Identifying appropriate consequences when your teen breaks rules: 3 simple rules to remember

One of my major messages to parents this year has been the importance of understanding why young people do the things they do during adolescence. You can sit with your teen, carefully explaining your rules and boundaries and tell them what will happen should those rules be broken and they may still walk away and, within minutes, do the 'wrong thing'. It is at this point that you may start to question your parenting and also the intelligence of your teen ...

Put simply, teens make 'dumb choices' because of their developing brain. The adolescent brain is far less developed than we once thought, with male brains developing much later than females (no surprise there!). When we make decisions as an adult, we rely on parts of the brain that are amongst the last to fully develop, i.e., the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and promotor cortex. These sections deal with reasoned thinking and judgment, as well as learning and memory (remembering past experiences) and a range of other functions that help us with effective decision-making. As an adult, we're terrified of everything - before we do anything we quickly weigh up the 'pros' and 'cons', considering the potential risks and then make a decision that is most likely to benefit us, as well as keeping us as safe as possible. As a result we usually err on the side of caution ...

These important areas of the brain aren't fully developed in teens, so they tend to rely on the amygdala (i.e., emotions) to process information. This causes them to respond with 'gut reactions' rather than think through possible consequences - as a result there is a decrease in reasoned thinking and an increase in impulsiveness. They 'jump into things' during this stage of their life and the basic mantra for an adolescent as far as decision making is concerned is - 'If it feels good, I'll do it!' I need to emphasise, it's not that they don't necessarily understand the risk involved (I've never met a Year 10 that doesn't know that drinking alcohol at their age is bad for them!), it's just at the point where they have to make a decision about doing something or not, the perceived 'reward' is so much more important for them than the potential risk ...

Getting 'hung up' and worrying that you didn't make the potential consequences clear enough when your child makes a bad decision and breaks your rules, or marching down to a school and telling them that they need to do more to educate teens on these issues is a huge waste of time and energy. Of course, young people need to be told about the risks involved with certain activities and education is vital, but always remember that just because teens make dumb choices that doesn't mean they're stupid - they usually know what they're doing (or at the very least have a general awareness - as far as alcohol and other drug education is concerned, we have some of the very best in the world), they are aware of the risks and they know there will be consequences but they'll worry about those later!

So you now know why they do the things they do, so what do you do if they break your rules? How do you decide what an appropriate consequence should be? A couple of years ago I met a young man and wrote a blog entry about the consequences his parents had given him that were fairly extreme and, as far as he was concerned, seemed overly harsh.

Without going into too much detail and slightly changing some of the aspects of the situation to protect his privacy, a Year 10 boy approached me after a student session, concerned about the punishment he had been given by his mother. He had gone out with friends a couple of weeks before, got terribly drunk and became separated from his friends. He had little memory of what happened leading up to being picked up by police but was later told that he was quite abusive and aggressive. His mother was called and he was taken home. But it was what happened the next day that he wanted my help on ... I'm paraphrasing, but essentially this was what he said:

"I'm grounded until December! That's a really long time. I know I've done the wrong thing but 8 months without being allowed out with my friends is going to be really hard. I'm prepared to take my punishment but do you think there's anything I can do to change my mum's mind?"

He so knew that he had done the wrong thing - and he was certainly willing to be punished but he didn't believe the punishment fitted the crime. I need to say that at all times he was incredibly respectful to his mother - he didn't criticise her but wanted some advice on how to possibly 'move her' a little.

If you've ever heard me speak to parents, one of my key messages is that the 'authoritative' style of parenting (i.e., rules, consequences, bound in unconditional love) has been proven to be the most effective in reducing future risky drinking in their children. That's easy to say but can be so difficult to actually carry out ... trying to work out what your rules are going to be can take a lot of work, but then you've got to decide what consequences are appropriate if those rules are broken! Unfortunately, too many parents create the consequence 'on the run' - something happens and the punishment is created in anger and not well thought through. I can't tell you how many times I've been told by a young person that they have been 'grounded for life!' Really, you've got to look at that and think who are you really punishing there?

Adolescents need to know what the rules are and why they exist, but they also need to be fully aware of the consequences should they break them. It is incredibly important to remember that when they know what will happen should they play-up, they are much less likely to feel that their punishment is unfair - they may not like what will happen but it's no great surprise!  I believe there are three simple rules to remember when deciding on 'appropriate' consequences for your child breaking rules you have set:

  • they must be fair and age appropriate (i.e., they should 'fit the crime'). As I've said time and time again, young people have an innate sense of fairness and if they believe that the punishment you have doled out is unfair, there's a really good chance that it is. As already said, you responded when you were angry, hurt and let-down by your teen's behaviour and didn't think it through - if the consequences for breaking a specific rule were clearly outlined when the rule was made, this should never be an issue
  • they must be 'balanced' (i.e.,they impact on the young person but aren't designed to 'hurt'). No-one wants their child to suffer and having the person you love the most in the world sitting in their bedroom screaming that they hate you must be the worst thing in the world but it is important to remember that they'll get over it. There is no point having a consequence if it doesn't have an effect but don't be cruel ... As much as parents don't like removing electronic devices from their child, it really is one of the most powerful punishments you can administer, but use it appropriately. There is no reason to take a phone off a 15 or 16 year-old for a week or even a number of days - take it off them for an hour or two and you'll see their fingers twitching! Short, sharp and balanced consequences are usually the best - they certainly have the greatest impact and don't harm the parent-child relationship  
  • they must be able to be enforced. Kids pick up on everything and the first time a parent doles out a punishment and doesn't carry it through, it will never be forgotten. Never create a consequence that you can't enforce ... this is why grounding is one of the most problematic punishments for many parents, particularly when you start talking about grounding for extended periods of time. Do you really want a screaming match every Saturday night for a period of weeks or months? Once again, trying to take a phone or other electronic device off your teen for an extended period of time is just going to make your life a living hell and, as most parents tell me, they usually end up giving in fairly soon and hand it back - what's the point? Give your child a punishment that can't realistically be carried out and you weaken any future rules you may try to put into place - they're simply not going to believe that you will follow-through the next time

Of course, there will be always be situations that are so out of character that rules in that area have not even been considered (how many parents would ever develop rules around being called by police because of their child's drunkenness as the mother of this Year 10 boy had to do?) and so it is then that consequences are going to have to be worked out after the event. The key here is to never develop and discuss punishments in anger - you may feel the need to scream and shout but it is important to try to keep calm and wait until tempers are a little cooler. Also, always remember that you are the adult here and if you believe the consequence you did dole out in anger was inappropriate, be 'big enough' to sit down with your teen and look at the punishment again, still making it clear that what they had done was wrong but also acknowledge that there is always room for renegotiation in a caring and loving family.


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