Punishments vs. Consequences: Teach Your Teen the Difference

teen rests chin on layered hands on kitchen counterWhen I work with parents of teenagers, our conversations inevitably turn toward discipline.

“How do get my teen to follow the rules?”

“My teen won’t clean up after himself. What should I do?”

“Nothing I do seems to have any effect on her!”

Discipline with teenagers is complicated. They are at an age where it is important to give them more freedom and responsibility, but many parents feel like they have few tools at their disposal to hold teens accountable. When they were toddlers, a simple “timeout” often sufficed, but now that they are teenagers the solutions don’t feel so simple.

One of the moms at a recent mother-daughter workshop asked me for advice about how to get her daughter to stop being so mean to her little brother. She gets annoyed with him easily and ends up yelling or even pushing and hitting him. I asked her what her usual reaction is, and she said, “I take away her phone for a few days”—a common, seemingly reasonable punishment. Then I asked the mom, “So how well does that work?” Her answer was something I hear from parents all the time: it works until the punishment is lifted, but then the behavior starts up again.

The Difference Between Punishments and Consequences

That’s the problem with some favorite go-to punishments—they make the teen suffer for a little while, but they have little impact on changing the behavior. To create consequences that are more effective, it is important to start with understanding the difference between punishments and consequences. They are not the same. They serve very different purposes, and create very different results.

Punishments are used to impose suffering of some kind and to make it clear who is in control. They are often unrelated to the problem behavior (taking away a phone because your teen was mean to her brother, for example), and they are most often given in moments of anger and frustration. The result of most punishments is that it instills fear and resentment, it makes teens reluctant to admit their mistakes, and most importantly, it has little, if any, effect on future behavior.

Consequences, on the other hand, are designed to teach teens to learn from their mistakes. They encourage good behavior, and teach teens to engage in more proactive problem solving. Ideally, consequences end up teaching teens that they are in control of, and responsible for, their behavior.

Discipline with teenagers is complicated. They are at an age where it is important to give them more freedom and responsibility, but many parents feel like they have few tools at their disposal to hold teens accountable.

How Does That Work in Real Life?

So, what does that look like in the real world? Here are some examples of how you can start using more effective consequences with your family.

Your teen hasn’t been doing chores around the house. Dirty dishes are left in the living room. Dirty towels are left on the bathroom floor, etc.

Instead of: Yelling, lecturing, nagging, taking away the phone, or grounding him …

Try this: Your teen is not respecting your home or taking care of his responsibilities. For one week, he will be responsible for doing ALL family dishes and ALL family laundry. The goal is to understand the effort it takes to take care of a home and learn to respect his role in keeping the house clean.

Your teen is constantly fighting/bickering with her younger brother. She sometimes gets so annoyed with him that she hits or pushes him.

Instead of: Taking away her phone, grounding her for the weekend, or yelling at her …

Try this: In order to repair the harm she has caused in this relationship, your daughter needs to spend time with her little brother—take him to the park, watch a movie with him, read him a story before bed, etc. The goal is to repair the relationship and to learn that her brother doesn’t deserve to be treated that way.

Your teen tells you they failed a test at school.

Instead of: Taking away the phone, grounding them for the weekend, or making them spend all day in the library studying …

Try this: Ask them what the plan is moving forward. Allow your teen to create a plan—talk with the teacher, stay after school for help, ask to retake the test, etc. After they have developed a plan, ask how you can support them. Do they need your help communicating with the teacher? Do they need your help studying? But allow them to create the plan on their own, because this will help them learn they, not you, are responsible for their grades.

Did you notice the favored punishments are often to take away electronics or grounding? There’s a reason parents turn to those so often. They can serve as a great punishment because many teens place such a high value on communicating with friends. These punishments have an initial shock value and serve to make the teen suffer a little and pay attention to what they have done. I am not recommending parents stop using this punishment. It can be very effective to take away a phone or limit a teen’s freedom for the weekend. But it is important to understand that these tactics alone will not have a lasting effect on behavior. As parents, we need to pair these simple punishments with more meaningful consequences if we want our teens to become more aware of their behavior and make lasting changes.

As you decide on a consequence for your teen, remember to ask yourself: what do I want my child to learn from this? Because teaching our teens to reflect, learn from mistakes, and take more responsibility for their actions is ultimately the goal.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • blakely

    blakely

    April 27th, 2015 at 8:06 AM

    I think that for the most part they do understand that there is a difference but for them it is all bad so no one thing is better than another.
    They are all a pain to be endured.

  • Donald

    Donald

    April 27th, 2015 at 4:06 PM

    What would you say is the overall best thing for teaching a lesson? There is a part of me that says punish them, take everything away, but then I know that always just made me angry as a kid and more determined to figure out a way to just do it again without being caught. I think that if most kids are like I was, I was much better off dealing with the consequences. Not that that was veer any easier but I do think that it makes more of a lasting impression and gets the point across a little more clearly. I would love to hear the thoughts of others on this matter. Thanks!

  • Mary A.

    Mary A.

    April 28th, 2015 at 9:34 AM

    If you are like me you have probably found that the things that you think that you are doing to punish them will actually be punishing you too.

    Take away the phone? Well then they can’t call you. Take away the car keys? You are then having to provide all the rides everywhere.

  • Gary

    Gary

    April 28th, 2015 at 4:38 PM

    There have been times when I think that has been good to let my kids feel both punishment and consequences. When you always let them off too easy, then they start to think that all of their lives are going to be like that. That they may can get one over on you and get let off the hook. In my experience there will be times like that and then there will be times when things get very tough and you have to be able to stand up and face the music. I think that this is something that we can all teach our kids early if you use discipline the right way in the home.

  • elise

    elise

    April 29th, 2015 at 8:55 AM

    It’s always a good thing if the punishment can fit the crime

  • Tyrone

    Tyrone

    April 30th, 2015 at 1:16 PM

    I got punished a lot when I was young because I will admit that I was a pretty bad kid. Anything that you could be put on restriction for, I did it and was punished for it. I can say though that I didn’t really get much out of all of that though because it never seemed fair to me and I guess I never learned much of a lesson as a result other than trying to not get caught again.

  • Cherrie

    Cherrie

    May 2nd, 2015 at 6:05 AM

    All of this would be so much easier if some of this was taught at a much earlier age than a teenager :/

  • Tina

    Tina

    June 10th, 2015 at 9:07 AM

    My problem with my 15 year old son is that in the scenario above if I were to tell him he had to do the dishes for a week or clean the house – he just wouldn’t do it. Then what do I do? Do I then revert back to punishment? My child has ODD and just refuses to do anything asked of him.

  • P.J.

    P.J.

    September 24th, 2015 at 10:42 PM

    Let me make sure I understand this correctly: The same teen that hasn’t been doing his chores around the house, leaving dirty dishes in the living room, and leaving dirty towels on the bathroom floor is going to be responsible for doing ALL family dishes and ALL family laundry for one week??? How do you think the house is going to look at the end of the week? I read a sign once that said…you can’t fix stupid! They must have read this same article.

  • Musicalchik

    Musicalchik

    September 26th, 2015 at 2:23 PM

    I disagree with much of this. First, that first “consequence” sounds more like a punishment to me. Second, maybe teens are having these problems in the teen years because they were punished with timeouts as little ones. They were punished rather than disciplined. The two are not the same. Third, I strongly believe that punishment should NEVER be used, because it is NEVER effective in building connection/attachment. We act poorly when we feel bad. Making a child feel worse will not help them behave better in the long run. I feel like this viewpoint is a start in parenting beyond punishment, but it doesn’t go far enough. I highly recommend positive/peaceful/gentle parenting/discipline, which focuses on solutions to problems rather than punishing them EVER and goes beyond a punishment/reward system into the more informed and mindful realm of connection vs. disconnection. Time
    In rather than timeout for little ones, which creates a strong bond that will make a world of difference in the teen years. Discipline is about creating problem solvers, and is more like the last example in this article which is GREAT. Parent, don’t punish, EVER. It is never ever acceptable to punish. Positive discipline.

  • Musicalchik

    Musicalchik

    September 26th, 2015 at 2:45 PM

    Here is a very good resource for peacefully parenting kids, and it includes the teen years:

    ahaparenting.com

    It is difficult for me, as a survivor of child abuse, to see trained therapists think that it is ever ok to get a child’s attention through fear/punishment. Maybe that was my biggest trigger with this article, saying that punishments can be ok sometimes. I recognize that these punishments are not the same as child abuse, that is not what I am saying, BUT the idea that it is ok to ever use fear is the idea that can FUEL child abuse. That is one of the reasons why peaceful parenting resonates so deeply with me, it recognizes that using fear and punishment is never ok, and sees children as actual people who will learn respect by us respecting them. Peaceful parenting is a paradigm shift, but it is one that is worthy of making and I hope that one day American society will make this shift, as those in Denmark or Sweden already have. I do appreciate many things in this article…but the author has not quite made tha paradigm shift that is necessary to raise our children with gentleness and peace and respect…raising kids respectfully is what will raise world-changers.

  • Tina

    Tina

    January 7th, 2016 at 5:29 AM

    Behavioral Modification never works especially with youth that have a mental health condition. It only gave me wrinkles and anger. Challenging behavior is seen because the youth lacks the ability to accomplish the task. Dr. Ross Greene’s philosophy on Challenging Behavior and Pro-Active Collaborative Problem Solving is the only method that’s ever worked on my child- who now is 22 years old and diagnosed with 5 mental health conditions. In Simple terms- when demands exceed the supply- you see challenging behavior… livesinthebalance.org NAMI offers a free educational class: NAMI Basics that helps parents and caregivers understand this challenging behavior, learn effective communication skills and how to advocate for their child. visit: nami.org for more information… I wish I had this class when my child was young- but it’s never too late to learn these skills. It works on everyone !

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