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Effective Punishment for the Adolescent

Used selectively with adolescents, punishment can have a corrective influence.

Key points

  • Since deprivation as a punishment has a considerable effect on teenagers, parents need to use it judiciously.
  • More effective than deprivation, reparation is an active punishment that prescribes tasks to be done to work off the offense.
  • When a young person's serious rule-breaking causes hurt or injury to another party, reparation takes on the added dimension of restitution.

When it comes to punishing their adolescent, the number one choice of parents seems to be deprivation—temporarily removing something of value in the young person's life in consequence of him or her committing some serious misdeed.

The "game of takeaway," as one teenager called it, is played by parents when their teenager doesn't play by basic family rules. Resources that seem to be most commonly denied in this electronic age are cell phones, messaging devices, and the computer.

Without the means of communication, the young person is handicapped in his contact with peers at a time when being in constant touch with them feels all-important.

Of course, the most common deprivation that parents use to punish major infractions is the loss of social freedom — grounding. For most adolescents, freedom is the breath of life, so denying it can really hurt. Social circulation is cut off while the social interaction of friends keeps going on.

On the plus side for parents, their power of permission is amplified by their power to restrict. On the downside, however, they lose some freedom as well because now the jailers are forced to keep uneasy company with the unhappy person being jailed.

Because deprivation has a considerable effect, parents need to use it judiciously. Here are four guidelines to consider.

  1. Do not strip your teenager of every freedom, as parents who punish in anger can be prone to do. When you take every resource and freedom away, you have just liberated your adolescent because he or she has nothing left to lose: "Now you've got nothing else to take away!"
  2. Do not take away a pillar of self-esteem. For example, do not prohibit participation in some activity like sports or a special interest through which the young person nourishes their development and good feelings about themselves. To do so is destructive, not just corrective. Find some valued resource or freedom to temporarily deny that is not at the expense of the teenager's growth.
  3. When grounding, do not cut off all social contact for your adolescent. Your purpose is to temporarily reduce full freedom of contact with friends, but not to cut that contact off entirely. So if you are keeping her in this weekend, don't disallow cell phone and computer communication. This way, she can be out of social flow but still be in touch with what is going on.
  4. Keep grounding short-term — a matter of days, not a matter of weeks or months. The longer you take your young person out of social action, the more you put her at risk of losing social position, the lower her social standing among friends when she returns, the more subject to peer pressure she may be as she struggles to re-establish herself.

When some parents think of grounding they make a distinction between "grounding in" and "grounding out." "Grounding in' is what I have described so far — reducing social freedom by keeping the young person at home.

"Grounding out" I've occasionally seen employed by parents with older teenagers who are on a freedom run — refusing to abide any household curfew, determined to keep their own hours, coming and going as they please. In this case, these parents have said something like this: "We are keeping a home, not a prison. If you choose to, even though it is against house rules, you are free to leave whenever you want and stay out as late as you want. This is ultimately up to you. But when you re-enter, that is up to us. You will have to call first to negotiate the terms of your return."

I haven't seen this kind of grounding invoked very often, but in some stubborn situations, it seemed to be effective. Apparently, for an older adolescent who still wants to live at home, when following a curfew becomes a residency requirement, it can catch the young person's attention.

However, as one reader, Carrie, warned, such a tactic can put the young person at the mercy of dangerous outside situations. On balance, I believe she is correct. Grounding out is not worth the risks to the young person's safety that can be created.

Deprivation has a major drawback as a corrective. It is passive punishment because all that parents are asking the young person to do is do nothing or to do without. It makes no demands on the young person's energy or time.

This is why a more effective punishment than deprivation is reparation. Reparation is active punishment because it prescribes tasks to be done to work off the offense.

Thus the parent says something like this. "In consequence of what you did, there's going to be some additional work to do around our home (or service to provide in the community) that will need to be completed before I set you free to do anything else you want to do. And that work must be performed to my satisfaction."

Not only do parents or the community get some benefit from the young person's sentence; while engaged in this labor, the teenager keeps in mind the rule violation he or she is working off.

Some parents even keep a list of household projects that need doing around the place tacked on the refrigerator in anticipation of the next infraction. "For starters, see these windows? Well, they all need washing. Inside and out."

When a young person's serious rule-breaking causes hurt or injury to another party, reparation takes on the added dimension of restitution.

Restitution involves meeting with the victim (if the victim is willing); getting to hear from the victim about all the material, physical, and emotional damage that was done; and then working out some actual amends to the person to compensate for the hurt.

Deprivation and reparation can both be effective punishments, with this proviso. After the terms of punishment have been duly accomplished, then parents need to consider the violation paid for "in full," which means they do not refer to it again. A parent who holds onto to past violations, who will not let them go, "keeping books against me" as one teenager called it, builds up a history of complaints that no young person can ever overcome.

"My parents remember everything bad I've ever done. And the next time I get in trouble, which sooner or later is bound to happen, they bring it all up against me. Nothing I do wrong is ever over with. It's just added to the list of all the wrong I've done."

I believe the best approach to correction, and punishment is the extreme corrective response, is a non-judgmental one. It recognizes that correction is criticism enough. The teenager already knows that parents are sufficiently concerned and displeased to take serious issue with his behavior, so they shouldn't couple correction with attacks on the young person's capacity or character. Better to simply disagree with the choice he or she has made.

Thus, rather than talk about "what a stupid and irresponsible thing that was for you to do," they make a non-evaluative corrective response instead. The punishment message they give is specific, explanatory, and compensatory. "We disagree with the choice you made. This is why. And, in consequence, this is what we need to have happen now."

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