Dealing with teenagers, at times, can be very difficult for parents, especially when teenagers think they have all the answers. In my experience as a psychotherapist who has been working with teenagers as for over 25 years, I am a strong believer in allowing teenagers to learn from their mistakes. When they make mistakes there are consequences that follow these mistakes. From my experience, teenagers need to be allowed to make mistakes and learn from the consequences. I know some parents try to warn their teenagers about potential mistakes. However, many teenagers feel they know more than you. Therefore, allowing them to make mistakes is the only way some teenagers learn that their actions have considered .
As I just stated, teenagers being allowed to make mistakes helps to teach teenagers that their actions have consequences. They also put responsibility for the mistake on to the teenager. Therefore, they cannot blame parents or teachers for their mistakes. They have to deal with the consequences of the choices they made. They cannot blame you because they made the choice not you.
As a way to help teenagers learn from their mistakes is to set up a behavior contract. A written contract which specifies the consequences for your teenager when they make a mistake saves a lot of arguments. A written construct signed by you and your teenagers which spells out their consequences, if they make a mistake or poor decision can save you and your teenager a lot of arguments. Also it helps your teenager to take responsibility for their actions because the contact focuses on their choices only.
While I believe contracts and consequences work well with teenagers, some parents have difficulties. I often hear from parents that their teenager doesn’t care about the consequences or the contract. The parents find this very frustrating. Therefore, I have listed below suggestions that can help you improve the odds of a contract and consequences working with your teenager.
1. Use Appropriate Consequences for the Situation
It’s almost never effective to give your child a consequence in the heat of an argument. Often, parents will be either too harsh or too lenient, because nothing appropriate comes to mind immediately. I advise parents to sit down and write a Consequences List and then discuss it with your teenager. If they are included in the process, the likelihood of success is higher. When compiling a list of consequences, remember that you want the consequence to be things that will get your teenagers attention, because you want your child to learn from the consequences. If, like most teens, your teenager acts like they cannot live without their cellphone, don’t hesitate to use losing use of their cellphone as a consequence. It’s also important to think about what you want him to learn—and this lesson should be attached to the consequence. So let’s say your teenager swears at his younger siblings all the time. Obviously you want him to stop swearing and use more appropriate language. Therefore, an effective consequence would be that he would lose his cellphone for 2 days. This gives him time to think about other ways he can handle his behavior. You may even try talking with him about other ways to handle himself instead of swearing.
2. Don’t Try to Appeal to Charge A Teenager’s Behavior with Speeches
Yes as a parent you are trying to teach and educate your teenager about how to act and treat others as adults so they can function in the world. However, remember your teenager thinks they know everything about today’s world and you are out of touch with today’s world. Therefore, if you try lecturing or speeches, they automatically tune you out and don’t listen to what you are saying. When everything is calm, you might try mentioning to them that you would like to talk with them. An informal conversation, especially with boys, tends to be more effective than a lecture.
3. Make Consequences Black and White
When you give a consequence, the simpler you keep things, the better. Again, you don’t want to get into legalese or long speeches. What you want to do is lay out your consequences for your teenager’s inappropriate behavior very clearly. It’s often helpful if he knows ahead of time what will happen when he acts out. Just like there are speeding signs on the highway, the consequences for your teenager’s behavior should be clear to him. Therefore, using a contract allows you to make it clear to your teenager if they make this choice then here is the consequence. Also by having them sign the contract, they cannot say they were not aware of the rules. Also it removes you as the bad guy. You are not imposing a punishment, you are simply complying with the contact that you made with your teenager. I often point out to teenagers that the contract is an insurance policy for them. If they make a mistake, their parents have to stick with the contract. Therefore, if their parents were really upset at the moment and wanted to remove their cellphone for ever, but the contract only states a week, their parents have to go with the week. This often helps with getting teenagers to accept the contract.
4. Have Problem-Solving Conversations
I think it’s vitally important to have problem-solving conversations with your teenager after an incident has occurred. Obviously, you want to wait until everyone is calm. When everyone has settled down then try a conversation about what they can do differently or help they can ask for if a similar situation occurs and this may help them avoid making a mistake and getting into trouble again in the future.
Conversations like these are how you get your teenager to think about alternative solutions to problems which can help them make better choices. Also reminding them that they can ask for help can be a tremendous help. Often teenagers think that they must solve all their problems on their own. Teenagers, especially boys, look at asking for help as a sign of weakness. It is helpful to remind them that no one has all the answers and at times the mature thing to do is to ask for help. Therefore, asking for help is not always a sign of weakness.
5. Don’t Get Sucked into an Argument over Consequences
Don’t take the bait every time your teenager is trying to argue with you. Most teenagers verbal skills are not fully developed. However, most teenagers know if they can get you into an argument that the original topic will get lost and you end up arguing about something else. It’s not that teenagers have this planned out in their heads, but as I said their verbal skills are not fully developed. Therefore, they feel more comfortable in an argument because those skills are developed and they have some idea how to handle the situation. Therefore, if you are getting pulled into an argument call a time out and say you prefer to discuss the issue when you are both calm. This will surprise them and hopefully cause them to think about the situation.
6. Don’t Teach Your Child How to “Do Time”
Many parents get frustrated and ground their kids for long periods of time in order to make the punishment stick. Personally, I think that’s a mistake. If you simply ground your child, you’re teaching him nothing. But if you ground him until he accomplishes certain things, you can increase the effectiveness of the consequence. So if your teenager loses his video game privileges for 24 hours, he should be doing something within that time frame that helps him improve his behavior. Simply grounding him from his video games for a week will just teach him how to wait until he can get them back. He is not learning anything about the mistake he made and he is also learning nothing about how he could have handled the situation differently. Again, we want consequences to be learning experiences. A consequence that doesn’t fit the crime will just seem meaningless to your child, and won’t get you the desired result. Remember, you don’t want to be so punitive that your child simply gives up. That will never translate to better behavior.
7. Engage Your Child’s Self-interest
Learn to ask questions in ways that appeal to your child’s self-interest. So for example, you might say, “What are you going to do the next time you think Dad is being unfair so you won’t get into trouble?” In other words, you’re trying to engage his self-interest. If your child is a teenager, he won’t care about how Dad feels. Adolescents are frequently very detached from that set of feelings. They might feel guilty and say they’re sorry later, but you’ll see the behavior happen again. So learn to appeal to their self- interest, and ask the question, “What can you do so you don’t get in trouble next time?”
8. How Will I Know If a Consequence Is Working?
Parents often say to me, “My child acts like he doesn’t care. So how do I know if the consequence I’m giving him is actually working?” I always tell them, “It’s simple—you’ll know it’s working because he’s being held accountable.” Accountability gives you the best chance for change.
9. Some Things Should Never Be Used as Consequences
In my opinion, there are certain things that should never be taken away from kids. For instance, you should never prohibit your child from going to the prom. Not ever. That’s a milestone in your child’s life; personally, I think that milestones should not be taken away. Your child is not going to learn anything from that experience. Unless the mistake was so big such as robbing someone then you may need to go that far. I recommend using your own judgment regarding how your teenager acts before making this a consequence.
The same approach should be taken for sport. Teenagers can learn a great deal from sports. However, if they make a severe mistake missing a practice or a game maybe an appropriate consequence. However, removing them from the team all together maybe a mistake. However, remember the coach has the ultimate power over his players. Many teams have a code of conduct that players must follow. Therefore, if they violate the coaches rules, they maybe removed from the team. This will impact them more than if you did it.
10. Don’t Show Disgust or Disdain
When giving consequences to your teenager, you need to be consistent and firm, but don’t show disgust or disdain. If you are attacking them as a person, their sense of self is not fully developed yet. As a result, you may inflict a wound to their self-esteem that may cause more problems than you intended. You are trying to raise someone who can function as a healthy adult, not somebody who feels they’re a constant disappointment to you. It’s very important to shape your behavior so that your child knows you’re not taking his mistakes personally. Remember, the look on your face and the tone of your voice communicates a lot more to your child than your words do. Positive regard is critical for getting your message across.
It’s important to remember that life is very tough for many teenagers, especially with Nass shootings and the Coronavirus. Going to school is difficult, both academically and socially, and there is tremendous pressure on children and teens to perform today. Personally, We need to remember that and teenagers should be recognized and respected for what they have to deal with in today’s world. Think of it this way: what you’re really trying to do is work on your child’s behavior to get him to try to do different things. So if your child misbehaves and you ground him from everything indefinitely, you’re losing sight of all the other things he did right—and he will, too.
Consequences have shown to be an effective way to help teenagers learn what is appropriate and not appropriate. It is an approach I strongly believe in. Hopefully these tips will help you use consequences effectively with your teenager.
Dr. Michael Rubino has over 25 years experience working as a psychotherapist with children, teenagers, trauma victims including first responders. For more information about Dr. Rubino’s work or private practice visit his website www.RubinoCounseling.com or his Facebook page www.Facebook.com/drrubino3.