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Teens and breaking rules: 3 tips to help parents decide on consequences

The teen years can be difficult for all concerned and it’s so important that parents have an understanding of why young people do the things they do during adolescence. You can sit with your teen, carefully explain your rules and boundaries and outline clearly the consequences should those rules be broken and they may still walk away and, within minutes, do the ‘wrong thing’. It’s at this point that you may start to question your parenting and also the intelligence of your teen …

Put simply, teens make the choices they do 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 often terrified of everything and 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 and as a result there’s 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 emphasize, 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. I’ve said it many times before, they weigh risk and reward differently to adults …

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 teachers 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!

If that’s why they do the things they do, what should you be doing if they break your rules? How do you decide what an appropriate consequence should be?

When I 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?

Teens need to know what the rules are and why they exist, but they also need to be fully aware of what will occur should they break them. Research shows that if they are aware of the potential consequences, 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 things to remember when deciding on ‘appropriate’ consequences and they are as follows:

  • they must be fair and age appropriate (i.e., they should ‘fit the crime’). 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. Responding when you are angry, hurt or let-down by your teen’s behaviour and not giving yourself time to think it through is likely to result in greater conflict, an ‘unfair’ consequence and is not going to be effective. If the consequences for breaking a specific rule are clearly outlined when the rule is made, however, this should not 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 are less likely to damage the parent-child relationship
  • they must be able to be enforced. Teens 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’ll always be situations that are so out of character that you haven’t even considered rules in that area, as a result consequences are going to have to be worked out after the event. Once again, the key here is to never develop and discuss punishments in anger – you may feel the need to scream and shout but it’s important to try to keep calm and wait until tempers are a little cooler. Also, always remember that you’re the adult here and if you believe the consequence you did dole out in anger was inappropriate, be ‘big enough’ to accept you made a mistake. Sit down with your teen and look at the punishment again, still making it clear that what they’d done was wrong but also acknowledge that there’s always room for renegotiation in a caring and loving family.

Published: August 2019

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