Parent’s Guide to Rewarding and Punishing Teenagers

Parents are often curious about what I think about their way of disciplining their teenagers.  They often want to know if they are doing something wrong, especially if they feel that what they are doing is not working.  As a teen counselor, here’s how I like to think about punishments and rewards. There are three basic behavioral rules to keep in mind when disciplining a teenager:

1. Punishments should sting and rewards should be well worth it.

Punishments should hurt but not so much that things become hopeless in the mind of the teenager and not so little that they hardly matter at all.  Punishments should be severe enough to promote change and motivate avoidance and rewards should be worth it but not have a “winner takes all” quality to them either.

2. Punishments and rewards should be implemented as soon as possible. 

If too much time is allowed to pass between action and consequence teenagers have difficulty linking the action to the consequences.  This causes the punishment or reward to lose much of its effect.

3. Punishments and rewards should be giving as consistently as possible.

 If punishments are only giving sometimes after a punishable action teenagers will tend to gamble and just accept the risk that they might be punished.  This can also create a feeling of uncertainty about the rules for teenagers.  If rewards are inconsistent, then teenagers may be less motivated to do something that in theory should generate a reward and lead to disappointment and lack of trust in the rules. 

Other Important Guidelines:

Spacing is important in disciplining.  Remember the objective of punishing or rewarding is to teach your teenager an important lesson about the real world.  They should be exposed to those lessons as often as possible.  The logic behind this strategy is the following: You want your teenager to be in the position of making decisions and learning lessons often.

Sometimes parents sometimes make the mistake of trying to implement a devastating disciplinary blow that they hope will have long lasting consequences because of the punishment’s intensity.  An example can be taking something away permanently.  This will almost certainly backfire.  It will also rob your teenager of the lessons of repairing relationships and regaining trust and privileges.  In the case of huge rewards (a trip to Paris, for example) you may be setting an expectation that is unrealistically high that can contribute to a sense of entitlement in your teenager. 

The opposite trap other parents fall into is constantly punishing or rewarding something.  This makes the disciplinary culture in the house messy and difficult for teenagers to understand and keep track of.  This can lead to a sense of giving up trying to please and just taking whatever comes along with what they do. 

A happy medium is most beneficial.  The trick to finding this sweet spot is taking your teenager’s level of frustration tolerance into consideration.  When it comes to punishments, implement one that is going to push your teenager’s frustration tolerance limits but also have a high chance that they will be able to deal with it successfully and not make things worse.  Stress to your teenager in a firm but nonjudgmental tone the lesson that you are trying to help them learn and implement the punishment.  Once they have “done their time” all should be forgiven and they should be allowed to put themselves in a situation where they have to make a decision and learn from the consequences again.  Teenagers can be very stubborn so it may take many times before they get the message but as long as parents are firm and consistent the chance for successful learning is high. 

Rewards should be seen in a similar way.  One big difference is that teenagers are much better at negotiating for rewards than for punishments.  Have a positive conversation with your teenagers about what the rewards for certain positive behaviors should be and then negotiate with them.  They should end up feeling like they aren’t going to get everything that they want but that they can get a lot that is worth going for.  Another positive consideration is letting them build towards something that they want.  Increased freedom is always popular with teenagers.  Remember, freedoms should always be paired with a responsibility.  No responsible use of new freedoms, no new freedoms. 

If something isn’t working well and you’ve been able to be consistent with the punishment or reward, it may be too intense or not intense enough.  You can easily judge this by paying attention to your teenager’s anxiety and discomfort.  If you see them really struggling with something it may be an indication that the punishment is too much for them to handle.  If you see them breezing through it it’s probably time to turn up the heat.  There may also be an issue with the timing.  Remember, the closer to the action, the better. 

When it comes to adjusting rewards it is important to remember that as the parent when you see your teenager too disinterested in the reward if means that the rewards should be renegotiated.  If rewards just aren’t doing it anymore it may be a sign that your teenager is in some emotional pain.  Encourage your teenager to speak to you about what’s bothering them.  If these efforts prove futile consider talking to them about seeing a teen therapist.  

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By Miguel Brown 

Miami Teen Counseling