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Setting Rules / Expectations and Consequences for Your Teen

Adolescents are very much into the "fairness" concept; that is, they respect and respond to parents, teachers, and other authority figures whom they perceive as being fair. Teenagers are less responsive to parents who they feel do not understand them and treat them in an unfair or unjust way. One of the ways to avoid being perceived as unfair and instead to present yourself to the adolescent as a fair and just person is to establish the rules and the consequences for behavior at the same time.

Most parents have a hundred rules and regulations around the house. For example: "Come home at 11:00 P.M." "Cut the grass." "After you use the bathroom, be sure you leave it the way you found it." "All of your homework must be done before you talk on the phone." Parents are usually good at specifying what they want or at setting rules. They state the expectation beautifully, but, unfortunately, many wait until the rule is broken before deciding what the consequence will be. For example, if a child is told to be home by 11:00 and shows up at 11:30, the parent then decides what is going to happen - whether he will be grounded for a week, or is not allowed out the next night, or is restricted from using the phone. This method of announcing the consequence after the rule is broken is viewed as unfair by youngsters and should be avoided.

When we discipline or try to enforce rules and expectations in this fashion, several things happen.

First of all, in this situation, the child does not feel responsible for what has happened to him nor does he feel in control of the consequences of his behavior. As a result, he does not develop responsibility nor does he feel that he can influence what happens to him.

Also, if we wait until the adolescent breaks the rule to decide the punishment or consequence, the teen is likely to develop anger toward the parent because he feels that the parent is responsible for the bad thing (the consequence) that has happened to him. Since many adolescents already have some underlying anger, it is not helpful to do anything that will produce more resentment.

Rules and Consequences Should Be Stated at the Same Time
In setting rules, parents should avoid stating only the expectation. It is important to spell out both the rule and the consequence at the same time and before the rule is broken.


The above diagram indicates the way effective rules should be set. That is, you should tell the child, "Here is what I want you to do. This (Consequence A) will happen if you do it that way, and this (Consequence B) will happen if you do it the other way." By using this method, you allow the child to decide for himself what is going to happen to him.

By stating the rules and the consequences at the same time, you put the responsibility for what happens to the teenager squarely on his shoulders. In terms of discipline, you become passive and laid-back and do exactly what the child tells you to do. This approach should eliminate nagging or power struggles. The teenager is in control of the consequences of his behavior and determines whether good or bad things happen to him.

Consequences are the most important tool in changing behavior, and the method just described is the most effective way to use them. You may not be able to employ this technique all of the time, but should use it whenever possible.

Rules and Consequences Have to Be Specific
How many times has something like this happened to you? The teenager's room has been a mess for three weeks and it seems as if everything she owns is on the floor. You tell her, "Go to your room and pick up everything off the floor." About fifteen minutes later she comes out and you ask, "Did you do what I said?" Her response is "Yes." You go in the room to check and find that all the junk that was on the floor is now on the bed. You get upset, but what has happened is that she has taken you literally and fulfilled your expectation 100 percent: she has picked everything up off the floor.

Teenagers often do exactly what you tell them and usually have their own definitions of words. You should try to be as specific as possible when stating rules or behavioral expectations. If you say, "I want you to go to your room and clean it," you need to define what you mean by clean. "Put the dirty clothes in the hamper, the books on the shelf, and the trash and paper that are on the floor in the wastebasket. And don't put anything under your bed."

Parents may encounter problems in management if the expectations are stated in too general or cloudy terms - for example: "I want you to improve in school." or "Be nice to your sister." What do "improve" and "be nice" mean? They can mean different things to different people. To the teenager, improving in school might mean getting all D's instead of F's, and being nice to his sister might mean that he hits her only 10 times a day instead of 25. On the contrary, the parent defines improving in school as earning a C average, and being nice to the sister as not hitting her at all. Therefore, if the expectations are not specific enough, when the parent and teenager get together to compare notes they come up with a difference of opinion. The child feels that he has fulfilled the expectation, but the parent does not. Therefore, a situation has been created where the teenager thinks he has been unfairly treated.

The same thing happens when parents state the consequences in too general or vague terms. "If you do that again, you're going to get it." "You'll be punished if you don't improve in school." What does "going to get it" or "punished" mean to the teenager? Probably not very much.

In stating expectations/rules and consequences, you must be very specific and spell out what you mean. Do not assume that the adolescent "knows." Both parent and teenager have to have the same idea of what is expected and what the consequences will be. If the child is not sure, he is apt to be confused, feel resentful, or think he has been treated unfairly.


From Keys to Parenting Your Teenager by Don Fontenelle, Ph.D. Copyright 2000 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by arrangement with Barron's Educational Series, Inc.

Buy the book at Barron's.

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