How NOT to punish your adolescent.

Physical punishment and punishing in anger can make matters worse.

Posted Nov 15, 2009

(Punishment, Part two.)
When it comes to punishing their adolescent, most parents understand that even if they resorted to spanking (or other acts of physical hurt) when he or she was a child, now with a teenager this corrective response does more harm than good, as it may have done back then.

From what I have heard in counseling with young people, physical punishment creates enormous humiliation and anger in the teenager and deeply alienates the relationship.

Physical punishment which teenagers accepted as children, even though they didn't like it, they object to as adolescents because they feel they should have outgrown that kind of parental discipline by now. Not only does it seem inappropriate; it feels demeaning.

At worst, in those cases where the young person decides not to take it, stands up and physically fights back, it risks power struggles in which one or both parties can get seriously hurt.

Besides all this, spanking causes the adolescent to lose respect for parental authority as it teaches a formative lesson. If you are bigger or stronger or adult, are angry or want to get your way or need to be in control, using physical force to inflict pain is okay.

Spanking teaches hitting. And the lesson can stick. Used to getting hit at home by a parent can encourage more use of hitting with siblings or peers. How one was treated as a child can also influence how that grown child treats children of his or her own later on. And this aggressive inclination can even activate physical mistreatment when in dispute with a romantic or marriage partner.

As for the parent with teenagers who fear crossing him lest more physical reprisal comes their way, he may think that they respect his authority, but he is wrong. In reality he has become a bully in their eyes, an object of their resentment and contempt. Unhappily, his future relationship with his adult children is marked for evermore. Even if the treatment is forgiven, it is not forgotten.

One mistake that parents commonly make is punishing at the point of infraction. This is a mistake because they are often emotionally upset and so commit two errors. First, they express so much upset or outrage, for example, that the teenager entirely misses the point about why she is being punished.

So when I ask her in counseling why she is being kept home, her immediate response is, "because my parents are upset again!" When emotion becomes the message, the reason for punishment can slip away. (In fact. one more time she had left the back door open and the dog had escaped, perhaps to bite another stranger.)

Second, they are at risk of over punishing: "You're grounded every weekend for the next year for what you've done!" Then when they cool down, they reduce the sentence: "Well, stay in next weekend and do some work around the place." Now the teenager learns that parents don't always mean what they say, at least not what they say at first. Take time for rational consideration before deciding on a consequence, that's the rule.

In fact, delay of punishment is one of the most effective punishments of all because for an impulsive teenager, wanting to get on with her life, uncertainty about what parents will decide to do can feel excruciating. "Tell me now!" she impatiently demands. She hates not knowing. She hates having to wait to find out. She hates having to put her life on hold. Replies the parent: "We'll tell you what you're going to do when we have taken time to think about it. You'll have to wait and see."

Punishment needs to be free of parental anger. Otherwise parents can be emotionally encouraged to use punishment to get back at or to get even with the young person, hurting him or her to retaliate for being crossed.

At worst, coupled with punishment, anger can impel parents to release frustration through harsh words or extreme actions the parent may have later cause to regret, and the young person long remembers. "When I got caught, my dad made sure I'd never forget how angry he was. And I never have."

If they are going to penalize bad behavior, and punishment is the most extreme penalty they can impose, parents must also be sure to recognize and reward the incidence of good. Otherwise, the teenager may be left with the impression one young man shared: "My parents think all I'm good at is messing up. I guess they're right." Then accepting their discouraging verdict, he continued his errant ways.

In this case, it would have helped if parents had not fixated on the misconduct, but had acknowledged his record and capacity for good behavior as well. After all, a young person, no matter the difficulties he is creating, is far greater than the sum of his misdeeds, and parents must communicate their vision of this larger definition particularly when they are in punishment mode.

"Bad choices like this are not the only ones you make; good choices are most of what you do." They need to acknowledge his history of positive performance and his positive potentialities so, seeing them in him self, he can feel encouraged choose a more constructive way. The message to the young person is: "Misbehavior is the exception to the rule of good behavior that we appreciate you mostly do."

For more about punishment, see the chapter on "Authority" in my book about parent/adolescent conflict, "Stop The Screaming."

Next week's entry: Effective punishment for the adolescent.(Punishment, Part three.)