“You’re Grounded for Life!” Why Harsh Punishments for Children and Teenagers Don’t Work
By Carole Banks
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.
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 that a 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.]
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.