Consequences that Work

Sometimes parents (this one included) find themselves giving consequences to their kids in inconsistent ways. I’ve found that developing a framework for giving consequences often makes them more effective in helping your child make better choices. The following is an article I wrote a while back that should give some help with this struggle.

You and your teen
Consequences that work
Land Park News Family Columnist

A few months ago, a 16-year-old boy, “John,” and his parents started therapy. John had been defiant recently and broke curfew two Saturdays in a row. Each time, he’d received a stern lecture and was sent to bed, only to sneak back out as soon as he thought they’d gone to sleep. When his parents caught him sneaking back in the first time, they’d been angry and threatened consequences, which made John very upset. He’d begged them not to ground him, and against their better judgment they’d let him slide. When it all happened again the following week, they didn’t know what to do and called me.

As we started talking, his mom turned to John and blurted out, “If you break any rules between now and the end of school, you’ll be grounded for the entire summer.” Without thinking, I said, “Why would you want to do that to yourself?”

As much as Miss Manners would have frowned upon my lack of finesse, his parents appreciated my straightforward approach, as they realized they didn’t want to spend their summer supervising John 24-7. Had they tried, John would likely have blamed them for ruining his summer and made things unpleasant for everybody. Fortunately, they understood my point and were receptive to my suggestions.

As tempting as it might be to react immediately and give harsh, lengthy consequences when your teen breaks rules, it’s important to take time to calm down and think about how you feel and what you want to say. When John’s parents did this they realized that they were angry, worried, and confused by what he’d done, and they shared this with him.

After you’re satisfied that you teen has understood your concerns, encourage him/her to talk about what led
him/her to make these choices. When John’s parents did this, they learned that he had been having serious problems with his girlfriend, and he’d felt that the only time they could talk was late at night.

After everyone feels heard, consider how to respond. As much as John’s parents felt badly about the problems he was having, they concluded that he could have found another time to talk. Had they known he was having problems, they would have helped him figure out an alternative time. Since he’d chosen to sneak out instead, they felt consequences were appropriate. John grudgingly agreed, and he promised to try to be more open about his problems in the future.

As you consider the length of the restriction and what privileges to remove, I suggest starting with brief, rather than lengthy consequences, and removing less rather than more. This helps you focus the conversation on making better choices, rather than on your teen’s anger and resentment. As John choices were breaking curfew and sneaking back out for two weekends in a row, his parents decided that he wouldn’t be allowed to go out for the next two weekends. They chose not to take away other privileges.

When the initial consequences aren’t effective, it’s necessary to adjust them by removing additional privileges. John, as with most teenagers, would rather eat nails and drink boiling oil before losing cell phone and/or car privileges. Had John continued defying his parents’ rules by sneaking out or making other serious errors in judgment, I would have encouraged his parents to remove them in addition to the weekend restriction.

I realize that parents don’t want to give consequences, but there are times that they’re appropriate and necessary. Our teens will resist them, and sometimes it can feel easier to give in rather than arguing. However, if you hold firm, I’ve found that over time teens get tired of losing out on what they want to do and make better choices.

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