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Punishment and the Adolescent.

Getting punishment right when the teenager has done wrong.

(Punishment, Part One)

Punishing their adolescent is one of the more unrewarding parts of parenting. Not only does it add negativity to a temporarily strained relationship; it can provoke the adolescent to punish parents in return.

This payback is commonly done by acting mad, by complaining about mistreatment, or by refusing to talk to them for some period of time. This is kind of a "You showed me"/ "I'll show you" exchange of disfavor. Come adolescence, punishment is no fun for anyone.

A thankless part of parental discipline, punishment is NOT for minor infractions like leaving the refrigerator door open again or not turning out the lights. It is not for continuing aggravations like playing music too loudly or not picking up or cleaning up after themselves. It is not for resisting responsibilities like ‘forgetting homework' or delaying chores. These are supervisory matters. (See blog on "Nagging".)

As an unwise use of punishment, think of the parents who ground their teenager for once again leaving dirty dishes strewn around the home because they are fed up with this ongoing aggravation and are tired of keeping after him about it. This restriction will show him that they mean business! But what are they to do next week when he takes the family car out for an unlicensed joy ride late at night? They have just wasted the power of punishment on his leaving dirty dishes in the sink.

The purpose of punishment is to discourage major rule violations by applying a consequence that is sufficiently impactful to discourage the young person from repeating that particular misbehavior.

The magnitude of the offenses that punishment is meant to address are such serious transgressions as sneaking out after hours for a night of adventure on the town, lying about where one really was, stealing from a family member, and the like. These are all infractions that either risk or actually commit harm.

Of course, punishment is not the primary or only way to deal with serious violations. First, try to use communication to hear out, talk out, and work out an agreement with the teenager so that any damages are dealt with and a lesson has been learned. Assuming there is no likelihood the violation will be repeated, then communication is enough and there is no need for the additional deterrence that punishment can provide.

The power of punishment to reform is vastly overrated. It often fails to motivate positive behavior because it only enforces what not to do, but it doesn't prescribe and instruct and encourage what to do differently instead. A punitive consequence has far less corrective power than thorough communication.

Reflecting back, a grandmother who had effectively raised four children of her own once testified to the power of pure talk. "When any one of them stepped out of line they all knew what was coming: a good old fashioned talking to, only they called it a lecture, and there was nothing they hated worse. For however long it took, and it could take a while, I'd get me a cup of coffee and we'd sit down to talk the trouble out until I was satisfied we both fully understood what happened, why it happened, and how it wasn't going to ever happen again. And it never did."

It's when communication fails to correct that punishment is called into play. Now, to get their message of across, parents use punitive actions because persuasive words have not conveyed - the violation continuing no matter what they say. At this point punishment is employed to make a corrective point by catching the young person's attention, causing her to rethink her actions, and hopefully to encourage her back into compliance.

Sometimes the natural consequences of the violation provide sufficient deterrence. Thus when the 12-year-old, against home rules, plays with fire that starts getting out of hand, the young person burning himself in the process of frantically patting it out, he may be cured of doing it again. In this case, just talking with him about the scary experience and ministering to the hurt may be all parents have to do. The violation itself has proved punishing enough.

In the same way, parents don't have to double punish for what has already been punished by outside authorities. If a school violation has occurred, with several days of in-school suspension ordered to pay for the infraction, then parents simply have to help their son or daughter connect the misbehavior with the consequence. "It sounds like school is really serious about not permitting that kind of behavior. So now you know."

Since outside authorities are willing to play the heavy, parents have the luxury of empathizing with their adolescent ("School must feel lonely when you're unable to see your friends"), while silently supporting the consequence that was justly given.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week's entry -- Why violence?.

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