Archive for Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Double Take: Consequences should match misbehavior

November 15, 2005


Wes: A frequent debate over the course of my practice as a family psychologist has been what parents should and should not take away from their kids when trying to offer a sound consequence for bad behavior. This may include poor grades, substance abuse, sex, misuse of the car, blown curfews, disrespect and so on. This week, we'll examine this issue in depth.

For the most part, I firmly believe that extracurricular activities should rarely be used as either an incentive or a consequence. Cheerleading, football, choir and other activities should only be taken away or limited if they overload the young person. If it is clear that the teen is not doing homework because she is constantly practicing for "Encore" or "Showtime," or traveling too much for away games, then limits may have to be set. However, this is not a consequence. It is a matter of good time management, and even this decision should be weighed carefully and done only after the teen has been given a chance to organize and manage time better.

In fact, I don't agree with school policies that prohibit extracurriculars for those with low grade-point averages. There are numerous reasons for this. The most obvious is that extracurriculars are valuable in and of themselves. They teach important values, and research says that while kids who play are far from perfect, they do have a lower rate of problems than those who don't. So why would the school or the parent want to take away something that is potentially a good influence on their teenager? Moreover, it is not my experience that this threat does anything to motivate kids to do better in school, come home on time or quit having sex. It is simply a logical disconnect.

The same is generally true for jobs. Work experience is vital for teenagers in building good financial sense, positive work ethics and habits, and workplace teamwork. Again, if the teen can't manage at school or sleeps four hours a night because of work, then a limit should be set on hours worked and/or time of shift - but only after the teen has tried to solve the problem himself. I also have seen parents refuse to allow children to have a job until they get a certain GPA or clean their room. This is rarely helpful, and it denies the teen all the benefits, including discipline, that the workplace affords. Some kids are truly working too much, but for the most part work should be encouraged and supported, not used as a consequence. One of the strangest things I've heard a parent say is: "We'll let you have a job when you show us you can be responsible." A better approach would be to send teens to work so they can become responsible.

Cars, video games, TVs, iPods, cell phones and other material objects are a different matter. However, I recommend a sensible pattern of removal and a clear way to win the items back. For example, one should not take away the car if the young person runs up her cell phone bill. The cell phone should go. The video game should not be taken away for rude behavior, but instead for failing to complete homework assignments because of too much gaming. Simply put, the consequence needs to be natural and linked logically to the behavior. Cars should be taken for misuse, drinking and driving, excessive tickets that could have been avoided, and so on.

Finally, the worst decision any parent can make in these situations is to knee jerk in anger and then regret the consequence they set. Just as one should never discipline a young child in anger, one should not set consequences for a teen in anger. One usually ends up either regretting what they have taken or backing down. And in the world of teenagers, parents should not put themselves in either position.

Marissa: Finding a productive and effective way of punishing your children after they have done something wrong is often a hard thing to do. It might seem like a good idea to dish out the loss of a car in response to your children blowing their curfew, but then later you realize that it inconveniences you more than it does them.

There is a definite list of things that really shouldn't be used against a teen for punishment: a complete restriction from all forms of communication, practices for sports, choir, theater or any other afterschool activity, and any forms of "cruel and unusual punishment." I know it might seem odd to throw that last one in there, but I recently heard a story in which a young man was punished with the electricity to his room shut off, and he was forced to stay in there.

Aside from those things it is whatever your teen finds to be valuable. To quote Dr. Phil McGraw, you have to find their "currency." Depending on the age of the child, it can be anything from television to going out on the weekends. I think one of the most effective ways is to start out with a list of restrictions that can gradually be earned back as behavior improves and time passes.

Another thing to consider before choosing the punishment is the offense. The same consequences won't work for different things. For example, another pretty ridiculous story that I heard was of a girl who was struggling with cutting herself and was punished for it by having her phone and computer taken away.

Be creative and make sure that the punishment fits the crime and not only penalizes, but also teaches a lesson.

Next week: Parents who read teen diaries.

- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Marissa Ballard is a Lawrence High School senior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to All correspondence is strictly confidential.


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