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Discipline vs. Punishment: How to Respond When Teen Boys Mess Up

Ugh. You just found out that your son has done something really bad. The kind of bad that makes you want to deny you know him.

Now what?

Discipline vs. Punishment

Sometimes your son will mess up. But it’s a moment in time. Your son isn’t doomed to be a failure or to grow up to be a terrible person. All of the reasons you love him are still right there alongside whatever motivated made him to do this thing you’re now dealing with.

His feelings could be so jumbled together that it’s hard for him to sort them all out. He could be embarrassed, angry that he got caught, ashamed, in denial, or paranoid that everyone is talking behind his back. He might worry that this one mistake will damage his future.

Let’s begin with the word we use to approach the problem. To punish comes from the Latin word for “pain.” As tempting as it can be to think about what will hurt and what will get through that thick head, we should shift our focus to the concept of discipline, which means “to teach.”

We want our children to realize that while everyone makes mistakes, even really big ones, there is a way back. If they face the consequences with integrity and reflect on what they did wrong, they will be a stronger person for the experience and you will be proud of them.

4 Steps to Disciplining Teens:

When disciplining children (either my own or my students), I frame my response in this fashion.

  1. Identify the problem. Tell them exactly what they did that was a problem.
  2. Explain your values. Explain why the specific actions they did are against your values.
  3. Clarify the consequence. Tell them specifically what privilege will be taken away and for how long (which requires that you know the child well enough to know which privilege means the most to them).
  4. Offer a Way to Make Amends. Give them a “way back”—i.e., a way to make amends that will make them and you proud.

5 Responses to Avoid:

I went right to the source—teenage boys—to find out which responses from parents are not helpful.

  1.  “I knew it.”
  2. “How could you have been so stupid?” Lots of times they actually don’t know or can’t articulate why they did what they did.
  3.  “What were you thinking?” When adults say that to boys in this situation, it’s not usually said as a question.
  4. “I have failed as a parent.” (Or any similar statement.)
  5. “You’re just like...” (Insert name of person in your family that is perceived to be a failure or has a bad reputation.)

Boys can be masters of looking like they don’t care about any discipline or punishment we give them. With parents, they shrug and tell us they don’t care. That doesn’t mean our words don’t impact them—for better or worse.

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5 Effective Discipline Strategies:

1. Choose consequences wisely.

“Grounding is the most pointless thing. When my mom sends me to my room, I don’t really care. I’m a musician, so I can always find something else to do. The most effective punishment for parents is when they take everything away from you. My mom once took my phone, my Internet, Xbox, guitars, pretty much everything. She did that so I would do this list of chores she had. It worked.”—Landon, 15

2. Be clear, firm, and consistent.

No matter what, don’t hand down a punishment and then change your mind or fail to enforce it:

“I got into huge trouble recently, and my parents grounded me for three months, but after a month they stopped. It’s like . . . I can’t trust them. Is that weird? But that’s what it feels like. Like I can’t trust them because they didn’t follow through.”—Tom, 16

“It feels like they don’t even care about what you did which makes it easier to do again.”—Charlie, 14

3. Make it clear that you still love them.

If they really mess up, here’s something you can think about saying.

I love you. You are my son. That doesn’t take away that your actions have hurt another person and you need to be held accountable. You will, in time, come to terms with what you did. Through that process I will be by your side. But I will not deny what you have done and I will deeply reflect on how we got to this place. Any time you would like to talk to me about this, I will be here.

4.  Have a conversation.

Here’s the irony. These situations can improve the you relationship. When the dust settles and the initial intense feelings on both sides have subsided, it’s important to reconnect with each other.

“The thing is that most parents don’t really talk about why they’re doing this stuff. It makes it seem that the parent likes punishing their kid. If parents just talked, it would be so much easier.”—Damion, 15

“Generally, at the end of my time grounded, I have to have a conversation with my parents about the bigger picture, how to prevent myself from getting in trouble again, and just being a better person in general. If I had just gotten grounded and left it at that, to me, that wouldn’t really resonate. As much of a pain those conversations were, they were what actually stuck with me, not the grounding.”—Cooper, 17

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5. Remember these moments are a moment, not a lifetime.

Focus on what you want him to learn from this experience and the process he goes through as a consequence. And while it can be so much easier to yell or disconnect, these conversations can be the most important you ever have with him.

Rosalind Wiseman is a teacher, thought leader, and bestselling author of Queen Bees & WannabeesMasterminds & Wingmen, and Owning Up. She is the founder of Cultures of Dignity and lives in Colorado with her husband and two children. Follow her on Twitter at @cultureodignity.

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