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Why Punishment Doesn’t Work With Teens and What To Do Instead

Many parents tell me that punishing their kids (i.e., grounding them, taking their phones away . . . ) is just not working. It is not creating the change in behavior they are looking for. I hear things like, “I am blue in the face from telling my kid to do something, and it is not working. I talk, I nag, I yell, and then when I do set a consequence, I either end up caving in, or it doesn’t work. And they don’t listen to me. I don’t know why it isn’t working.”

I don’t know one parent who hasn’t struggled with this, who hasn’t felt like the consequences they’ve set are ineffective. So many parents wonder why punishment doesn’t work with teens, but if we are merely punishing our kids, we are missing a big piece of the puzzle. 

Punishment falls short when it comes from the wrong place: We may feel hurt or angry, we don’t know what else to do, or we are trying to gain control. 

Many of us had this modeled for us as kids, and though, at first, it may seem like it works, it is rooted in fear. It builds resentment. And unfortunately, it ends up doing the very opposite of what we want. Our kids rebel even more. They don’t feel heard, seen, and understood. They don’t feel like we care about them.

The missing piece here is relationship. We can build stronger relationships with our kids by talking through things in ways that increase safety and mutual respect, taking the time to process what has happened with them, and sharing our hearts for them. This will go farther towards creating lasting change than mere punishment ever will.

The most important thing I’ve discovered in my own parenting, and through working with hundreds of parents, is that the relationship has to come first. If we’re missing that, we’re not going to be effective

I always ask moms, “What’s your goal?” If we want our kids to feel safe in their relationships with us, if we want to bring down the inflammation when things get really heated, then we need a different approach. 

Asking a Better Question

When dealing with problematic behaviors and attitudes with our teens, the first question is not, “How do I punish my kid, and what consequence do I give them?” The better question is,  “How can I strengthen our relationship?” 

When my oldest was acting out, I felt frustrated and resentful. I was scared. She was drinking, smoking, and talking back. But trying to control her only made things worse.

I remember a moment when my husband put his hand on the door as if to say, “You’re not going anywhere.” And our daughter was like, “You better believe I’m getting out. I’m going somewhere, and you can’t control me.” It was a power struggle, and it didn’t take us where we wanted to go.

Sometimes, especially if we have strong-willed kids, we have to re-evaluate our approach and ask ourselves, “Is this effective? Is this really working?”

If I could go back to that situation, I would do some things differently. First, I would sit down with my daughter and say, “Hey, I care about your heart. I care about you. And I’m noticing a lot is going on. How are you doing? What am I doing that is not helpful? Give me some feedback. What am I doing that makes you feel like you cannot talk to me?” These kinds of questions open the door, allowing us to connect with our child’s heart. 

One of the big things that bothered my daughter was that I would freak out when she would tell me something. So then, when some really tough things happened, she didn’t feel like she could come to me and talk about it. And that was a real mess.

My daughter got sober when she was 19. She got sober when we let go of control when we cared more about her heart than her behavior, and when we asked how she was feeling versus trying to make her do something. We still had boundaries and limits, but the more we moved toward her in a relationship and cared about her hurt, the more she had to feel the weight of the consequences of her choices. 

Looking back, I needed to normalize that our kids are going to make mistakes. For example, some kids–especially if they are very social–will experiment with alcohol and that kind of thing. My daughter said alcohol was “liquid self-esteem.” Drinking helped her feel more comfortable in social situations like she fit in and belonged. And they do want to belong. So, as they figure out who they are apart from us, they’re going to make some unwise choices. 

When we try to control and restrict our kids too much, we’re making their choices for them and taking away opportunities for them to learn and grow.

And that is the goal of consequences: to help our kids develop their own brakes and steering so they can make good choices. Essentially, it’s helping them think through, “If I do X, that might not work out so well for me.” It’s helping them understand, “That’s one choice I can make, but how might that work out for me? If I don’t do my homework or study or write that paper, how might that affect me? I might not get into that program I really want to get into.” We want to help them be able to connect the dots–the cause and effect of their actions.

No freedom equals no growth. As adults, how do we grow? I know I’ve grown through my mistakes–I’m guessing you have, too. It’s the same thing with our kids.

Consequences don’t work when we are attempting to control our tween or teen.

So, let’s look at some consequences that are not effective: 

  1. Harsh punishments: In the heat of the moment, when we are emotional, it’s easy to dole out harsh punishments that only cause resentment and contempt. The result is that our kids stay focused on their anger versus their behavior and the consequences of their actions. We want them to reflect and think about the choices they made, and if we’re punishing them harshly, they are going to blame us. Then we become the “bad guy.” And we get in the way of them learning what they need to learn. 
  1. Long-term grounding: This type of grounding (which is usually interpreted by kids as “house arrest”) teaches kids how to “do time” but doesn’t show them how to change their behavior. If we take something away for three months, that is an eternity in the lives of our children. It just builds up resentment. And our kids need to have opportunities to earn back our trust, to show that they realize it wasn’t the wisest choice they made. Ultimately, they’re not going to learn the lessons we want them to learn through long-term grounding.
  1. Canceling a special event: Canceling an important holiday, birthday party, prom, or event to teach your child a lesson is not going to result in improved behavior. These special moments in your child’s life can’t be recaptured. They will never have another 16th birthday or another senior prom. Besides, your child isn’t the only one who would miss out on these occasions—these are special events that you want to enjoy as well. 

I hope you learned why punishment doesn’t work with teens and you found some helpful advice in this article!

You can click HERE to read Part 2 of this advice, offering you insight into what effective consequences look like.

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