What do you do when your teenager decides to break the rules?
Maybe he is making poor choices to defy your authority or disregarding the rules because he only wants to focus on what he wants in the moment. Maybe he is constantly forgetting his chores and his homework because he is caught up in his video games.
Whatever the situation is you have some choices to make about how to respond. Can you keep your cool? Do you have a plan in place?
In this post I am going to talk about the most effective ways to use consequences with your teenager. I also talk about a common trap that you should avoid.
I saw a hilarious comic strip today that said, “Patience: what parents have when there are witnesses around.” Doesn’t that ring true?
There is no doubt that raising teenagers can push all your buttons and even drive you crazy. It is guaranteed that they will break rules, throw all kinds of attitude around and just be a pain in the butt sometimes.
It is our job to help guide them into adulthood. A challenging task for sure. One way that parents fulfill this role is by using discipline.
One definition of discipline says that it is “training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character.” I kind of like that one.
In my mind, the whole point is learning and growth. This is why I cringe when I hear parents talk about needing to punish their teenagers. I just want to say, “No, you have it all wrong.” It is not about inflicting enough pain to get obedience. That may be good for law enforcement and the military, but not so much for parenting teenagers!
I know that it is easy to fall into the trap of reactive parenting. Saying and doing things we know are not helpful and may even be harmful. We react in anger and choose consequences that are overly harsh. We get impatient and say things that are disrespectful or demeaning.
The truth is that we all do these things at times. We resort to the other definition of discipline which is, “control gained by enforcing obedience or order.” It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to know that teenagers will fight against this type of discipline, which only leads to more frustration for you.
So, how do you respond to defiance and disorderly teenage conduct?
These are the simple, but terribly difficult steps.
- Set clear expectations
- Define reasonable consequences
- Follow through
This “simple formula” falls apart in many families for a number of reasons. One of the ones I hear about the most is parents who struggle with choosing and enforcing reasonable consequences. It is a problem we all face.
Usually it ends up being a vicious cycle where you take away the smartphone, the XBOX, the internet or the car. There is temporary obedience or compliance. Your teenager “earns” back the privileges and then goes right back to the behavior the you were trying to stop. In the end there is little to no learning or lasting change.
Are you familiar with this pattern? Frustrating for sure! You feel like you are ineffective, powerless and just plain out of options.
Of course you are responsible for a part of the problem, but I want to tell you that it is not entirely your fault. You may be choosing consequences that are never going to get you the results that you want.
Here is an easy way to understand the 4 types of consequences you can choose from. I have organized them in order from most effective to least effective. These are adapted from the excellent work of Ray Levy, Ph.D.
1. Natural consequences
Natural consequences are those that allow your teen to learn from the natural order of the physical world. If your teen has no money and does not pack their lunch they are going to get hungry. If he doesn’t bring a sweatshirt with him when he goes out with his friends he is going to get cold and be unhappy.
These are always going to be the most effective, especially for teenagers. They can’t argue with an act of nature that is not enforced by an authority figure.
This may seem like common sense, but many parents don’t factor this into their decision making process. Instead they rescue their teens from learning these life lessons and miss out on a potentially good opportunity.
Whenever possible, let the natural consequences be his teacher.
2. Relevant consequences
Relevant consequences are directly related and relevant to the misbehavior and move your teen closer to the desired behavior. Even though he might fight against this type of consequence he can understand the logic and that makes a huge difference.
A teen who completes his chores, but does a poor job is required to go back and fix his mistakes. A teen who consistently goes over his time limit for gaming loses his privileges for the next day. A teen who comes home an hour after his curfew loses an hour the next night and has to come home earlier.
In these few examples the chosen consequence is directly relevant to the poor choice. It is designed to teach him to make a better choice the next time. It is set up to be a corrective experience. Not to shame him or punish him, but rather to teach him a valuable lesson.
3. Related consequences
Related consequences are not directly relevant but they have a close relationship to the problem behavior. Once again the connection between the behavior and the consequence makes reasonable sense and can be easier for your teenager to accept.
For example a teen who lost his temper and yelled at his teacher or coach is required to write a letter of apology. A teen who gets a speeding ticket is required to pay the fine with his own money. A teen who is getting poor grades is not allowed to play video games until his homework is done. Or maybe he is required to see a tutor once a week.
You get the idea. The consequence is very closely related and ultimately helpful (even if your teen doesn’t think so!).
Note: It may be difficult to tell the difference between a relevant versus a related consequence. The truth is that it doesn’t matter too much. As long as it is connected to the behavior you are trying to change.
4. Significant consequences
Significant consequences are not directly related to the misbehavior, but can motivate the teen to perform the appropriate behavior by taking away certain things that he wants, i.e. video games, smartphones, XBOX, time with friends, etc.
Yes, you guessed it, these are the least effective consequences and probably the most common. I’m not going to lie to you. These can and do work, depending on the personality of your unique teenager. This works with teens who naturally desire to please their parents and are sensitive to disappointing others.
However, for many teens (including the exceptionally oppositional ones) these consequences work only briefly or may even backfire completely. You unknowingly encourage your teen to work the “system” or to choose to not care about those things so that you have no power over him.
Be careful and strategic with using these kinds of consequences. Your mileage may vary, but just know that you may not get the learning and growth that you are aiming for with significant consequences.
We all want our kids to grow into respectful, responsible and reasonably happy young adults. Remember that the teen years do not last forever. Thank God!
It is important for your own mental health and the development of your teenager that you choose effective consequences.
Yes, it is hard, but it is also worth the time and effort to parent with intention.