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How To Give Effective Consequences That Work With Your Teens

Do you struggle with giving effective consequences that work with your teens? I have counseled hundreds of parents who are frustrated with the same issue, so you are not alone!

See if this sounds familiar: You have tried everything (or so it seems) to get your kids to bring down their dirty dishes, clean up their room, walk the dog, and do their homework. You talk to them. You remind them 400 times a day. Then, you yell. Then, you threaten to ground them or take away their phones. And nothing changes. And you wonder why you feel so frustrated!

If we want to see real change, we need to start transferring our kids’ problems back to them and let natural consequences take the place of nagging, yelling, and trying to make our kids do things. As we set healthy boundaries, we give our kids more ownership over their choices, which is empowering. 

So here is what this might look like: Rather than nagging or threatening with harsh punishments, you can simply say, “After you get your work done today, then I will take you to the mall.” Or, “Okay, I hear that you want to go with your friends. You’ll need to clean your room and get a couple of assignments done first before you go out this weekend.”

For kids who have fallen behind and feel overwhelmed because they’ve let stuff pile up, our job is to come alongside them and say, “How can I help you succeed?” Rather than laying down the law, we offer some flexibility. “You cannot go out until you show us that you are at least making progress. We need to see X, Y, and Z, and then you can go for a few hours.”

The idea is to dialogue back and forth, coming up with a plan that considers both sides. Negotiation and compromise can be great relationship builders. As we bend a little and are willing to be flexible, our kids appreciate that. They see that we are for them and want to help them succeed.

Sometimes, natural consequences can be painful to watch. Say your child repeatedly arrives late to work. You don’t want them to get fired, but nagging, lecturing, and fighting won’t teach them what they need to learn. So you have to ask yourself, “What do I need to do to allow my kid to take more ownership?” Maybe you need to watch them get fired.

Here are some more examples of natural consequences: Your teen is disrespectful and rude to you. So you say, “I’m not going to take you to the mall right now because of the way you just treated me. We’ll try again another day.”

Or, maybe you take their car away for a short period of time and say, “Sorry, this is what I need to see in order for you to get your car back.” They might have to ask a friend to come and pick them up. Or maybe they end up having to stay home.

Over time, they learn that their actions create natural consequences:

  • They might not get into the program they want to get into
  • They might have to sit out of their sport or not participate in certain activities
  • They might fail a class
  • They might get detention
  • They might get a speeding ticket and have to pay for it
  • If they’re rude to their friends, their friends won’t want to hang out with them
  • If they lie, people won’t trust them

And as a parent, that’s really hard to watch. But natural consequences will help our kids to be responsible and mature more than anything else. 

As we transfer control to our kids, we can then focus more on supporting them, coming alongside them, and loving them. 

Effective consequences that work with your teens will do the following:

  1. Encourage your child to change his or her behavior and develop important skills he or she may be lacking.

When your child’s boss reprimands him for repeatedly arriving late to work, he will be motivated to start getting to work on time. This will encourage him to develop better time management skills.

  1. Connect to the original behavior. 

For example, if your child stays out past curfew, then the next time she goes out, she has to come home an hour earlier. When she shows you she can do it, you can go back to her normal curfew time.

  1. Provide immediate opportunities to improve behavior. 

The key to a short-term consequence is the opportunity it provides your child to try again to correct behaviors and make better choices quickly. This doesn’t mean he will make the right choice the next time, but it gives him another chance to try and you another chance to administer a consequence as feedback, if necessary.

  1. Use rewards to motivate. 

An effective consequence can use a privilege your child is interested in. For some kids, video games are a powerful motivator, while other kids couldn’t care less about them. Taking away a cell phone for two hours works for some kids, while others would find another way to communicate. For some kids, not being able to go to a sport or play in a game is painful but effective. Earning that privilege back is a strong motivator. 

In order to choose the right privilege to use as a consequence, you have to know your child. 

What are their interests? What would really impact them if they lost it for a short period of time? And what would motivate them to earn it back?

Here are some ideas:

  • Additional TV tIme
  • Additional video game time/computer time
  • Staying up later
  • Having a sleepover 
  • Taking them out to dinner or a fun activity
  • Additional cell phone time
  • Later curfew
  1. Include healthy dialogue.

Implementing boundaries and consequences is much more effective when your tween or teen has a say. They need to be heard. This doesn’t mean that you need to agree with them. What matters is that you listen and validate what they have to say. 

  1. Include follow-through. 

Set consequences that can be quickly implemented and that you are willing to follow through on. Dropping the consequence because it inconveniences you or makes you feel bad will not be effective in teaching your child what they need to learn.

For example, you discover your child was drinking at a party last weekend. The homecoming dance is this weekend, and though you want to ground him, you don’t want to prevent him from going to this important event with his date. So you allow him to go, but you don’t allow him to hang out with his friends after the dance. You then follow through with consequences that address the drinking the following week.

  1. Be concise and clear. 

They should be delivered in a matter-of-fact, business-like manner. 

Don’t let your child draw you into an argument. If your child insists on blaming or arguing, then disconnect and walk away.

You want to be firm, not rigid. Being firm creates a consistency that kids actually prefer in the long run. But if you’re being senselessly rigid or unreasonable, your kids are going to respond with defiance. And you’ll end up in a power struggle.

If you have to go back and change a consequence, try saying this:

“I know I told you that your behavior cost you access to the car for the next six months. Here’s what I’d like to do instead. I want you to earn that car back. If you can be home by your curfew for seven days in a row, I’ll give you the car for three hours at a time. When you show me you’re responsible enough to return the car within those three hours, then we can talk about extending that time.”

Remember: Practice. Be patient. It’s a process.

It’s OK to take a few moments to calm down and think through what would be effective. It’s OK to re-evaluate and revise and figure things out as we go. The goal is to clearly communicate our expectations in a way that is caring and respectful and lets our kids know we are for them. We want to be nurturing and forgiving of shortcomings as we set effective consequences. And always, we want to keep the relationship the priority.

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