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The Biggest Mistakes Parents Make When Creating Consequences for Their Teens

In this blog post, we shared with you how to create effective consequences when parenting your adolescents and young adults. Consequences are effective parenting tools for these crucial child-rearing years. But coming up with the best consequences is only a small part of how to shape your family from the top down.

Without a foundation of secure attachment, trying to affect behavior through consequences will fall short of your goal in many cases.

While the topic of what secure attachment looks and feels like is too long for just one blog post, there are some things we have learned over the years that can help you use “wise-minded” approaches in order to make your consequences more effective.

Let’s start with the language.
The definition of the word “consequence” is: “a result of an action or situation … a bad result”.

One of the biggest mistakes we see in parents creating consequences for teens is that they are intended to be more punitive than disciplinary. And we subscribe to the theory that they are two very different approaches.

When consequences are punitive and just intended to punish, the result we often see is from adolescents is apathy especially when it comes to adolescents faced with behavioral, mental and emotional health challenges.

Additionally, when we are highly emotional and reactive when enforcing consequences, a big casualty is the secure attachment.

When we can shift our focus toward discipline, focusing on the definition of discipline that means, “to teach”, we are more able to engage with our children in ways that can guide them as they develop connections with their own values.

Let’s talk to the brain.

The information coming out of hundreds of neuroscience studies where images of the brain are helping us to see how it all works, we learn that adolescents cannot crossfire from the back to the front of the brain or between the left and right sides the ways that adults can.

Why does that matter?

While emotions are high, typically after a behavioral incident and when we are about to put consequences in place, our kids, and some of us adults don’t have access to the full working capacity of our brains. If we are pushing on them for explanations, asking them to connect to their logic and problem-solving brains or to see a situation from another perspective, we are talking to a part of the brain that is offline for the time being.

Many of the children of parents we support are often functioning from a fight or flight place in day-to-day interactions. What we experience as a 4 on a scale of 1-10, they experience as a 10, by the nature of their development and due to the cognitive makeup that can negatively impact day-to-day functioning.

It is important that they, and we, buy ourselves time to come back online fully. You can do that by coming to the situation with compassion and curiosity. “Are you ok? Do you want to talk about anything?” Even just sitting together in silence without trying to solve can get us out of this reactive state.

Go for a walk with the dog together before trying to address it, “well, we need to talk about this but let’s go for a walk before we do.” If they refuse the walk, you can go for a walk on your own to buy some time. Look for a moment of recovery, when it seems your child has shifted a bit before you move toward problem-solving together.

One more thing to consider about your brain…

One thing we talk with parents about is the meaning that is being placed on a situation. At times, consequences are driven by the meaning we place on a situation. For example, “if you cannot do the dishes without reminders it means you will not be a functioning adult and that you don’t care about the family so no more video games until that changes.”

Often times there are many meanings that could get placed on a situation and it is important to look at the puzzle pieces of their lives and not place meaning on one puzzle piece as though it is the whole puzzle.

This effort to slow down and look at things for yourselves can help you to respond from a more thoughtful place rather than from an emotional reaction to the puzzle piece.

Should we involve our kids in identifying consequences?

Well, there are pros and cons to this. With an older adolescent, it can help your child to critically think through a tough situation and work through it with an authority figure, which can build resilience and mental flexibility.

However, it is important that you do not give up your authority through this process, especially with a child who has just illustrated poor decision-making skills.

If your family system is strong enough to be able to invite in your child’s voice and really hear it rather than just arguing it or reacting defensively, then maybe you can have a collaborative conversation.

It is important that, if you are going to invite your child into the process that you really mean it and can handle it, rather than delivering the message that, when you invite them into the process, they will just be shut down, which does not help them trust you in the future when you say you want to collaborate.

If you are ready to hear your child’s opinion, here is one way to set it up:
“We want to collaborate with you before we make our final decision (suggestion you are the authority on it). What do you see as logical consequences for this?

Then, your job is to JUST LISTEN. You can ask curious questions, “tell us more about what you mean.” Do not negate, argue, suggest their ideas are ridiculous. Just listen and then let your child know you will think about the pros and cons of their idea and will get back to them by the end of the day.

Also, make sure your intent to involve your child is not just based out of your own fear to draw a line or face conflict.

Hilary Moses, Jen Murphy and
 Jen Rapp Sheridan
Solutions Parenting Support

If you are the parents of a child in long-term therapeutic treatment or a wilderness program or you’re a professional working with families who could benefit from our services, please feel free to contact us at (970) 871-1231 or head here for a detailed list of services provided.

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