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Correcting Teenagers by Taking Away Freedom of Action or Use

While sometimes effective, deprivation of freedom can be risky as well.

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

Parents often correct a noncompliant little girl or boy by ordering a short “time-out” followed by a short talk-out to reflect on some misbehavior and hopefully decide not to repeat it.

However, with the onset of the young person’s adolescence, parental correction can literally “take” a harder turn as they may take away freedom of action or use to penalize an infraction.

So the parent decrees: “You’re grounded!” “I’ll have your smartphone for a week!” “No driving the car until further notice!”

At an age when independence is more prized by the adolescent, temporary loss of that freedom can feel like losing the breath of life, injurious that way. It socially and emotionally hurts. For this reason, parents can treat deprivation of freedom as the strongest punishment they have in their arsenal of influence, to rely on when all other efforts of persuasion and correction fail to convince.

Selectively applied, deprivation may have corrective impact sometimes; however, it is easy for parents to use it excessively, and when they do a self-defeating outcome can occur. Best to keep in mind that Kristofferson lyric: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Strip a teenager of all desirable freedoms and parents can set the aggrieved young person free indeed. “What do I care about your rules? Now you’ve got nothing else to take away!”

In general, parents become quicker to resort to hard punishment like deprivation in response to teenage infractions because their authority feels less automatic than it was with the child. “Now I need stronger measures to get compliance.”

Why does the adolescent tend to test and contest parental authority more than did the child? The most common answer, I believe, is that this change is developmentally driven. The child grew up in the Age of Command believing that parents could control them: “I have to do what I’m told.” The adolescent, however, has entered the Age of Consent knowing that a parent can’t make them or stop them without their cooperation: “Whether I do or don’t do what my parents want is up to me.” This is why parents tend to get more active (argument and defiance) and passive (ignoring and delay) resistance from their teenager.

Now a time of more thankless parenting begins as they take more stands for the young person’s best interests against what she or he may want, and do not get appreciation for their efforts. “You’re on my case all the time, you’re overprotective, and you never let me do anything!”

The parental job is to provide a stable family structure of responsible rules, limits, demands, and expectations for the adolescent to rattle around in as she or he pushes for more individuality (freedom of expression) and independence (freedom of action.) It is at times of serious violations of the family structure, that correction in the form of freedom deprivation can come into play. Parents need to use it wisely and in moderation.

In most cases, I believe deprivation needs to be kept short-term to be most effective because the longer it goes on the easier it becomes for the adolescent to adjust to doing without. At worst, excessive deprivation can create deep and abiding grievance and provoke angry acting out or, as mentioned, can engender a ‘nothing left to lose’ attitude. So maybe a week is the outer limit for effective deprivation to last. An exception would be evidence of drinking when driving in which case parents may want to put off restoration of car-freedom until they have sound evidence that this unsafe infraction will not happen again.

For all of the above, I suggest using deprivation selectively, not routinely, and keeping it as a last resort only after three other corrective approaches have been tried first, as follows:


“We need to talk with you about the choice you made, why it does not work for us and needs not to happen again. But first, we want to hear your side of things, explaining what you want us to know. What we can promise you is that when it comes to our rules and expectations, we will be clear about what they are, firm where we have to be, flexible where we can, and give a full hearing to whatever you have to ask or say. In this case, lying to us is no more acceptable than our lying to you. So let’s talk about how you can commit to honesty with us from now on.”


“Since you are having a hard time consistently following this rule, we will consistently keep after you to support your compliance. This means we will be doing regular asking and checking and following through to make sure all your homework is brought home from school, is adequately done, and is faithfully turned in. If we have to, we will meet you after school and together make the rounds of teachers to help you pick it up, and we will go to school with you in the mornings to together help you turn it in. If for any reason, you find this objectionable, you have only to take complete care of this business yourself, and we will back off.”


“As a consequence of doing what you should not have, you’re going to have to work off the offense. Before you get to do anything you want to do, you will have a weekend task, above usual chores, to do around the place. And while you’re so occupied, you can reflect on what got you into washing all these windows on a Saturday morning. We hope this will remind you not to take without asking and call it ‘borrowing,’ when our permission was neither asked for or given, as you well know.” (One reason why parents shy away from using reparation is that it requires parental supervision to be accomplished, and they are reluctant to do the work.)

It’s when these strategies prove to have no corrective value that parents may want to put the fourth option, DEPRIVATION, in play: “Because of sneaking out last weekend after hours, normal social permission this weekend is denied.”

For more about parenting teenagers, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE," and learn more at

Next week’s entry: Parenting the More Unavailable Adolescent