“Punishing” teenagers often creates more discipline problems than it solves. I define punishment as anything that causes blame, shame or pain. When moms and dads focus on blaming, shaming and causing pain to their teenager, his or her brain's limbic system reacts with intense defense. When a parent punishes teenagers, they don’t react with remorse and a “how can I make it better” attitude. Instead, they react with one of the "Four R’s", which leads to increased discipline problems.
Moms and dads use punishment because it “appears” to stop misbehavior immediately (and sometimes does). Sometimes we must beware of what works when the long-term results are negative. The long-term results of punishment are that children usually adopt one or all of the Four R’s of Punishment:
- Retreat (avoiding contact/conversation with the parent)
When a teenager reacts with one or more of the "Four R’s", he is not focused on “life lessons” (e.g., making restitution, realizing how his actions affected others, learning how to repair damage, learning from mistakes, etc.). Instead of thinking about a mistake or misbehavior, the teenager is usually stewing with negative thoughts (e.g., “My parents are mean” or “How can I not get caught next time?”).
Many parents view typical “autonomy-seeking” (i.e., a teenager trying to be independent) as “teenage rebellion,” which is viewed by the parent as a discipline problem.
It is normal for a teenager to deliberately do the opposite of what her parents value most as a way to show that she is an individual. When moms and dads don’t understand the natural autonomy-seeking process, they take a teenager’s actions personally and react with strong punishments. Autonomy-seeking behavior may turn into all-out teenage rebellion if parents fan the flames of rebellion.
Not punishing teens does not mean that parents should instead be permissive. Parents should first allow time for both parties to cool off. Next, parents meet with their teenager and ask “what and how questions” (e.g., “What can you do to make up for me having to take the garbage to the street because you forgot?” … “How are you going to pay for this speeding ticket?” … “How are you going to pay for the increase in the car insurance?”) so that the teenager can problem solve how he will make restitution, pay for amends, or rectify the situation. Teenagers will learn more life lessons by “making up” for their mistakes than they will by being punished – blamed, shamed or caused pain.
The problem with punishing teenagers is that it doesn’t work in the long run to teach life lessons. Instead, punishment usually increases rebellion and doesn’t involve teenagers in solving problems and making amends for mistakes.
What is the difference between discipline and punishment?
Discipline means to “teach.” Discipline helps teenagers learn self-control and confidence. With discipline, parents use strategies to prevent problems plus guidance to manage conflict. Punishment is a parenting tool used after a problem surfaces.
- Assisting the teenager to accept natural or logical consequences of the misbehavior.
- Focusing on what the teenager needs to do in the future.
- Helping the teenager develop self discipline and learn how to become responsible.
- Relating the strategies directly to the misbehavior.
- Consists of penalties or restrictions that often have nothing at all to do with the misbehavior.
- Focuses on what’s wrong instead of what needs to be done right.
- Is concerned with making the teenager “pay” for what she did wrong.
- Puts responsibility for enforcement on the mother or father instead of encouraging the teenager to become responsible for her actions.
Take the example of a teen skipping school regularly and “hanging out” at the mall in a nearby town. Possible punishments could include: revoking driving privileges, cutting off the teenager’s allowance, prohibiting phone use, grounding, banning TV and forbidding the teen to go to the mall.
There are several possible discipline strategies. Parents need to listen to the teenager’s feelings and concerns about school. Together, parent and child discuss options for addressing the problem. Parents, teen and teachers could meet to figure out what needs to be done about missed classes. That doesn’t mean there won’t be some privileges taken away for a time, but that alone would do nothing to solve the core problem.
Moms and dads can also use the if/then parenting tool. This means helping the teen understand that if he attends school and completes the work, then other privileges will be available (e.g., being able to go back to the mall).
My Out-of-Control Teen: Effective Disciplinary Strategies for Out-of-Control Children and Teens