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How To Discipline Teens: Do You Always Need Consequences?

A recent conversation with a good friend, who is a wonderful parent, made me reflect on Miguel Brown’s Blog on how to address teenage behavior that is unacceptable.

We each have our own barometer of what we feel is appropriate behavior for our own teens. Maybe there are some common denominators that most of us find universally unacceptable. For my friend and me, it’s dishonesty.

How do we punish or reprimand behavior that is legitimately age appropriate but nonetheless warrants a consequence? And how do we do that without alienating our teenager in the process? I’ve found that communication, not persecution, is the approach that promotes a change in my teenager’s behavior.

Understandably, this is the stage where most teenagers will make mistakes. Some will engage in behavior that is reckless and dangerous, and worthy of consequence. Others will toy with white lies that expose a need for discussion. I have held back on punishment in exchange for frank and (at times) painful conversations that address our family’s values and expectations.

Those times when I have imposed a harsh punishment, my teenager’s anger ends up overpowering the lesson I wanted them to learn. We end up battling the emotional backlash and losing the opportunity to address the behavior. Knowing when to take away a cherished activity or special treat remains the cornerstone of effective discipline for teens. Brown’s “nuclear option” describes the danger of an extreme reaction that increases the disconnect between teens and parents, instead of repairing it.

My friend recently navigated this painful path with her son. His behavior, including lying, went against their family expectations. In response, should she refuse to let him go on a planned vacation? It seemed counter-intuitive to let him go, as if he would suffer no consequence for a recent incident of outrageous teen lying.

On the other hand, was a serious discussion with him adequate? One that addressed the need for trust at the most basic level, and gave a few concessions on both sides to allow for some growth. Her ultimate decision? To let him travel with his friend and family, but with the understanding that conversations would continue regarding his behavior. This helped to ensure that her expectations about his behavior would remain intact.

Doing something out of fierce love for our kids doesn’t make our decisions bad. After all, it’s not for anyone else to judge how we parent our teens. But I have never felt wrong with this explanation to my own children. “I am doing this for you because I love you deeply. I want this for you, regardless of the fact that at this moment in time you might not deserve it.”

A nuclear weapon-style consequence damages everything in its path, especially the relationship with our teenager. My hope is that the alternative I describe here will have the desired impact on my teenager, while also protecting what matters most—our relationship.

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