When your kids are little giving consequences is easy. You sit them in time-out for a few minutes if they misbehave. If your kids are throwing a temper tantrum you completely ignore them until it stops and they ask nicely. When they misuse a toy you take it from them. As they get older it gets harder. However, a lot of parents try and use the same techniques with teenagers that they used with small children (sort of, see below for an explanation).
This is what I mean. A teenager violates a rule such as ditching school. You put them in “teenager time-out,” which means you ground them. Your teen “throws a temper tantrum,” which means they are talking back to you and possibly even screaming obscenities. You ignore them or argue back. Your adolescent goes way over on their data usage and racks up a big cell phone bill, or in other words, “misuses a toy.” You take it from them. Some of these techniques work for certain kids, but for others, these types of consequences seem ineffective.
How do you give consequences to a teenager? Your teenager is nearing adulthood. They need to feel the pain of adult consequences while you’re still there to guide them through it. When your teenager ditches school and the school calls to ask where your child is, it’s better not to bail them out by telling the school your kid came home sick, with the idea that you will handle the punishment. It’s better for your teen’s character development to tell the school that you don’t know where your child is, and you assume they must have cut class. You then ask the school to levy an appropriate consequence such as Saturday school. When your teenager comes home you very calmly tell them you received a call from the school today. You tell your teen it will be a bummer to serve Saturday school. If they ask you to help them move the Saturday school because they have work or a big game, etc., you just say calmly, “Well you felt old enough to decide whether or not you should attend class, so I guess that means you’re old enough to figure it out now. Good luck with that.” Don’t be sarcastic when you say this. Tell them also, “I have plans Saturday morning by the way, so I won’t be able to get you to the Saturday school. You’ll have to figure that out too.” Then you don’t discuss it or bring it up again. In fact, you act like you don’t really care. They might ask you, “Are you mad at me?” You respond, “I was at first, but then I figured that it’s your problem to solve.”
Do you see how much more effective this is than grounding your teenager? You refuse to take on their problems. Also, if you ground your teen then you have to enforce it. That makes you the bad guy when you refuse to let them attend their Saturday soccer game, or it makes you appear weak if you do let them attend. It also means they think of how “unfair” you are when they are grounded instead of the mistake they made; they don’t learn as much.
Now for scenario number two, when your teenager is being disrespectful in the way they talk to you. If you don’t win the argument, you’ve lost. Even a stalemate means you’ve lost. How do you avoid this problem? Don’t argue. At all costs, avoid engaging in an argument. Keep repeating, “I’m not going to argue with you right now,” in a calm tone. You can also say, “We’ll talk about this tomorrow.” That gives you time to think and your child time to reassess their position and approach. Finally, if your teenager keeps at you, ask them, “What did I say?” Stay calm and avoid the argument, but don’t completely ignore them. Another thing you can say sometimes is, “I see what you’re saying. Let me think about that and get back to you in a few hours.” Just remember that nothing is ever on fire. Most of the time your adolescent thinks it is because adolescents are an impatient group, but it’s not. Do not let their urgency force you to respond faster than you can think through something. Buy yourself some time.
Scenario number three is when your teenager racks up an unreasonable cell phone bill. Your first temptation is to take their cell phone away. This actually creates problems for you in staying connected with them. It is better if you get the bill, highlight the excess charges, and set it on the kitchen table. When your teenager comes into the kitchen, ask them to take a look at the cell phone bill. Tell them calmly, “It looks like you ran up an extra $200 on our bill this month because you went beyond your data limit. We pay the bill on Friday, so by Thursday you need to come up with a plan for how you will get me that $200.” Then go back to what you were doing and let them solve the problem. They will likely argue with you or say, “I don’t have that kind of money.” Let them know you are here to help them find a solution if they’d like your help. The most important thing to take away from this is that you are letting them have most of the say in how they resolve the problem. If you come at your teen and angrily say, “You racked up a ridiculous cell phone bill so now you’re going to mow the lawn for the next ten weeks!” what have you taught them? They will mow the lawn and think about how you are unreasonable. If THEY come to you and suggest they will mow the lawn until they’ve worked it off, every time they mow the lawn they will think about how they watched too much Youtube. You avoid being the bad guy, and your teenager learns a valuable lesson!
For more great ideas on how to effectively, and calmly discipline a teenager, read Parenting Teens with Love and Logic. It’s a wonderful, easily digestible resource for better parenting.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT