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Your 12-Year-Old Missed a Curfew: Don’t Ground Them

Grounding damages your connection, so try handing out job cards instead.

Key points

  • Grounding can generate hostility, resentment, and deception, working to damage your connection with your child.
  • Job card grounding—a complex job to complete before resuming normal activities—allows your child to retain self-respect and power.
  • Focus on what matters most with your child, right through into adulthood: your loving and supportive connection with them.
Talen de St. Croix/Unsplash
Source: Talen de St. Croix/Unsplash

A solid, loving, trusting connection is what matters most to your child’s long-term development. When you run into issues with your older child or teenager, keep your focus clearly on that connection, rather than being distracted by their misbehavior or rule-breaking.

No matter how much they seem to be fighting against your values and rules, your challenging tween or teen still needs your love, respect, and good opinion of them. That precious connection with you is what will ultimately support them in finding and living their strength.

Grounding can seem like the perfect solution to your tween's or teenager’s breaking the rules you make. Spending time with friends—virtually or in the real world—is what they most want to do, so why not leverage that in your attempts to get them to obey curfews, attend responsibly to school demands, and complete household chores? But you might want to think twice before you tell them they can’t go online, attend the party they’ve been looking forward to, or play in the baseball game they’ve been training for.

You do have to monitor expectations, but grounding has unintended negative consequences.

Until your child gets into their middle or late teen years, they need to know you’re still setting boundaries for them. They don’t yet have the maturity to consistently make good decisions, and there are still a lot of serious hazards out there you can help them avoid. So, yes, you do have to respond when they break the rules, but grounding has some unintended negative consequences for you as well as for your child.

Grounding does the opposite of connection building. It boomerangs back to hurt both you and your child. It can permanently damage your relationship, creating resentment and hostility on both sides, requiring monitoring/policing, and often leading to your child finding sneaky ways to get around the restrictions. When you ground your child, you’re disempowering them, and that never goes well. At best, you’ll get begrudging compliance with the rules.

What is job card grounding?

Instead of grounding, Blake Lancaster at the University of Michigan suggests “job card grounding,” a system in which your child’s rule-breaking earns them a job card they must work off before they can resume normal social and screen activities. Dr. Lancaster says, “The next time your teen acts out, try giving them a job to do. A clear task helps establish fair punishment and accountability for a young person’s actions.”

The job card is detailed and comprehensive, and above and beyond what you normally expect in contributions to the household’s smooth running. Lancaster gives the example of cleaning the refrigerator, specifying removing everything from the fridge; separating spoiled and expired food into recycling, compost, and garbage; wiping out the drawers and shelves; and wiping down the walls inside and outside the refrigerator.

Lancaster recommends creating about 10 cards so you’ve always got one on hand as needed. Each one should be specific, so there’s no confusion about what the job entails. For this system to work, you have to have fair, reasonable, and consistent expectations that your child clearly understands. It helps if you keep the rules to a minimum. It can also help to discuss the rules with your child, and post them, maybe on the fridge.

The job card system does involve some grounding, but just until the task is completed. Each family’s situation is unique, but, in general, that means no screen use, except for schoolwork, and no activities that aren’t related to school or the job card specifications. The duration of the grounding is completely at your child’s discretion. They won’t be happy with you, but you have given them some power over the situation, which helps prevent the resentment that can erode your connection.

Be calm and friendly. Your only job is to restrict your child’s privileges until they’ve finished the job card. Don’t argue, negotiate, lecture, or prompt. As soon as the job card is complete, your child has full normal privileges. You can hand out a job card without any anger or negativity—it’s just a logical consequence to your child breaking a simple, fair rule they fully understood.

Create and maintain a positive family atmosphere.

Catch your child being good more often than you criticize or reprimand them, and you’ll find you don’t need to set consequences nearly as often.

You do have to set boundaries for your child and teenager—that’s part of being a responsible parent—but it’s wise to do that with love and encouragement. In Imperfect Parenting: How to Build a Relationship With Your Child to Weather Any Storm, I write about the many benefits of creating a positive home environment. A child who grows up feeling understood, valued, and accepted—who feels loved just the way they are—is more confident and successful, is happier and healthier, than a child who grows up in a climate of discord, criticism, or negativity.

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