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"You're Grounded for Life!" Why Harsh Punishments for Children and Teenagers Don't Work

by Carole Banks, MSW, Parental Support Line Advisor
You're Grounded for Life! Why Harsh Punishments for Children and Teenagers Don't Work

Have you ever punished your child in the heat of the moment, when you’re angry and upset? If you’re like most parents, the answer is probably “yes.” In fact, this is one of the biggest, most common parenting traps that you can fall into. But often when you do this, you’re focused on winning the fight rather than working towards teaching your child to choose to do the right thing.

Overly harsh punishments do not create regret; they only serve to create resentment in your child.

While understandable, that mindset of “winning” over your child just isn’t helpful. That’s because when you get into that wrestling match, you’re playing the wrong role: you become your child’s peer rather than his parent. Remember, you already do have authority over him. So don’t get engaged in a tug of war—it will only set up a power struggle. It’s important to understand that overly harsh punishments do not create regret; they only serve to create resentment in your child. He will only be thinking about his anger toward you—and believe that you’re unreasonable and unfair.

Believe me, I know as a mother and grandmother that it’s very easy to fall into that trap. Don’t be too hard on yourself when you’ve had a moment where you’re exhausted and upset and you shout out, “You’re grounded for the summer!” just to feel like you’re in control again. It happens to all of us. So give yourself some slack—it’s not easy to be a parent, and you’re learning, too.

Why Long-term Grounding Doesn’t Work

Why doesn’t long-term grounding work? This type of grounding is usually interpreted as “house arrest”—in other words, the message to your child is something like, “You have to be home and you can’t talk to your friends.” But long-term grounding is not effective in teaching your child the lesson you want him to learn. In fact, James Lehman says that grounding just “teaches kids how to ‘do time’” and doesn’t show them how to change their behavior—and ultimately, they’re not going to learn the lesson you’re trying to teach them.

Related: Learn how to give more effective consequences to your child.

Short-term grounding does make sense when it’s used as a consequence given to the child after a problem solving discussion. It’s a consequence that happens because of your child’s actions. So the logical thought process is, “I lost this privilege because I didn’t come home when I should have; I am not trusted to be where I’m supposed to be and have lost the right to go out this weekend.” Understand that your child has to have opportunities to make choices—this is the best way to teach better behavior. If you restrict your child so much that you’re making all their choices for them, they have no opportunities to learn how to evaluate and make decisions. No freedom is no growth.

When Disciplining Your Child, Focus on the Skills She Needs to Learn

There is no such thing as a magic punishment or consequence that changes behavior. Instead, focus on teaching your child the skills he needs to learn—and look into why she made the choice to misbehave in the first place. After all, your goal is for your child to make the right choices by herself, even when you’re not there. So use consequences to require your child to practice the skill they need to improve their behavior. Understand thata consequence given without that focus is just a punishment that won’t teach your child anything new.

Here’s an example of how you might deal with your child when she misbehaves. Let’s say your teenager keeps breaking curfew and you want her to come in on time.

Here are the steps you’d take to work on changing their behavior:

1. Wait: Don’t give her a punishment at 1 a.m. when she comes in. Instead, wait until you’ve calmed down. Sleep on it and talk to her in the morning.

2. Talk: When you do talk, sit down together and say something like, “You didn’t make it home when you were supposed to last night. Tell me what happened.” Your child might say, “My friend was upset and she needed to talk.” But challenge her reasoning by responding, “If your friend is upset, does that mean you get to break the curfew rules?”

3. Challenge: When challenging your child’s bad choices, always ask a variation of this question: “How can you do it differently next time?” So in our example, you might say, “How will you make it back on time even if your friend is upset?” Your teen might answer with, “I guess I could text you next time and let you know what’s going on.” You might respond by saying, “Okay. Next time, I want you to do that and I will come and get you. You cannot break the curfew rules. So regardless, your responsibility is to get home.”

4. Consequences: After this talk, it’s time to give your child a consequence. James Lehman recommends that you choose something connected to the misbehavior that will encourage her to make better choices. Have her earn back the privilege she lost. So for example, you might say, “Because you weren’t home on time last night, you can’t go out with your friends this weekend. And, for the next week, your curfew will be a half hour earlier until you can prove that you can come in on time.” Dial back your child’s curfew by a half hour that week. If she comes in on time each night she goes out, she can have her old curfew back. That way, your teen is learning good behavior as she’s earning back a privilege.

By the way, you can and should adjust consequences depending on how serious the behavior was. If what your child did was very risky, then she really is going to need supervision for a while, and there should be a longer earning period. Additionally, another part of the consequence might be, “You have to come home right after school. I get to look at your computer and it will be kept in a public place. You can see your friends but they have to come to our house.” So it all depends on the misbehavior.

Why is this four-step process so important? If you simply say, “You missed curfew; you’re grounded this week,” and leave it at that, you’re missing out, because you won’t get to challenge your teenager’s faulty thinking. And believe me, there’s a huge amount of reasoning that is faulty with teenagers. Adolescents get in trouble with it all the time. [Editor’s note: For more on thinking errors in kids and teens, read 5 Common Thinking Errors Kids Make by James Lehman, MSW.]

Related: Discover how kids use thinking errors to misbehave—and find out how you can challenge them in your child.

Remember, the important piece is to have that conversation and to make sure your child is learning what she needs to learn. Without that, you’re just trying to mold behavior through punishment—without teaching your child a new replacement behavior.

Physical or Corporal Punishment

Physical punishment uses pain in order to control behavior. There’s a lot of research and debate out there regarding spanking. The research tells us that physical punishment is associated with increased child aggression, antisocial behavior, lower intellectual achievement, a poorer quality of relationship between parent and child, and mental health problems (such as depression). It appears the only thing good about spanking is that it stops the behavior immediately. But I don’t think the cost justifies this technique. It’s been shown that when parents use physical punishments when trying to modify their children’s behaviors, it’s more likely their children will also be physically aggressive when they try to influence other people’s behavior. Simply put, the use of spanking is not as effective as having a problem-solving conversation with your child and giving out consequences to hold him accountable. Children need to learn to choose to comply, not be coerced into compliance.

You’ve Punished Your Child Too Harshly—Now What?

If you find yourself in a situation where you’ve given your child an overly harsh punishment, don’t feel you have to follow through with it. Remember, you are role modeling to your child how to manage yourself when you’re angry. It’s a fallacy to think that everything that comes out of our mouth as parents is ‘law’ and if we back down, we’re seen as inconsistent. Your child can see when you’re saying things in anger, and can sense you’re being unfair, unreasonable or even ridiculous in some cases. Decisions made in anger are usually wrong decisions—why lock yourself into them?

You’re the parent; you’re the teacher. You can say to your child, “I was pretty angry when I suggested grounding you for the summer. I’ve decided to handle this differently.” Then proceed with your problem solving conversation. Let her know what you would like her to do and what consequence decision you’ve made. This is role modeling a really important lesson for your child. And “I said it so I’m stuck with it” is role modeling that teaches your child that you don’t know how to correct yourself when you’ve been unreasonable.

I think you can do this even if you grounded your teen two weeks ago but you’ve realized you made a mistake. Don’t get so caught up in your words. You’re not stuck with them—they are not set in stone.


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Carole Banks, MSW holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Social Work from the University of New England. She has been with Legacy Publishing Company for four years working on the Parental Support Line and writing for Empowering Parents. Carole has worked as a family and individual therapist for over 10 years, and is the mother of 3 grown children and the grandmother of six.

READER'S COMMENTS

I'm printing this info out and going to put it to use!!!!!

Comment By : Cynthany Anderson

What do you do when your teenage son is out with his friends doing drugs?

Comment By : Mar

Admitting to parenting errors through the years has improved my relationship with my kids and has helped teach them to forgive others.

Comment By : East coast mom

* To Mar: It can be so difficult when your kid is using drugs. It’s important to remember that kids who are involved with drugs often experience a breakdown in their problem solving skills. In other words, drugs can get in the way of a child’s ability to learn from your attempts to problem solve or give effective consequences. That said, the first step you should take is to get some local support such as a substance abuse counselor. A counselor who specializes in substance abuse will be able to help you better understand your son’s needs right now and help him develop the skills he needs to change this behavior. You can find support locally by visiting this treatment locator website. You can also try dialing 2-1-1 from your landline to reach the 211 Information and Referral Service run by the United Way. 211 also has a website where you can enter your zip code to find out if the service (which covers most of the United States) is available in your area: www.211.org. Here are a couple other websites where you can learn more about substance use: drugfree.org and theantidrug.com. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

This is excellent advice. What often happened when I was parenting a teen who misses his or her curfew is I would fall into fear that something terrible happened. Now I realize that my fear only generates guilt and separation. And all of my fear and worry is not going to change what could happen. (Mistaken belief). Most kids are reasonable and like adults loose track of time. Wish I had asked more questions and let my teen help come up with solutions as Carole Suggests. I also think talking to them will help them with critical thinking skills which might over time lead them away from bad decisions like doing drugs.

Comment By : Santa Fe Mom

Ineed help, my son is 15 and feels that I can't make him do chores at home not only that, he goes to his friend house I think to avoid comming home.He thinks he is to smart for us, it may be true but we know things he is yet to learn. We are not that terrible parents, we want the best for him and I am to a point where I am ready to give up on mothering and I know is te right thing to do but I am out of ideas.

Comment By : rab65

I have used many of your articles for a parenting groups that I run. The parents really enjoy them.

Comment By : DD

Do you have any suggestions for when a child repeatedly "forgets" he has homework? I can't think of a consequence.

Comment By : Eva

* To Eva: Thank you for your question. This sounds pretty frustrating. It would be best to start by trying an incentive system. What this might look like is that you require your child to write down their assignments and have the teacher sign off on them each day. If this is done, your child would earn a reward that day such as a little extra time on a valued privilege. You might also find some helpful suggestions in this article: End the Nightly Homework Struggle: 5 Homework Strategies that Work for Kids.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

* To ‘rab65’: It sounds like you are pretty fed up with your son’s behavior. Teenagers often feel like they don’t need parents to guide them and that they should be able to make their own decisions. We adults know, however, that kids need rules and boundaries in order to help them become responsible adults themselves. I think getting your son to come home after school is the first step. Sit down with your son and ask him what his reason is for not coming home after school when he does not have your permission to be at a friend’s house. Let him know his reason doesn’t justify his behavior, and reiterate your rules about going to friends’ houses. Ask him what he will do differently next time to follow your rules even though he thinks they’re unfair (or whatever his reasoning was). Then, motivate him to come home after school by using incentives and consequences on a daily basis. If he comes home after school today, he gets all his regular privileges plus extra video game time. If he doesn’t come home after school, he loses his cell phone privilege for the rest of the day. These are just examples, but the point is to make your son thirsty to come home after school each day, after talking with him about what he can do differently. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this. And don’t give up- I know it’s exhausting and frustrating, but your son needs you. Remember to take care of yourself when you are feeling this way—make some time to do something you enjoy so you are focusing on yourself and not your son.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

I am at a lost!I have been the good mom by taking away things that mean a lot to him, and also screamed and yelled. His problem is acting up in school and thinking he is always right and at times yes and other times no he is not. HELP!

Comment By : Rene

I have a 15 year old who is lazy. He does not like my rules. When he goes with his dad there are no rules. He can go where he wants, etc. I lost my olde boy this way. He got hooked on drugs, alcohol, sex, stole a vehicle. What am I doing wrong and what can I do differently with my 15 year old. I also struggle with my 9 year old girl.

Comment By : sharlene

* To Rene: Many parents struggle when their kids act out in school. Parents in this situation often feel a sense of shame and pressure to “fix” things. We recommend focusing on teaching your son the skills he needs to improve his behavior at school. Next time he gets in trouble there, support the consequences they give. When your son gets home, give him at least 15 minutes to himself and then start a conversation with him by asking, “What happened in school today?” Share the facts as you know them and then ask your son what his reason was for doing whatever it is he did. Let him know his reason doesn’t justify his behavior. Reiterate your rules and expectations and ask him what he will do differently next time to avoid getting in trouble. Make some suggestions for him if he is stuck. If your son is resistant to this conversation, you can put one of his privileges on hold until it’s over. Here are a couple of articles that address school behavior issues: Problems at School? How to Handle the Top 4 Issues and Acting Out in School: When Your Child is the Class Troublemaker. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

* To Sharlene: It sounds like you are really worried that your 15 year-old is heading down the wrong path. James Lehman felt that children act out due to a lack of effective problem solving skills. His program helps to teach parents how to be more effective in their roles as trainers and coaches, problem solvers, and limit setters. Because you have rules for your son to follow, I can tell you are already using a limit-setting approach with your son—keep up the good work. I know this is easier said than done, though, as the fact that your son’s dad has fewer rules than you presents a challenge. You might want to check out James’ article Do You Feel Like Your Child's Behavior is Your Fault? In this article he talks about ineffective and effective parenting roles. We also have another article that will be helpful for you: The Disneyland Daddy. In this one, James talks about how to handle it when the other parent has less rules and limits for kids to follow. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

I understand what this article is stating however, children today have NO dicipline. NOt saying one should beet their children or ground them for life, but we need to teach children that like the law there is consequences to their actions and that they will not always be "fair" or "reasonable". I remember my mother saying that I was grounded for a week. I remember that she use to cut it short (much like time with good behavior in the real world) and it made me feel that she understood and was not unreasonable as well as noticing that I was trying and noticed my good behaviors as well. In the real world kids need to understand that the law is harsh, way more harsh than a parents groundation. If a person gets into trouble with the law they are "grounded" for years. That is why our society is going down hill, with many more kids facing time in prisons, correctional facilites and juvinile detention centers. I do not see ware grounding will impact a child as much as what your saying. I do not understand why people especially the government, get so involved in the rearing of children. My mother was grounded when she was young and so was I, in my opinion we are productive members of society. I remember as a teen being grounded for the summer and I do not feel that it impacted me in a negative way. Its apart of growing, your not suppose to be a childs "best friend." I have notticed that those that say you need to stop everything that parents have been doing with their children for years such as grounding, are the same ones that either have no children or are around midlife and did the same things when they were parents. Just like my mother, she use to spank us and we turned out great members of socitey, we have not mental issues and as far as I am concerned, it did us good; yet now she tells me not to spank the kids on their bum, and not to ground and not to give time outs. I just do not see how grounding a child would cause them to have life long effects. The government gets involved with how we as parents are aloud to raise our children yet when those children do somthing wrong because they have no rules, boundries or real concequences then they go after the parents.

Comment By : MOm of 4 great children

Great Article. What do you do when your 13 year old texts inappropriate messages to a girl. I have taken his texting away indefinately. When do I let him have it back? single mom of 2 boys

Comment By : single mom with 2 boys

* To ‘single mom with 2 boys’: It is best to give your son a way to earn back his texting. The first step is to talk about what he was trying to accomplish by saying what he did. Reiterate your rules and expectations and talk about what he will do differently in the future to follow your rules so he won’t get in trouble again. This will help your son to learn the skills he needs to change his behavior. But remember, kids need rehearsal and repetition to learn, so this process may repeat itself a few times. Once you have talked, you can have your son earn back his phone by writing down his plan for what he will do differently in the future and have him practice speaking appropriately on any available social media for 2 days. When you see that he is being appropriate in other areas, that will tell you he is ready to try texting again. Let him know you will keep checking his messages periodically after this until he has been consistently making good choices.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

What if you have a child that is in college now? I feel like I am losing control of my once good girl. She has lied about where she is going on holidays. I think she is working or going to shadow professionals only to find out that she has been on a trip to the beach with her friends the entire time and using her college money for everything but college. I have taken back control of her college money and made her start paying for her own insurance and cell phone till we can get the money build back up. This has caused her to have to work more for the money. She claims it is keeping her from studying as much and it is hurting her grades. Am I being too harsh and getting too involved with her life? Should I just let go now and if she runs out of money she runs out and she will have to figure it out from there? I don’t really know where I stand as a mom of an 18 year old.

Comment By : Mom of college students.

* Hi 'Mom of college students': It can be more difficult to know what to do when your child is of adult age and living away at school. We recommend doing some problem solving with your daughter about what she is responsible for in terms of payment, and what you are going to be responsible for. Once you have established a plan, stick with it. As hard as it is to watch your child struggle, many times the lessons learned from natural consequences can be the most powerful. I am attaching an article that you might find helpful: Why You Should Let Your Child Fail The Benefits of Natural Consequences. Good luck to you and your family as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

My nearly 15year old son took his iPod touch to school knowing that he was not allowed to. So I took the iPod away for a week and soon as he got it back he took it to school again and this time it was stolen. What consequence should my son have?

Comment By : Peta

* To “Peta”: I can hear how frustrated you are with this behavior. It can be difficult to know how best to respond when our children make the same bad choice over and over again. In this situation, the fact that his i-pod was stolen is probably enough of a natural consequence. Don’t feel as if you need to go out right away and replace it since that could possibly defeat him truly feeling the discomfort of the natural consequence. That doesn’t mean that you should never give him the chance to earn it back or have a plan for how to work towards getting another one. It might also be helpful to sit down and problem solve with him about what he can do next time he’s tempted to take something else to school he’s not supposed to. For example, you could say something to him like “What were you thinking when you took your i-pod to school?” “How did that work for you?” “What could you do differently next time you want to take something like that to school?” You want to be brief with the conversation and also try not to lecture. Sara Bean gives some great tips on how to problem solve with your son in her article The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems.” We wish you the best and hope this information has been helpful.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

The sugary sweetness of all of these replies will not help to make your children be productive adults but think that the world will cater to them and have a talk no matter how bad they are.

Comment By : Mother of 4

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