“You’re Grounded for Life!” Why Harsh Punishments for Children and Teenagers Don’t Work

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Mother and teen daughter talking

Harsh punishments are not effective for improving a child’s behavior. Instead, they only create resentment. If you punish your child too harshly, he will only be thinking about his anger toward you and not about the consequences of his actions.

Harsh punishments will only lead him to think that you are unreasonable and unfair.

Unfortunately, this is one of the most common parenting traps that you can fall into. When you assign a harsh punishment, usually in the heat of the moment, you’re focused on winning a fight rather than teaching your child to make better choices next time.

While understandable, the mindset of winning against your child just isn’t helpful. That’s because when you get into that fight, you’re in the wrong role. You become your child’s peer rather than his parent and authority figure.

Remember, you already have authority over your child, so don’t get engaged in a fight that does nothing except create a pointless power-struggle.

Believe me, I know as a mother and grandmother that it’s very easy to fall into the harsh punishment trap. Don’t be too hard on yourself when you’ve had a moment where you’re exhausted and upset and you shout, “No more phone for a month!” just to feel as if you’re in control again. It happens to all of us. So give yourself a break. Parenting is hard.

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Example: Why Long-Term Grounding Doesn’t Work

Why doesn’t long-term grounding work? This type of grounding is usually interpreted by kids 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. James Lehman, the creator of The Total Transformation® child behavior program, 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 want them to learn.

In contrast, short-term grounding is effective 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 for the child is the following: “I lost this privilege because I didn’t come home when I should have. I’m not trusted to be where I’m supposed to be and I’ve lost the right to go out this weekend.”

The key to a short-term consequence is the opportunity it provides your child to quickly try again to behave in a way that doesn’t lead to a consequence. This doesn’t mean he will make the right choice the next time, but it gives him another chance to try and you another chance to administer a consequence as feedback, if necessary.

Understand that your child has to have opportunities to make choices—good and bad—and to get feedback from those 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 means no growth.

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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 she needs to learn. Focus on why she chose 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 skills she needs to improve her behavior. Understand that a consequence given without that focus is just a punishment that won’t teach your child anything.

Related content: Punishments vs. Consequences: Which Are You Using?

Example: How to Handle a Child Coming Home After Curfew

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 learn to come home on time. Here are the steps you’d take to work on changing her behavior.

Step 1: Wait

Don’t yell at her or try to give her a punishment at 1 a.m. when she comes in. You are both tired, tensions are high, and the likelihood of a constructive discussion is low. This situation can wait until morning.

So, just calmly send her to bed and let her know that you will discuss this in the morning. In the meantime, you can take the time to figure out exactly how you want to handle the situation.

Step 2: Talk

When you are calm, sit down together and say something like:

“You didn’t make it home when you were supposed to last night. Tell me what happened.”

Then let your child talk. And just listen for a bit. Your child is likely to make an excuse to justify her actions. For example, she might say, “My friend who was driving was upset and she needed to talk.”

Step 3. Challenge

Challenge her excuse by responding:

“If your friend is upset, do you think that means you get to break the curfew rules?”

And when challenging your child’s bad choices, always ask the following 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 reply, “I guess I could text you next time and let you know what’s going on.”

You can then respond by saying:

“Okay. Next time, I want you to do that and I will come and get you. But you may not break the curfew rules. So regardless, your responsibility is to be home on time.”

Step 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.

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.”

Dial back your child’s curfew by a half-hour that week. If she comes in on time each night, then she can have her old curfew back. That way, your teen is learning good behavior as she’s earning back her privileges.

By the way, you can and should adjust consequences depending on the seriousness of the behavior. If the behavior was very risky, then she is going to need supervision for a while, and there should be a longer period over which she earns her privileges back. Therefore, another part of the consequence might be the following:

“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. The key is that the consequence is tied to the behavior and the duration of the consequence is short enough that your child has the opportunity to try again soon.

Be patient and consistent. Some kids figure things out in just a few tries and others take more time to come around.

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Challenge Your Child’s Faulty Thinking

Why is this four-step process so important? If you simply ground your child and leave it at that, you’re missing the chance to challenge your teenager’s faulty thinking. And believe me, there’s a huge amount of reasoning that is faulty with the teenage brain.

So have that conversation to make sure your child is learning what she needs to learn. Without addressing the faulty thinking, you’re just trying to mold behavior through punishment without teaching your child a new replacement behavior.

Related content: 5 Common Thinking Errors Kids Make

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. Decisions made in anger are often bad. Don’t lock yourself into them.

Remember, you’re role-modeling to your child how to manage yourself when you’re angry. Your child can see when you’re saying things in anger and can sense when you’re being unfair, unreasonable, or even ridiculous in some cases.

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 the new consequence is.

By changing the consequence, you are not being inconsistent. Rather, you are modeling an important lesson for your child—the lesson that bad decisions can and should be corrected.

About

Carole Banks, LCSW holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Social Work from the University of New England. Carole has worked as a family and individual therapist for over 16 years, and is a former online parent coach for Empowering Parents. She is also the mother of three grown children and grandmother of six.

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