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Effective punishment is neither too lenient nor too harsh, but commensurate with the severity of the "crime."

Mild Measures

Actively ignoring:

This is for addressing minor behavioral problems on the order of whining, yelling and sulking. To “actively ignore” is not the same thing as giving the silent treatment, a passive-aggressive tactic that we strongly discourage. In a firm voice, you tell your teen, “I will not talk to you until you stop.” Then you proceed to do just that.

Time out!:

Time-outs, so effective for defusing impulsive, aggressive or hostile conduct in younger children, can still be applied to adolescents, including older teens. Implementing a time-out prevents youngsters from commanding any more attention for their behavior.

Q: How long should time-outs be?

A: For younger teens, experts recommend one minute for each year of life. That’s twelve minutes for a twelve-year-old. Older teens can decide for themselves when they have calmed down sufficiently to return to where you are and continue the discussion rationally and courteously.

Q: Where should youngsters take a time-out?

A: Time-outs are ostensibly for reflection—even if in reality your youngster sits there muttering under his breath. Preferably, the designated time-out area should be someplace away from the hub of household activity, quiet and free of distractions (in short, boring), but within your sight.

Scolding and disapproval:

Reprimands should be administered sparingly, and never when our emotions are out of control. The point is to focus on the transgression, not the transgressor, and to do so without resorting to “charged” language or a tone of voice that is sarcastic, disrespectful or demeaning. For a youngster to feel ashamed of something he said or did can discourage similar behavior in the future. But nothing productive ever comes from humiliating a child. Say: “I am saddened by your actions.”

More Severe Measures

Imposing additional responsibilities:

When time-outs and reprimands fail to change behavior, more drastic consequences become necessary. One approach is to assign adolescents additional household tasks. If for example your teenager didn’t deliver on a promise to rake the leaves last weekend, then this weekend he must not only rake the leaves but weed the flower beds, regardless of whatever plans he may have made.

Imposing additional restrictions:

Another highly effective one is to rescind privileges or possessions that are meaningful to them, be it watching TV, using the car or attending an upcoming hockey game.

One way of deciding upon an appropriate punishment is by consulting with that previously mentioned expert—your teenager. Just as adolescents can participate in setting the limits they will be expected to follow, they can also be allowed to help determine the penalty for overstepping those boundaries. Dr. Tomas Silber, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., suggests that if breaking curfew was the offense, you might ask, “What do you think is a fair punishment for a kid who came home late and didn’t call?” Sometimes, he says, the sentences teens hand themselves are stiffer than what Mom and Dad had in mind. “The parents actually find themselves saying, ‘Well, you have to suffer a consequence, but that’s overdoing it! How about this . . .’ ” According to Dr. Adele Hofmann, a youngster may accept his punishment less grudgingly if he’s played a part in deciding it, “because then it becomes his own rather than something that is imposed upon him.”

Positive Attention

Some parents resist the concept of positive attention, likening it to bribery. “Why should I reward my son for good behavior?” they ask. “Isn’t that what he’s supposed to do?” Certainly children learn from having their mistakes pointed out to them in a constructive manner, but reprimands not offset by praise—and the occasional treat—inevitably prove demoralizing.

It’s easy to shine too unforgiving a light on our kids’ misdeeds and to overlook the many, many things they do right every day. Here’s a healthy and notunrealistic ratio to strive for: For every reprimand, try to find two things your youngster did that merit compliments. “You’ve taken out the trash for two weeks without my having to remind you. Good job. I appreciate it.” Just watch his face light up.

“Grandma’s Rule”: Stealth Discipline

It’s true that one way to prompt kids to behave is to remind them of the consequences they will face if they do not toe the line, as in: “Mister, you’re not leaving this house to meet your friends until the lawn is mowed, like we’d agreed yesterday.” However you can impart the same message using the kinder, gentler approach aptly referred to as “Grandma’s Rule.” Rephrase the previous statement this way: “As soon as you’ve finished mowing the lawn, you may go out with your friends.” Voilà! You’ve transformed a perceived threat into a reward.


Last Updated
Caring for Your Teenager (Copyright © 2003 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.