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Techniques to Set Rules and Consequences for Your Teen

Expectations and consequences must be spelled out ahead of time in order for them to be most effective. Both the child and the parent must know exactly what behavior is expected and what consequences will follow.

There are three general ways that this can be accomplished.

Use Natural Consequences
Some behaviors carry with them natural consequences, and these consequences are often sufficient to produce change and a good way to start. A few examples follow.

  • "I serve supper between 5:00 and 6:00 P.M. The kitchen closes at 6:00." The child who comes home at 6:30 is faced with the natural consequence of not eating or of preparing his own meal.

  • "I only wash clothes that are placed in the hamper." The natural consequences of not putting clothes where they belong are that you cannot wear them, you wash them yourself, or you wear them dirty.

  • "I am giving you your allowance on Friday. This is supposed to last until next Friday. I will not give you any more money until then." The natural consequences of going out Friday night and spending your entire allowance is that you will not have any money for the remainder of the week.

  • "Anyone who breaks something in the house will be responsible for paying for the repair." The natural consequence of slamming a door and breaking it is that the person who slammed it will have to come up with the money to pay for it.
The natural consequence that I frequently use in dealing with the teenager centers around cooperation in the home. In other words, the parent is telling the child, "If you cooperate with me, I'll cooperate with you. Everyone here has certain chores and responsibilities. If I have to pick up after you because you fail to do your job, I will have to use some of my free time to do what you were supposed to do. Therefore, I will not have time to do what you want."

Many teenagers feel that their parents are always on their back, asking them to do too many things. They complain, "I wish my parents would leave me alone and let me do what I want." Some teenagers feel as though they do ten things for their parents for every one thing the parents do for them. Frequently, natural consequences are used to deal with this situation. The parent might tell the child, "You don't want me to ask you to do things, and you want me to quit hassling you. Well, I'll be more than happy to do this, but, remember, if I don't ask you to do things for me, you can't ask me to do things for you." At first the child thinks this is a good deal. But after a while she realizes that she is getting the short end of the deal and that the parent does more for her than she realized.

Many approaches to teenage behavior stress natural or logical consequences as methods of dealing with it. However, two things must be kept in mind when using natural consequences.

First, the natural consequence has to be important to the child in order for it to be effective. For example, the natural consequence of telling a teenager "I will not wash any of your clothes that are not put in the clothes hamper" will not work effectively for a child who does not care whether he wears clean or dirty outfits.

The other thing to consider before using this technique is whether you want the natural consequence to occur. One morning at 4:00 A.M. I got a call from a very upset mother. She told me that her 13-year-old son had left the house at seven o'clock the previous evening and was not yet home. When I asked what had happened, she told me that the boy and his father had had an argument about cleaning his room. When the child refused, the father responded angrily, "This is my house and as long as you live here you have to do what I want you to do, and I am telling you to clean your room!" After quite a bit of arguing, the father eventually warned, "If you don't like the rules in this house, you can leave," and the child left. The child experienced the natural consequence in this situation, but of course the parents did not want this to be the outcome.

In using this technique, parents must respond in a very matter-of-fact manner. You should try not to become upset, shout, or carry on. You have to be sure that the consequence is important to the child and you must consistently follow through with what is said.

Use Grandma's Rule
This is a principle that most parents can use frequently. It can be stated very simply as, "You do what I want you to do and then you can do what you want to do." Or, "You do what I want you to do and then I'll do what you want me to do." Similarly, your mother may have promised, "Eat your meat and potatoes, and then you can have your dessert." Natural consequences are things that are built into the environment, whereas this method of setting consequences can be ad-libbed and used on the spur of the moment.

Use Important Consequences
When either natural consequences or Grandma's Rule cannot be used, you should try to identify consequences that are important to the child and to set the rules of behavioral expectations according to these. The consequences can be positive - things that do not happen every day at your house (extra phone time, staying out late, or having a friend sleep over). They can also be negative (loss of privileges, grounding, restrictions). Any privilege, activity, or request that is important to the child can serve as a consequence of his behavior.

  • The child who wants to stay out later on the weekend may earn this privilege through more involvement in schoolwork during the week.

  • Extra phone time or having a friend sleep over may be earned by a child who makes an effort to get along better with his siblings.

  • An allowance could be earned by doing chores.
Positive consequences like the above enable a child to obtain a privilege or have a request granted.

Another method of using important consequences would be to set up situations where the teenager is being restricted or is losing particular privileges by behaving in certain ways.

  • The child who talks back to his parents may not get the new tennis shoes he wanted.

  • The teenager who does not come home on time on Friday night may lose the right to go out on Saturday night.
In all of these examples, we identify a consequence that is important to the child and then set the behavioral expectations according to this. It is not a natural consequence or something that automatically follows an activity, but it is a consequence that parents can create and individualize according to the interests, desires, and wishes of the particular adolescent.

Using Consequences to Change Behavior
Consequences are the most important aspects of behavior management. They are the primary determinates of whether a child will change his behavior and develop new behaviors. A child must consistently experience consequences in order to change.

The range of consequences that can be used dramatically decreases as the youngster enters adolescence. The nine-year-old will respond to numerous consequences. When this same child becomes 13, the number of important consequences starts decreasing, and oftentimes the range is very small. For the teenager, many of the important consequences center around money, cars, telephone, clothing, driving privileges, going out, more freedom, loosening of restrictions, and being treated like an adult. If the adolescent has a hobby (e.g., fishing, music), the range of important consequences may somewhat increase.

There are three major consequences that parents can use in dealing with their teenagers:

  • Rewards, incentives, or positive consequences. If you see a behavior you like, reward it; that is, follow the behavior with some positive attention and something that is important or enjoyable to the child.

  • Punishment or negative consequences. If you see a behavior you do not like, punish it; that is, follow the behavior with negative attention and something the child views as unenjoyable, or withdraw something positive.

  • Ignoring or no consequences. If you see a behavior you do not like, ignore it because maybe the attention you pay to it is the reason it exists. In other words, do not follow the behavior with either negative or positive attention.
Reward, punishment, and ignoring are the three major consequences that can be used in disciplining teenagers. These very important aspects of behavior management are described in detail in the following pages.

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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