Parenting Your Teenager: 6 Tips for Effective Discipline and Consequences

A parent writes in, ``We are having a hard time in our family deciding on appropriate punishments when our teen-ager breaks family rules. We can't tell if we are too strict or too lenient. What can we do?''

This seems to be a place where many parents get stuck. Questions about appropriate punishment and consequences are very important.

Now notice, if you will, that I just said punishment and consequences, not just punishment. This is because I believe there is an important distinction to be made.

The difference has to do with what our goal is in responding to unacceptable and inappropriate behavior.

If it's to vent our anger, control the teen-ager and provoke resentment, then punishment is the way to go.

If, on the other hand, our goal is to send a clear message, manage and guide the teen-ager, and provide instruction about life, then consequences are the way to go.

The purpose of establishing consequences for behavior is to teach about the real world.

There are basically two kinds of consequences - natural and logical.

Natural consequences occur naturally, as a result of behavior and choices. In the adult world, if we run red lights, we can get hit and hurt; if we don't show up for work without a reason, we can get fired.

In the world of kids, there are times when allowing natural consequences to occur is much too dangerous. A parent should never allow the natural consequences of running into a busy street, for example, to occur.

When natural consequences are too dangerous, it's time to create logical consequences. In general, these involve some loss of privileges as a result of irresponsible behavior.

There are two general models that I use when structuring appropriate logical consequences.

The first was designed by Stephen Glenn, the author of "How to Raise Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World." It involves the three R's of logical consequences: related, respectful and reasonable.

Related. Related simply means related to the behavior. If a child violates curfew, making him stay late at school or mow the lawn is not related. The temporary loss of the privilege of going out is related.

Respectful. We need to avoid two things here: The first is humiliating the teen-ager; the second is inconveniencing the adult.

Reasonable. ``You are grounded for life and will never see the light of day again'' is unreasonable. ``Your behavior and choices have caused you to lose the privilege of going out tomorrow night'' is reasonable.

I have found Glenn's model very useful in my work with families. To these three R's, I've added three S's: strong, swift and short-term.

Strong. ``Honey, I really wish you wouldn't come in so many hours after your curfew'' is not strong. Losing the privilege of going out on the very next opportunity is strong.

Swift. Adults and teen-agers differ in their perception of time. As adults, if we are told a project is due in two months, we know we need to get moving yesterday. For many teens, two months equals eternity, which equals no motivation.

For consequences to be effective, they need to be closely linked in time to the misbehavior.

For teen-agers, not being able to go on a trip six months from now for flunking a test is ineffective. Having to spend extra time during the next three days studying and therefore losing the privilege of afternoon free time is swift and effective.

Short-term. When I was 13 years old, my parents grounded me for life. (If you want to find out why, come to one of my seminars!) For logical consequences to be effective, they need to be relatively short-term. Again, this goes back to the issue of time.

For most teen-agers, anything lasting longer than a few days or weeks (as long as the consequence is strong and swift) becomes ineffective. Anything longer breeds resentment, contempt and revenge, and negates any lessons about life that might have been taught.

The purpose of parenting teens is to prepare them for life on their own. Using the R's and S's of consequences can allow the parents to be in charge while teaching the lessons of life.

For more tips and strategies for managing the teen years, visit parenting coach Jeff Herring's ParentingYourTeenager.com and check out his Back to School Success Tips.

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