big and small.

Click here to read a sample chapter and purchase today.

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  1. Pat says

    I’d love to see this directed more toward husbands and wives. I’ve yet to find a boundary that works with my husband, since he knows divorce is not on the table. He is very much the little boy (at 57!), but I refuse to be childish in response, so he knows I’m going to make dinner, shop for groceries, pay the bills, etc. And as long as he can go on the computer or his phone, he’s could care less if I’m annoyed or not.

    • Jennifer says

      Pat, you and I are in the same boat! My “third child” is 37 so it frightens me to think he might never grow up. What you wrote completely describes my situation as well. I’m sorry we have to go through this, and while I have no idea what to do, I wanted to let you know you aren’t alone. Is there a Boundary book to help us??

    • Wendy says

      Ouch, all to familiar to read- both you ladies! I recently read—once a victim; twice a volunteer. Now that hit home. Not all marriages are Godly and should not continue. Yes, God hates divorce, but look at all the examples in the Holy Bible when the unchanging husband that did not honor his covenant with God as husband, and was removed ( usually death occurred) Abigail comes to mind, her husband Napal was a “fool”.

    • says

      “so he knows I’m going to make dinner, shop for groceries, pay the bills, etc”


      What would it be like to figure out what you believe is fair for you to do in terms of chores per week/month, consider what he does that you may not see at first glance and then “go on strike” for the remainder of the week (e.g. only pay half the bills, shop for groceries only one day every two weeks, make dinner only 4 times a week???. You can work out the numbers, but I bet when there’s little food in the house, no beer in the fridge, and dinner is left-overs on Friday night, he’ll experience some unpleasant consequences. You’re not trying to change him here. You’re just setting a boundary on yourself as to how much you will do or not do. Warn him and be clear with him and or your kids about your plan. This takes stuff off your plate and helps others in the house grow up if they so choose.

    • Jenna says

      There is a boundaries in Marriage book, written by the same authors that is very good. Im reading it currently now and has proven to be very helpful. Best of luck!

    • Minnie says

      Hey Pat! I can see your dilemma and am very sorry to hear that. What if you try using daily things he takes for granted as a consequence. For example, if he doesn’t help out with house chores you won’t make him dinner that day. With consistent consequences, I’m sure your husband’s actions will change. Just an idea 🙂 Also Boundaries in Marriage would probably be a great source for help and ideas

    • lynn says

      Calmly and clearly tell him what your expectations are. “Husband I would like to split up the household chores a bit more evenly. I would like you to step up and help with the laundry. I would like you to join me when I go to the grocery store, and I would like you to cook 2 days a week.”

      He doesn’t want to help with laundry? His clothes pile up until he decides to wash them. He doesn’t go with you to the store? You buy only what you need, no extras for him or what he wants. He can go to the store later to get it himself. He doesn’t cook on the days he has chosen, fix dinner for only yourself. Any bills in his name, you leave them for him to pay. He’s late or it doesn’t get paid? He deals with the consequence from that company.

      • Julie says

        He doesn’t send his mom a birthday card, *I* get the “consequences” of some thinking I’m socially “cold” because “everybody” knows wives typically maintain the social obligations. Though I loved his (now departed) mom, I never sent her a birthday card unless both of our signatures were on it. I never got the impression she thought less of me for it, but my *own* mother did!

    • Dawn E. Franklin says

      Hey 🙂 a word of wisdom I heard regarding the wife’s role in a marriage and the art of submission which is also meant to be mutual is that “submission is ducking so that God can reach your husband”.
      With regard to bringing consequences, I’ve heard that the attitude is to be one of calm authority like a well disciplined police officer who simply does his job and stands for what is right, informing the person of his decision.

    • Penny Parish says

      My little boy is 63. I no longer pay the bills, grocery shop or cook. His name is on the bills too. Hunger is a great motivator. Oh, i also hired a cleaning lady to come in once a month (at his expense). Life is good!

  2. G says

    As a child my mother didn’t respect my physical boundary and constantly hit me in many ways whenever she was angry at anything at middle school and early high school ages. At one point I stopped one beating and said no more hitting. She still verbally was abusive after that and it continued after my first marriage and my daughter unfortunately witnessed it.
    Through out our tumultuous relationship she has pointed out my shortcomings recently.
    To try to repair and the understand this; I am reading and researching more on Boundaries.
    She continually points out what I have done wrong but will not take ownership of the beginning. Even lied to her current husband.
    With her initial behaviors, I see that her intrusions on my physical boundaries, all subsequent boundaries attempted to be placed have not been respected or followed.
    Is there a name for this whole ordeal or is there another way to explain it?
    I do understand the “sow and reap” rule to boundaries
    And is there an email I can send directly too to get more private responses

    • Kristin Derrit says

      There should be an email link at the top of the page; I would try that. Also I would encourage you to contact the National Abuse Hotline at 1-800−799−7233 or There’s also a Boundaries With Parents book.
      Much healing, and healthy choices!

  3. Karen says

    I need help how to deal with a volunteer who could not respect boundaries and the way our orgsnization does things. She quit and is now giving me a run around about returning some property. I have a lot on my plate so do not want this unfinished business lingering.
    Ive made several attempts to make arrangements for the return. She refuses and only gives dismissive answers so I am left hanging.
    It’s a power play, I know. Maybe revenge.
    After she refused to have the otems for me to pick up at her place I asked her to return them to me by a certain day and time.
    I now need consequences if that does not happen. What should they be.
    The items are not replaceable and have great significance to the clients we serve. They need to be returned.
    I sm the director. I am also a recovering doormat.

    • Julie says

      Karen: In my humble opinion it is time to involve law enforcement with this former volunteer. What you’ve described is theft. Or you could write her one final, formal letter that states if the items are not returned by x date, the matter will be turned over to law enforcement.

      Tell us how it turns out!

  4. Dee says

    Setting boundaries with a narcissistic spouse does more harm than good. I tried everything for almost 30 years with little cooperation. Consequences like a dirty house or few groceries meant nothing to him. I wish I didn’t spend all those years trying to help a grown man stop acting like a child. He became dangerous when he realized I was leaving and then quickly replaced me before the divorce with a new girlfriend who he is marrying soon. I am so thankful and grateful to God to be free, even though I am starting over in so many ways.

    • Janet says

      Dee is correct about narcissistic spouses. I experienced exactly what she described. When I took on a full time job as he demanded, he still expected me to fulfill the jobs that he deemed “women’s work”. I spoke with our pastor and he told me to stop doing what I was doing and let natural consequences occur. The house became disgusting and he did nothing, nor did he ask our children to help. It was like that until the day I separated from him. THEN he cleaned.
      At one point, after at least a year of counseling, he got angry at me for asking him to do certain things. But I hadn’t even asked, our therapist had. He then told me he would never again do anything that made me happy again. He meant it and he followed through as he punished me for being a noncompliant source and he began grooming our daughter to be his new source. When I asked him to leave our bed when he began demanding that I not touch him and that I sleep as far on the edge of the full size mattress we slept on, he took the blankets I set up on the couch in the next room and headed for the basement where our oldest daughter had slept while she was home from college. He stopped speaking to me and was totally disagreeable from that moment on.
      You can’t correct a narcissist. Not unless they see a benefit in it for themself.

  5. Esther says

    It’s called Codependency. Some codependants often have fluctuating self esteem, probably from what their parents did to them… and when it is inflated they are narcissistic.
    I’ve lived it….

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