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You Cannot Punish a Child into Good Behavior

What I Have Learned Working with Struggling Teens

I was reminded of this again just last week as a mother came to me in desperation with a teen who was getting in trouble at school, struggling academically, constantly fighting with siblings at home, and most of all, openly defying /rebelling against her. In her frustration, she said: “Sensei, I have taken everything away. Nothing is working!”

Now before you start thinking “my child is not a teen yet” or “my teen is doing fine”, read on. I want to share three things I have learned for over the last 14 years working with teens:

  1. Gift . . . or Nightmare: As a parent of a teen, this can either be a wonderful time and your reward for being a present and involved parent or, your worst nightmare. I have seen many teens at both extremes. Teens that shine and are a true source of pride. Teens who are unbelievably horrible and difficult or impossible to live with. Either way, they will always be your child. The good and bad news about being a parent is we get clear feedback on how we do. The time and effort you put into your child early when they are young will definitely show up when they are teens.

  2. You have a limited amount of time: As you raise your child you need to understand and take full advantage of what motivates children. Normally the primary motivator of a child between the age 0 to about 12 is “pleasing their parents” however from about 7th grade on it changes. Be ready for this shift because it is significant. It may vary but in middle school their primary motivator begins to change to “pleasing their peers”. Two things to note here. If your teen is not on track and thriving by now your attempts to influence and help them will become much more difficult because you have lost your leverage. Also, if your teen is struggling now they will tend to drift toward peers who are like them, further deepening the downward spiral.

  3. You cannot punish a child into good behavior: This is the big one. Punishment rarely works in the long run. And, the more you use punishment the quicker it loses its effect. But we cannot blame you. As a parent, you are very limited in punishments. You can send them to their room, put them on restriction from playing with friends, you can take away privileges or activities, you can take away toys, computers, TV or videos games. What else can you really do? (And corporal punishment does not work.) So, what else can you do? They get smart. They know that you cannot really throw them out of the house.

Now, there should be “consequences” for every wrong or inappropriate behavior. This is different from punishment. For example, if a child bullies or is mean to another child they should have to spend recess inside to protect the bullied child. If a child lies, they should lose your trust and be questioned or doubted the next time. If they cheat or steal they should have a consequence because later it could be a crime. But when we use a punishment such as taking away their video game this is really unrelated to the action, it is a punishment not a consequence linked to the misbehavior. To be very clear consequences and punishments are two completely different things.

In closing, when a teen is constantly being punished they just become frustrated, then angry, then bitter. They begin to give up. This downward spiral is best characterized by something which breaks my heart every time I hear it. It happens when a teen says to me “Sensei, everybody is always yelling at me?!”

So, what can you do? I will write on this in my next article but it is learning the simple parenting skills of “Catching them doing right” and rewarding “Approximations of Success”.

Stay tuned,


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