The Art of Setting Consequences

Almost every expert in parenting will offer some version of the following advice: set clear rules and consistently follow through on consequences when the rules are broken. This is easier said than done. It’s so much easier when your children are small, but it can be difficult to know how to properly discipline a teenager. When setting consequences with teens, parents run into a few common problems:

  • Announcing a punishment they are unwilling to enforce (e.g. parents say “no video games for a week” only to get frustrated after a day of whining and return the games)
  • Establishing a consequence that they cannot enforce (e.g. parents pick a punishment that is out of their ability to control)
  • Setting an unreasonable consequence in the heat of the moment (e.g. parents yell “you’re grounded for a month” in the middle of an argument, only to realize later when calm that the infraction was too minor to warrant that long of a time)
  • Choosing a punishment that doesn’t matter to, or affect, the teen (e.g. grounding a teen that generally never leaves the house)
  • Enforcing consequences inconsistently (e.g. one parent doesn’t agree with the punishment given by the other parent, so they don’t require the teen to follow it)
  • Assuming one solution works for all kids (e.g. giving the exact same consequence to every child in the family regardless of their different personalities or ages)
  • Skipping consequences out of guilt or pity (e.g. parents feel sorry for their teen and make excuses for their behavior)

Knowing that it’s easy to make mistakes when disciplining teenagers, today’s blog will detail some tried and true tips to setting consequences:

Set clear and firm limits. People are guided by the expectations of those around them, and teens need boundaries. Your teen must clearly understand what you expect from them as well as what they can expect from you. At a time when both you and your teen are calm, sit down together to discuss family rules and the consequences for breaking those rules. Get your teen’s input on what they think are reasonable limits and listen to their concerns if they think a rule you want is too restrictive. They are more likely to follow your rules if they had input in the rule-making process.

Be specific about the rules. For example, an ineffective rule is “be respectful” – this is too vague and open to interpretation. A more effective rule is “name-calling, threats, or put downs won’t be tolerated.”

Establish realistic consequences ahead of time. It is an excellent idea for you to decide ahead of time what consequences will be imposed when certain rules are broken. This should be done at the family meeting described above, so that all parties (spouses and children) are in agreement, which will reduce a lot of conflict in the home. Make sure the consequences are realistic and “fit the crime.” If your teen keeps coming home a few minutes late, grounding them for a month is overboard. Instead, you might try reducing their curfew by a minute for every minute they are late until they can demonstrate coming home on time three times in a row. These consequences should be communicated to your teen when you explain the rules so they are completely aware of the penalties for breaking the rules.

Follow through in enforcing consequences. If you truly want to see change in your teen’s behavior, you must always follow through on what you say. Do not threaten a consequence that you will not enforce – your teen will call your bluff, and, when you don’t follow through, you will lose your authority.

Choose consequences that matter. For the punishment to work, you must take away privileges that truly matter to the teen. If they don’t care if they lose the privilege, you will not obtain a behavior change. Every child is different, so find ways to tailor your approach to the specific teen, remembering that your goal is to help them learn to make better choices.

Avoid rescuing your teen. The other important key in this area is to not save your child from the consequences of his behavior, which will only encourage further defiance. For example, if your son backtalks a teacher, do not call and make excuses for his behavior or try to lessen his punishment. Instead, talk to your teen about how he should make choices that work in his favor rather than choices that ultimately make him unhappy. While this may feel hard in the moment, you will be rewarded with a teen in the future who will learn to act more respectfully.

Delay doling out the consequence. One mistake we commonly make is giving out an unreasonable punishment in the heat of anger. For example, your teen might come home very late and when they walk in the door, you are so angry, you yell that they are grounded for a month. Instead, delay the announcement of the punishment. Tell your teen that they broke the rules, you are very angry, and you will let them know tomorrow what their punishment will be. This gives you time to develop a well thought out discipline that will actually create behavior change.

Be consistent. If your teen breaks a rule, there must be consequences for that behavior or your expectations will mean nothing. Some parents like to give warnings, but the problem is that, many times, they are not consistent. Sometimes they will give one warning before they hand out the consequence. Other times they will be angry and offer no warnings, while sometimes they will feel generous and provide multiple warnings. You are not doing your child any favors by being inconsistent. Consider your conversation about expectations as your teen’s warning (and tell your teen it’s their warning, as well), and as soon as they break a rule, immediately remove privileges or impose additional responsibilities. Also, remember that your consequences are not up for discussion or argument, nor should they be explained in a long-winded lecture. Do not negotiate with your child, back down, or let him/her draw you into an argument about the consequence that you are enforcing. Be confident, firm, and consistent.

Choose consequences under your control. Don’t engage teens in power struggles. If you’re not able to enforce the consequence, you lose the battle. For example, you cannot physically force a teen to do something – a 5’2” mother cannot stop her 6’1” son from leaving the house – so don’t try to impose a consequence you can’t carry out. While she might not be able to keep her son in the home, this same mother can take away the car keys, so that he loses driving privileges. Let’s explore another hypothetical example in a classroom. If a student acts disrespectful, a teacher might ask the student to go to the principal’s office. If the student refuses, there is really no way for the teacher to physically force the teen to leave the classroom. At this point, the teacher must select a consequence that is under her control. For example, the teacher could inform the student that she will be losing one point from her overall grade for every minute she remains in the chair. Then the teacher can set a timer and continue teaching the class.

Follow the rules yourself. Make sure that you, as parents, are walking your talk. If you establish that name calling is not tolerated, then you cannot call your teen a “spoiled brat” and expect your teen to never call you a name later. Make sure that you are speaking to your teen respectfully – avoid sarcasm, name-calling, put downs, and threats. Teens mimic their parents, and if you treat them with respect, those lessons will ingrain themselves into your teen’s actions.

Final Thoughts…

When faced with poor behavior, many of us automatically think that we need to punish the mistake. Instead, try rethinking the way you view discipline. Your goal is to show them how to make better decisions and choose behaviors that are positive and ultimately good for them.

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