Why These 3 Classic Punishments for Teenagers Are Ineffective and What to Do Instead

These three classic punishments for teenagers will likely put an end to bad behavior. But there are more effective ways to discipline that don’t carry unintended consequences.

teenage daughter and her mother arguing about punishments

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Rebellious, defiant, rude, snarky, self-centered.

There’s a long list of terms used to describe teenage behavior.

And if you’re a parent of a teen, you’ve likely experienced one or more of them.

Maybe your 17-year-old stayed out beyond their curfew last night.

Or your fifteen-year-old is suddenly disrespectful when you ask them to do something (anything).

Or perhaps you have a newly minted thirteen-year-old and it’s becoming clear your influence is waning.

It’s no surprise that the teenage years can challenge parents in ways they never dreamed of.

Why teens misbehave

As teens make the transition from childhood to adulthood their focus and priorities change. Whereas once they turned to you for guidance, they’re now being influenced by peers. Also, as teens prepare to leave home, it’s developmentally appropriate for them to pursue greater independence untethered by their parents. Sometimes this pursuit of independence surfaces as rebellious or risky behavior.

At the same time, as their brains continue to mature, teens may also struggle with executive functioning skills or rather, reasoning, self-control, and reacting to certain circumstances in an appropriate manner. This can make it challenging for teens to manage their time wisely and stay organized. 

Both the pursuit of independence and lack of executive functioning skills is often perceived by parents and adults as misbehavior. 

Should teens be punished?

So the question becomes – when teens misbehave, should they be punished for wrongdoing?

Ultimately, what teens need more than anything is discipline, not punishment. Discipline coaches and instructs whereas punishment causes someone to suffer for wrongdoing. 

When a teen misbehaves, a parent should not only correct the behavior but also help the teen build a moral compass. It’s only when a teen, or anyone, internalizes a lesson (builds a moral compass) that they can do better next time. And since your teen will most likely be leaving home and making decisions on their own soon, this may be your last opportunity to help them determine right from wrong. 

When a teen is punished, they may stop a behavior in the short term – for fear of being punished again – but they’ll still lack the tools and understanding necessary to do better in the future. Which means they’re still at a disadvantage when they’re living on their own.

Plus, due to the suffering punished teens experience, they may simply lie next time to evade further punishment or seek revenge on the person who inflicted the suffering. In other cases, some teens may feel bad about themselves and their abilities after being punished, reducing their self-esteem. 

So if your goal is simply to make your teen’s bad behavior stop, regardless of the consequences that may result, punishment will suffice. But if you want to help your teen develop a moral compass, set them up for greater success when they’re living independently, and preserve your relationship, then punishment should be avoided. 

Preemptive steps to avoid teen misbehavior 

Of course, punishment isn’t necessary if teens don’t misbehave to begin with. And one of the best ways to bypass teen misbehavior is to build a relationship based on mutual trust, respect, and openness.

Any teen that values their relationship with their parent(s) will do what it takes to maintain it and avoid disappointing them. They’ll do their best (not all the time but most of the time!) to live up to their parent’s expectations.

At the same time, however, teens need to be taught appropriate behavior. And this is best taught by parents before any misbehavior arises. 

Here are a few steps you can take to preemptively avoid teen misbehavior and therefore, punishment:

Create a close connection with your teen

One of the most important things you can do to deter teen misbehavior is to establish a close connection with your child. Of course, for many parents, this can seem easier said than done! Especially if your teen is acting like the last thing they want is to be close to you. 

But teens’ actions can be deceiving. The truth is, most teens still yearn for a close bond with their parents but at the same time they’re wrestling with a yearning for independence. Try your best to come up with activities that you and your teen can do together that you know they’ll enjoy – even if that means playing one of their mind-numbing video games or spending time wandering the local mall.

It’s also important to actively listen to your teen. Teens shut down when they feel they aren’t being heard so persist in asking respectful, inquisitive questions while truly considering your teen’s point of view. 

See related: 5 Ways to Connect With Your Kids (That Actually Work)

Hold regular family meetings

Teens will be more open to following rules and expectations when their voice has been heard, acknowledged, and considered. And family meetings provide the perfect forum to let that happen.

Your meeting can be a weekly time for your family to come together to discuss issues and problem-solve solutions. It’s an opportunity to establish rules and expectations with your teen, and consider their point of view while also staying firm to what you, as the parent, know is acceptable. The more you listen to and acknowledge what your teen has to say – and attempt to incorporate their ideas and perspectives into solutions when possible – the more your teen will be open to listening to and respecting you. 

Family meetings can be a lifesaver when it comes to raising and disciplining teens. While it can take some practice to get started and stay consistent, family meetings, if done right, can establish connection and communication within the family that ultimately avoids teen misbehavior and negates the need for punishment. 

See related: 10 Tips for Holding a Successful Family Meeting + Mistakes to Avoid

Ready to run your own family meeting? My Family Meeting Toolkit, is a 10-page PDF with everything you need to get started. Click here or the image below to learn more and pick up your own copy.

family meeting toolkit

Create clear and concise family rules

No one likes to be told they did something wrong after the fact and teens are no different. So during family meetings work together to establish clear family rules.

Working collaboratively with your teen to establish rules will make them more likely to follow them. It’s also important to discuss together and agree to any consequences your teen should expect if rules aren’t followed. If respectful consequences are agreed to ahead of time, your teen will be more accepting of them, since, after all, they helped create them.

Rules that parents and teens can develop together:

  • When screen time should happen and for how long
  • Appropriate behavior when interacting with others online
  • When and how teens should communicate with parents about their whereabouts
  • At what time a teen should be expected home at night
  • Expectations about neatness and organization
  • Expectations about participation in school and grades

See related: 7 Important House Rules for Teenagers (and How to Make Sure They’re Followed)

Set a good precedent 

Of course, you can’t expect your teen to exhibit good behavior if you don’t. So it’s important to reflect on how you behave around your teen and if you’re setting a good precedent.

For example, if you don’t want your teen to swear, yell or ignore you, make sure you aren’t doing any of these things, especially toward your teen. 

Sometimes it can be difficult to control emotions when dealing with teen behavior but if you find yourself yelling at your teen, first apologize, point out your mistake, and aim to do better in the future. Your teen will appreciate your apology and may even find comfort in recognizing that you too make mistakes.

Also, be conscious of how well you listen to and acknowledge what your teen is saying. It’s easy to be distracted by work, technology, schedules, and other relationships. But making an effort to actively listen to your teen means they’ll be more likely to listen to and respect what you have to say to them. 

Classic punishments for teenagers that are ineffective

When it’s understood that having a connected relationship with teens – where they’re also active participants in establishing rules and consequences – can deter teen misbehavior, it’s easy to see how punishing teens is often unnecessary and can have a negative effect.

Punishments, such as the ones listed below, are often conceived of and enforced by parents after the teen’s done something the parent disapproves of. Often, the punishment has nothing to do with the offense and its only intention is to make the teen suffer for their wrongdoing – not teach them how to do better.

All that said, these punishments for teenagers can be effective at getting a teen to stop doing whatever is undesirable. If your only goal is to deter your teen from repeating an offense, the suffering caused by these punishments may make them think twice before repeating their behavior. 

But recognize that punishing your teen can damage your connection with them and encourage some teens to lie next time so they won’t get caught a second time. Or, in their anger about being punished, a teen may seek revenge and take on more rebellious or risky behaviors.

If your goal is to raise teens who truly understand right from wrong, these punishments should be avoided: 

Grounding

Grounding involves keeping a child or teen at home for a few days or weeks as punishment for misbehavior. The teen is permitted to leave the house for all required activities, such as school, sports or other extracurriculars, but isn’t allowed to spend time with friends or leave home for other leisure activities.

Parents often ground their kids because they’ve stayed out late or went somewhere they weren’t permitted. Sometimes parents also ground teens for getting bad grades or doing something else the parent disapproves of.

If they enjoy their social life and freedom, teens will undoubtedly suffer from being grounded. And some teens will possibly try to be more punctual or communicative to avoid suffering again. But other teens will simply be rebellious and in all cases, causing a teen to suffer instead of helping them to do better, will cause a rift in your relationship. 

Arbitrarily grounding a teen isn’t necessary if rules and consequences are established ahead of time. And if your teen does break a rule? First, have a discussion to determine what might have caused them to be late or go somewhere they weren’t permitted. Next, see if they can come up with solutions that would help them avoid breaking these rules in the future. And finally, follow through with any consequence you both agreed to before the rule was broken. 

Exception: If your child is in danger and you’re afraid for their safety having them stay home may be the wisest option. There are always exceptions, but exceptions are just that… exceptions.

Taking away screens, devices, or other prized possessions

Parents take away teens’ prized possessions, and especially their phones, iPads or other devices, in response to behavior they don’t approve of. Since teens connect with friends or find entertainment on their devices, this punishment can be painful. 

Many teens will think twice about repeating an offense so they can continue to use their phone or device. 

But if the intention is to teach your child not to talk back, be disrespectful, clean their room on time, or abide by whatever rule or expectation they’re being punished for, taking a prized possession away isn’t going to teach them how to do better.

If your child is being disrespectful, for example, they need clear guidance and instruction on how to communicate their opinions respectfully. If they’re having trouble cleaning their room, it’s possible the task is too overwhelming or they don’t have the organizational or time management skills to take it on.

Whatever the offense, a more effective response is to coach and instruct your teen rather than cause suffering through punishment. 

Exception: If you and your teen agreed to screen time rules ahead of time and decided that their phone will be taken away if those rules are disobeyed, then, by all means, follow through. The key is to have discussed this outcome ahead of time rather than arbitrarily imposing it on an unrelated matter.

Making teens do extra chores

One popular response to teen misbehavior is to pile on extra chores. For example, say your teen disobeyed you and went downtown to meet his friends on Friday evening. As punishment, you have him rake leaves for three weekends in a row.

Having to do this extra chore is certainly a burden and will possibly deter your teen from repeating the offense. But there are a few reasons why punishing teens with extra chores isn’t a good idea.

First, raking leaves is completely unrelated to disobeying you so it’s clearly a consequence that’s just meant to cause suffering. Second, doing chores is never fun but imposing chores as a consequence will make your teen resent housework and may make them unwilling to help out in the future. 

It can feel like a betrayal when a teen disobeys you. Furthermore, it can incite panic and fear about what other behavior they might be up to. Instinctually, it can feel right to come down hard and inflict punishment in a situation like this. And the suffering your teen experiences from the extra chores may deter him next time or, on the other hand, may cause him to lie or just disregard your expectations entirely. 

Instead, show your disapproval of what your teen has done. Let him know how betrayed you feel by his disregard for the boundaries you’ve set. Then, discuss why he did what he did and see if you can come to a resolution that satisfies both his need to socialize and your need to keep him safe. And, of course, if this discussion about how and where your teen can spend his Friday evenings were to happen ahead of time – as well as agreed consequences if the agreed-upon rule is disregarded – inflicting an arbitrary punishment becomes unnecessary. 

More effective ways to discipline teens

In addition to taking preemptive steps to avoid misbehavior in the first place (see the section above), the following are effective solutions to address your teen’s misbehavior while also nurturing their inner compass of right and wrong. 

Let natural consequences take their course

Natural consequences are the unavoidable outcomes of poor or irresponsible decisions. For teens, natural consequences can include not wearing appropriate clothing in bad weather, losing homework because of poor organization, or losing a phone because it wasn’t properly looked after.

Sometimes parents impose punishment on teens when their child has already suffered and learned from a natural consequence. But this additional punishment rarely teaches a lesson and only creates strain on the parent-child relationship.

In most cases, except when safety is a concern or the natural consequence impacts someone else, it’s better to just let natural consequences take their course. Your teen is more likely to keep better watch over their phone if they lose it and have to pay for a new one than if you also ground them for a week.

See related: Why We Need to Let Our Kids Experience the Natural Consequences of Their Actions

Collaborate and problem-solve when issues arise

Believe it or not, your teen wants to be good. But maybe years of punishment and disconnection have sent the message that they’re not good and therefore they lack the motivation to do better.

When we send the message to our teens that we want to help them do better, and that we’re willing to work with them to achieve success, teens will be less likely to misbehave. (Note that I’m not saying they’ll never misbehave or act perfectly all the time. But it’s easier to work with a motivated teen than an unmotivated one.) 

Collaborating and problem-solving with teens can take a bit of work at first – especially if you need to establish a connection and mutual trust – but in the long run, it can make discipline less of a power struggle and burden.

This article can help: How to Teach Kids Problem-Solving Skills and Make Parenting Easier for You

Common mistakes when disciplining teens

In order to be effective at disciplining teens – in essence, helping them through collaboration, problem-solving, and coaching – these common mistakes should be avoided.

Failing to follow through

If you and your teen have agreed to a consequence, it’s up to you to follow through with it. If you don’t, your teen won’t trust that their actions have any repercussions and may feel free to do whatever they want. 

Condemning teens personally for their behavior

It’s so very tempting to let teens know how wrong, irresponsible and annoying their behavior is. And while we shouldn’t hide our emotions from our teens, we shouldn’t personally condemn them either.

Making statements like “I can’t believe how stupid you are” or “how could you do something so foolish?” will only make teens feel bad about themselves and hurt your relationship.

Instead, if you feel the need to, point out how their actions make you feel: “it’s hurtful when you speak to me in such a disrespectful tone.” or “it’s frustrating when you don’t clean up your mess in the kitchen and I have to make dinner around it.”

Implementing consequences that don’t meet the four Rs

The author of the best-selling book, Positive Discipline, Jane Nelsen, pointed out that a consequence for misbehavior can only be effective if it follows what she calls the four Rs. Otherwise, she explains, the consequence will be perceived to be a punishment (and carry with it all the negative aftereffects of punishment).

So as you determine consequences with your teen, make sure they fit within the four Rs:

  1. Related: the consequence should be related to the offense
  2. Respectful: the consequence should not humiliate, blame or cause suffering
  3. Reasonable: both you and your teen should agree that the consequence makes sense
  4. Revealed in advance: no consequence should be issued arbitrarily by the parent 

Failing to coach or teach teens how to do better

As teens emerge from childhood, they appear to be young adults. But the truth is that there’s a lot more growth and learning that needs to occur.

It’s important for parents to recognize teens’ illogical behavior is really just an indication that there are gaps in their knowledge. And we can play the role of helping them fill those gaps through patient (sometimes very patient!) instruction.

Forgoing short-term ease for long-term success

We live in a society that sees punishment as a logical response to misbehavior. And while punishment often does deter bad behavior from reoccurring in the short term, no part of it teaches the offender how to do better.

If we desire long-term success for our teens, where they can distinguish right from wrong and demonstrate appropriate behavior, punishing them isn’t going to cut it. Instead, we’ll be more successful if we build a connected relationship, collaborate and problem-solve with them, and follow through with respectful, appropriate, and agreed-upon discipline when things go awry. 

See related:

70+ Essential Life Skills Teens Can Use Now and in the Future

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About Kerry Flatley

Hi! I’m Kerry, the mother of two girls and a certified parent educator. I believe it is possible for parents to have a supportive, loving, and warm relationship with their kids while raising them to be independent and ultimately self-sufficient. Over the years, I’ve read numerous books and articles that support this belief and I’ve put these ideas into practice with my own kids. Read more about me and Self-Sufficient Kids here.