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Cause and Effect Relationship

Cause and effect issues have to do with difficulty in inferring relationships. For example, if your child is outside and you ask him “why are all the streets and sidewalks wet?” and he cannot figure it out. Difficulty recognizing cause-effect relationship can become a serious problem since many dangerous behaviours are prevented by a proper understanding of cause-effect relationships. For example, putting your hand on a hot stove (the cause) will produce a burn (the effect). Children with cause-effect relationship problems will have much more trouble learning that it is not a good idea to put your hand on the stove.

It should be remembered that all children, at some point, will behave impulsively. In many cases, the child understands the cause-effect relationship but has not yet learned to control his impulses.

When to worry

Typical signs of cause-effect problems include:

  • The child never asks why something happens and lacks insight into why something happened.
  • He engages in dangerous activities even after repeated warnings, for example, by touching a hot stove or playing with sharp sticks.
  • He seems not to know the reasons for the rules, for example, if you ask him, “Why are you not allowed to touch the knives?”
  • He does not learn from experience.
  • He has few friends and often has trouble making or keeping friends because he does not know how his actions upset the other children.
  • He freezes in new situations and seems unable to figure out what to do.

Effect in the classroom

  • He has trouble seeing similarities between similar situations.
  • He has difficulty transferring routines and procedures from one situation to another.
  • He has trouble with social relationships.
  • He has difficulty developing efficient strategies in unstructured situations.

How to help

  • Explain the consequences of the child’s actions: “if you knock down Jason’s blocks, he won’t want to play with you.”
  • Develop rules and routines for important activities. Teach them explicitly and stick to them.
  • Make very clear why you do a task in a particular way. Talk your way through the task as you do it.
  • If the child does something incorrectly, demonstrate the appropriate behaviour for the situation, then have the child rehearse. “If you want Jason to play with you, ask “can I play too?””
  • Make expectations and consequences clear: “If you jump down the stairs, I will give you a time-out.”
  • Always explain why a consequence was given. Consequences without explanation may be remembered as “they were mean to me.”
  • If impulsive behaviour is extreme, arrange to meet with a physician or psychologist to investigate the possibility the child has an Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In some cases, medication could be helpful in reducing impulsive behaviour.


1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12

by Thomas W. Phelan, PhD
Trade paperback: 212 pages
Publisher: ParentMagic Inc. (2003)
ISBN: 1889140163

SOS Help for Parents: A Practical Guide for Handling Common Everyday Behaviour Problems, Third Edition

by Lynn Clark, PhD, and illustrated by John Robb
Publisher: Parents Press (2005)
ISBN: 0935111212

Setting the Stage

Setting the Stage is program that helps parents develop an understanding of what triggers inappropriate behaviours in their children. The program, which includes a manual and a video, can be ordered on line through the Child Development Resource Connection at:

Virginia  Frisk, Ph.D., C. Psych