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"Punishment" Creates Problems -- "Discipline" Resolves Problems

“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:
  • Rebellion
  • Resentment
  • Retreat (avoiding contact/conversation with the parent)
  • Revenge

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.

Discipline means:
  • 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


Anonymous said...

You have hit the nail on the head. I am at my wits end as to how to help my daughter. I am sitting here with tears in my eyes almost afraid that this will not work and make things worse.

Have you seen that the program is equally effective with ADD girls? Megan is 15 and just recently started on medication for ADD. She does not admit to any significant differences at this point. She has also just recently started therapy and Celexa for depression. Again, she does not share that she feels any different.

She Will not discuss anything with us as her parents.

She is failing most subjects in school. I’ll take care of it but it does not happen.

Her friends and the social aspect of life are her priorities.

We have tried so many different approaches.

I fear I have let her minor disabilities govern how I parent her. Not a total free ride but have been maybe too understanding/over indulgent because I know it has been hard for her.

I have intervened in her school work in the past to help her recover or save herself at the last minute.

I am at the point of holding a hard line on the consequences, no phone, no social activities, etc. but at this point I get such a volatile emotional response that I am afraid it will make things worse rather than better.

She herself says it’s too late mom. “You did not discipline me like this before you can’t start now” I really do not think I was that permissive. She was just given a chance to correct behavior or decisions which she usually did when she was younger.

I could go on forever. I have only scratched the surface. I guess I just needed to know if I should make any adjustments to the program given her ADD issues?

Just this week I gave her a letter that outlined my love and confidence in her but also my worry about her school work and her priorities. I said that the things she viewed as “givens” cell phone, social activities, spending money. Needed to be earned. The way to earn them was to get her school work in better shape.

If I hold my ground I will have to prohibit her from attending a basketball game tonight. We have already had words about it but I backed off stressing the point this morning because she was getting ready to take a retake on a test and I did not want her totally wigged out before the test. I do not think she believes that I would really keep her from going. She says she needs time with her friends. “It is her friends that are keeping her sane”.

Anonymous said...

It is so hard to know what to do, I am in the exact same situation and I am seeing no light at the end of this right now. today is my daughters 16th bday and we are just sitting here because she took my car the other night at 130am with a 15 yr old friend to go to a boys house in the pouring rain,she doesn't even seem to care right now. We cannot give up!!

Unknown said...

Hi, if it's any comfort, I did some silly things and acted out as a teenager. I couldn't feel my mother's pain - although I can now. I grew up all right and remember the values I was taught as a child although I was a frustration to my parents as a youngster. Hope he same for your daughter.

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