As our kids enter the teenage years, many things become easier. We no longer have to hold their hands to keep them safe. We don’t need to bathe them and brush their teeth. They understand that there are rules and that it’s important to follow them. But they also now realize that they are separate from us and that we don’t really have any power over them. At some point, it’s only natural that they will test what they often see as arbitrary boundaries. So what’s a parent to do?
Experts Agree—Consequences Win!
Despite the fact that dictionary definitions of discipline include the use of punishment, most parenting experts say that unwanted behavior is more consistently and positively changed through consequences, especially natural ones.
On their website, the Center for Parent & Teen Communication notes that discipline and disciple share the same root and that the goal of discipline is to teach children to “grow up into respectful people who, in turn, earn respect from others” and ultimately into successful adults. Punishment, on the other hand, makes people angry at being controlled, and angry people are unlikely to reflect and grow.
Psych Central explains: “A consequence is meant to teach, maintain accountability, and maintain safety,“ but “the goal of a punishment is to shame, guilt, impose authority, or harm. The motivation behind a punishment comes from a place of emotion and a need to maintain control.” This teaches teens to make decisions based on fear, instead of what will help them grow.
As Alan Kazdin, PHD, ABPP points out in a Psychology Benefits Society blog post, “Punishment, even at its best, does not develop the positive behavior the parents wish.” As many parents can attest, it may temporarily get the desired results, but punishment will not cause anyone “to do homework, to practice, or to clean up.”
Instead, teens see punishment as a parent’s attempt to “ruin their life.” In this emotional state, they may feel betrayed and lose trust, causing resentment that damages the relationship. They also won’t learn what they could have done differently. But natural consequences empower them and foster an understanding that they can do better—by making better choices.
4 Ways To Make Consequences Effective
1. Allow consequences to give teens control.
The idea here is to empower our teens. While it sounds counter-intuitive, we need to give them some level of self-control. Like other life skills, good decision-making requires practice. Offer guidance by giving your teen micro-doses of power to help them learn how to make good decisions while they still have the “safety net” of having you nearby.
For example, if they are “not feeling well,” allow them to decide whether they go to school or stay home. They might need a reminder that if they stay home, they will be “in for the day” as their “job” is to get better and that they will have to make up any work missed. They might realize they are well enough to attend school when they consider the negative consequences of missing it.
2. Make consequences appropriate and reasonable.
Choices have consequences, which can be natural or logical. Experts agree that though natural consequences are more effective, not all situations have built-in repercussions. Sometimes parents have to create these consequences. But it’s important to do so in ways that (1) make sense with relation to the offense and (2) are reasonable.
And, as child psychiatrist and president of the Child Mind Institute Harold Koplewicz says in The Scaffold Effect, Raising Resilient, Self-Reliant, and Secure Kids in an Age of Anxiety, “A reinforcer only works if the child cares about it.” He also reminds parents to show them the positives of compliance – they will have no incentive to change behavior if the result is futile. Offering praise, positive reinforcement, or maybe even rewards when they meet and follow expectations can go a long way with teens and older kids, just as they do with preschoolers.
3. Whenever possible, set logical consequences in advance.
Discussing rules and what the consequences are for breaking them in advance makes the process “fair” and also takes the emotion out of the situation. Many teenage misbehavior comes from a place of impulsivity. Calmly reminding them of the rules and consequences you have laid out in advance will avoid emotional escalations where no one wins.
Remind them that responsibility comes along with privilege and this is part of being an adult. When possible, include them in choosing the types of consequences and seek their feedback. (They might come up with harsher consequences than you do.) Consequences also create a buffer that can avoid damage to relationships. It is not Mom or Dad causing their discomfort, but their own actions.
4. Sit back and let them experience the consequences.
Being late to a team practice will likely mean they will sit the bench. Ignoring the rules about car use will result in car privileges being revoked. Refusing to wear or bring a jacket in cold weather will cause physical discomfort. If their favorite shoes are left in the living room and the puppy chews them, they will have to pay the replacement cost. Clothes that are not put in the hamper do not get washed. If they blow through their personal funds, they are out of money. Speaking in a disrespectful tone will cause an immediate end to the conversation – their side will not be heard. Lying will result in not being trusted.
Koplewicz reminds parents that “consequences don’t have to hurt to work.” He sees effective consequences as vital life lessons and cautions parents to keep emotions at bay to avoid escalations. He cautions that discipline doesn’t work when you’re angry and says it’s okay to postpone imposing it if you’re upset or feel yourself on the verge of yelling: give yourself a “time out” when necessary. This stepping away also serves to role-model self-awareness. Though we may not realize it, our teens learn more from watching us than from listening to us.
Learning to make decisions is an important life skill. Koplewicz says, “Parents who give their kids the freedom to make and regret bad choices are actually helping them learn to make smarter ones.”
Are you looking for more encouragement for raising your teens and tweens?
Check out this book, Loving Hard When They’re Hard to Love, by the co-owner of Parenting Teens & Tweens, Whitney Fleming. The book contains 55 relatable essays about raising tweens and teens in today’s modern and chaotic world.
Parenting teens and tweens is a hard job, but you’re not alone. Here are some posts other parents have found helpful:
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