Punishments vs. Consequences: Teach Your Teen the Difference

When I work with parents of teenagers, our conversations inevitably turn toward discipline.

“How do get my teen to follow the rules?”
“My teen won’t clean up after himself. What should I do?”
“Nothing I do seems to have any effect on her!”

Discipline with teenagers is complicated. They are at an age where it is important to give them more freedom and responsibility, but many parents feel like they have few tools at their disposal to hold teens accountable. When they were toddlers, a simple “timeout” often sufficed, but now that they are teenagers the solutions don’t feel so simple.

One of the moms at a recent mother-daughter workshop asked me for advice about how to get her daughter to stop being so mean to her little brother. She gets annoyed with him easily and ends up yelling or even pushing and hitting him. I asked her what her usual reaction is, and she said, “I take away her phone for a few days”—a common, seemingly reasonable punishment. Then I asked the mom, “So how well does that work?” Her answer was something I hear from parents all the time: it works until the punishment is lifted, but then the behavior starts up again.

The Difference Between Punishments and Consequences. That’s the problem with some favorite go-to punishments—they make the teen suffer for a little while, but they have little impact on changing the behavior. To create consequences that are more effective, it is important to start with understanding the difference between punishments and consequences. They are not the same. They serve very different purposes, and create very different results.

Punishments are used to impose suffering of some kind and to make it clear who is in control. They are often unrelated to the problem behavior (taking away a phone because your teen was mean to her brother, for example), and they are most often given in moments of anger and frustration. The result of most punishments is that it instills fear and resentment, it makes teens reluctant to admit their mistakes, and most importantly, it has little, if any, effect on future behavior.

Consequences, on the other hand, are designed to teach teens to learn from their mistakes. They encourage good behavior, and teach teens to engage in more proactive problem solving. Ideally, consequences end up teaching teens that they are in control of, and responsible for, their behavior.

Discipline with teenagers is complicated. They are at an age where it is important to give them more freedom and responsibility, but many parents feel like they have few tools at their disposal to hold teens accountable.

How Does That Work in Real Life?
So, what does that look like in the real world? Here are some examples of how you can start using more effective consequences with your family.Your teen hasn’t been doing his chores around the house. Dirty dishes are left in the living room. Dirty towels are left on the bathroom floor, etc.

Instead of: Yelling, lecturing, nagging, taking away the phone, or grounding him …

Try this: Your teen is not respecting your home or taking care of his responsibilities. For one week, he will be responsible for doing ALL family dishes and ALL family laundry. The goal is to understand the effort it takes to take care of a home, and learn to respect his role in keeping the house clean.

Your teen is constantly fighting/bickering with her younger brother. She sometimes gets so annoyed with him that she hits or pushes him.

Instead of: Taking away her phone, grounding her for the weekend, or yelling at her …

Try this: In order to repair the harm she has caused in this relationship, your daughter needs to spend time with her little brother—take him to the park, watch a movie with him, read him a story before bed, etc. The goal is to repair the relationship and to learn that her brother doesn’t deserve to be treated that way.

Your teen tells you that he or she failed a test at school.

Instead of: Taking away the phone, grounding him or her for the weekend, or making him or her spend all day in the library studying …

Try this: Ask him or her what the plan is moving forward. Allow your teen to create a plan—talk with the teacher, stay after school for help, ask to retake the test, etc. After he or she has a plan, ask your teen how you can help support him or her. Does he or she need your help communicating with the teacher? Does your teen need your help studying? But the plan is his or her own, and your teen learns to be responsible for his or her grades.

Did you notice that the favorite punishments are often to take away electronics or grounding? There’s a reason parents turn to those so often. They can serve as a great punishment because many teens place such a high value on communicating with friends. These punishments have an initial shock value and serve to make the teen suffer a little and pay attention to what he or she has done. I am not recommending that parents stop using this punishment. It can be very effective to take away a phone or limit a teen’s freedom for the weekend. But it is important to understand that these tactics alone will not have a lasting effect on behavior. As parents, we need to pair these simple punishments with more meaningful consequences if we want our teens to become more aware of their behavior and make lasting changes.

As you decide on a consequence for your teen, remember to ask yourself: what do I want him to learn from this? Because teaching our teens to reflect, learn from mistakes, and take more responsibility for their actions is ultimately the goal.

© Copyright 2015 by Cheryl Somers, MA, NCC, therapist in Centennial, CO. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Ewa J. Antczak & Associates
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