"Why Don't Consequences Work For My Teen?"
Here's Why.... and How To Fix It
|If you're having trouble giving effective consequences to your teen,
know that you are not alone. Many parents tell me that nothing seems to work,
and that coming up with the right thing for their child can seem like an
impossible task. If you're the parent of an adolescent, you may have grounded
your child, taken away their video games, or suspended their driving privileges
for months on end. But as James Lehman says, you can't punish kids into
acceptable behavior-it just doesn't work that way.
Rather, an effective consequence should encourage
your child to change their behavior-whether that is abiding by the house
rules, or treating people respectfully. So first, you need to identify the
behavior you want to see changed. For example, if your child swears when they
don't get their way, you want them to behave more appropriately. Instead of
grounding or punishing, or even reasoning with your child when he gets angry and
lashes out, an effective consequence here would require your child to practice
better behavior- and improve their self-control-for a period of time before
their normal privileges are restored.
Let's break this down according to the
The Total Transformation Program:
Effective consequences are ones that
are connected to the original behavior, and are both task- and
"Connected to the original behavior"
means that your consequence needs to be related to the behavior you want to
see your child change or improve.
"Task specific" means that there is
something your child needs to accomplish, or practice related to the
original problem. This is a concrete behavior, like washing the dishes,
meeting curfew, or not swearing.
specific" means there is a
specific amount of time in which he needs to demonstrate that behavior.
So, when your child swears, he might lose access
to his electronics until he can go without swearing for two hours. The
consequence is tied to the behavior-he swore so he has to practice not
swearing. This consequence is task specific-it requires him to exercise the
part of his brain that governs self-control. If he wants his stuff back, he has
to practice better behavior. And it's time specific-he needs to demonstrate
self control for two hours, then he is free to have his privileges.
It's important to understand that you can't get your child to not feel angry, or
not get frustrated. That's just part of being human. But you can require that
they change the way they deal with those feelings. You can expect them to
practice some self-control. Your goal is to require that your child practice the
better behavior for a certain amount of time before they get their privileges
back. So practice and behavioral improvement equals the restoration of
If they yell about their consequence, or how unfair it is, you might say, "I
understand that you're angry. Yelling is not going to get you what you want.
Once you've been able to deal with your anger appropriately for two hours, you
will get your electronics back." Do not continue to explain your consequences,
or justify your decisions. He may mumble to himself, or text his friends about
how awful his parents are, and it may take some time, but eventually your child
will decide to practice those skills that earn back his electronics.
Choosing a Consequence
Think of it this way: a privilege is a motivator. The withdrawal, or granting,
of a privilege should give your child incentive to follow the rules of your
house, even when they don't agree with those rules. An effective consequence is
a privilege your child is interested in. For some kids, video games are a
powerful motivator, while other kids could care less about them. Taking away a
cell phone for two hours works for some kids; others would just find another way
to communicate. 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? Some parents tell us that using
the blanket term "All electronics" works better than just saying "No video
games," which can make kids turn to the computer or the television as a
Remember, the right privilege should be an activity that your child will
actually miss. Withhold that privilege until your child completes the task
you've set for them. James Lehman suggests that you sit down with your child and
come up with a list of privileges and consequences together. The advantage here
is that you are working as a team to solve the problem. It can help you identify
things or activities your child truly values. It also clarifies what the
consequences will be for certain infractions-for everyone involved. Not only
will your child know what will happen if he breaks a certain rule, but the
parents don't have to spend time coming up with something in the heat of the
If Your Child Doesn't Seem to Care What You Use as a Consequence
Many parents call the Parental Support Line saying that their kid doesn't seem
to care what they take away. Recently, one dad said to me in exasperation, "Even
though my daughter lives to text, she acts like she could care less when her texting rights are taken away. Nothing works with her!" Some kids appear not to
care what activity you restrict; they pretend they didn't want to do it anyway.
But look at it this way: would your child really want you to know that they care
about the consequence you're giving them? Would they reveal their reaction to
you and let you know you got to them? That would make it seem like you have
power over them, and they aren't about to concede on that one! So some kids,
like the teenage girl above, feign indifference when you remove a privilege. If
you've watched your child and know that what you're taking away really does
impact them, don't worry about whether or not they seem suitably upset at the
loss of it.
What if the Consequences Still Aren't Working?
So what if you know you've chosen a valuable privilege, and your consequences
still aren't working? The key here is to take a look at the length of time
privileges are removed. Is it too long? Does your child lose interest in what
you've taken away (the "out of sight, out of mind" dilemma)? Is the time frame
so long that your child can't possibly be successful (no swearing for a whole
Remember, your goal is to create better behavior in your child, and the
consequence/privilege needs to encourage that improvement by being
time-specific. If you truly want your child to improve their behavior, you need
to create an environment in which your child can succeed. The time span of your
consequence is important ? it should be long enough that your child has to
stretch their skills, and short enough that you have a good chance of seeing
improvement. To be effective, a consequence needs to be short-term, task
specific, and involve a privilege your child values. Your goal here is to
produce a child who can respond to limits, meet responsibilities, and
demonstrate age-appropriate behavior. Your consequences and privileges help get
One last word of advice: Parents often want to see their child's behavior
improve overnight. If you are faced with a child who behaves inappropriately
under stress, your consequences should require him to practice and get better.
Don't expect perfection immediately. Like any new skill, better behavior takes
practice. When implementing a new consequence, you can expect some failure. You
can expect that you may need to restart a couple of times. In the beginning, you
may find that your child behaves inappropriately every day, and has their
privileges removed often. That doesn't mean you've chosen the wrong consequence.
It simply means your child needs time to practice better skills. And they need
you to keep them practicing.
*If your kid's behavior is continues to be
challenging, you can check out a helpful program called
The Total Transformation to get a handle
on difficult behavior. It's run by James Lehman, MSW, who worked for
years with troubled teens and children!
"Why Don't Consequences Work For My Teen?"
Here's Why...and How To Fix Them reprinted with permission from Empowering
by Megan Devine,
LCPC and Parental Support Line Advisor
Megan Devine, LCPC, is a Parental Support Line
Specialist, writer, and bonus grown-up to a 16-year-old. She holds a Masters
degree in Counseling from Antioch New England, and a Master of Fine Arts from
Goddard College. Megan has been in the counseling field for over 10 years. She
has a children's career book in pre-publication, and has several other books in