“A sensible person learns by being corrected.” — Proverbs 19:25
If I asked, “Does your teen seem sensible?” Most parents would look at me cross-eyed, or ask me if I’ve lost my mind. Of course my teen isn’t sensible! Teens are wired for chaos and they spread it everywhere they go, including your home.
Our job as parents is to help our teenagers become sensible, as well as responsible and mature. The best way to help our teen move in that direction is to allow consequences to teach them when they make bad choices.
Teenagers won’t learn just from parental warnings. Most of us have tried that without much success. And unfortunately, one or both parents all too often cave in. We step in to lessen the consequences when Johnny or Julie gets in trouble. Each time we do so, a valuable lesson isn’t learned and a mistake is apt to be repeated.
If you rescue an angry man once, you’ll just have to rescue him again. — Proverbs 19:19
The point is, teens learn best by making mistakes and suffering a bit from the consequences. They remember the lessons when there are consequences because they are then able to figure it out for themselves.
It reminds me of when we recently were with some of the kids from Heartlight having a blast in the woods annihilating one another with paintballs. The kids especially loved plastering me. But when we finished, I was surprised to see that one of the boys refused to clean his paintball equipment.
I said to him, “You played paintball. We had a good time. And you know the rule for the course — everybody cleans their own equipment.”
“Well – I am not going to do it,” he said, and then further unleashed a verbal tirade.
I remained calm, and said to him, “Now, we have another problem. In addition to breaking the equipment cleaning rule, you are also being disrespectful to me.”
So, I laid down consequences for his disrespect and his refusal to cooperate. He would be required to do a specified amount of yard work and lose his extra privileges for a time. And he would still have to clean the paintball equipment and apologize for mouthing off.
After a couple of days raking pine needles, he came to me to apologize. As I got the equipment out for him to clean, I brought the lesson home and reaffirmed him saying, “You are a good man. But you need to work through the way you respond when you are angry. It is killing your relationships. Your friends and others will not put up with it. I want something better for you. And by the way… this lesson is not about cleaning the stupid paintball stuff — this is about helping you be successful in life.”
But because of the consequences, he already knew that. Time and work had allowed him to figure out a very important lesson, not just about being responsible for things, but about being responsible for his own behavior.
Give Them Something That Can Be Taken Away
You may ask me, “How do I know what kind of consequence to apply?” I tell parents that one way is to give them something they want. But teach them they could lose it if they don’t follow the rules. And when they don’t, then take it away for a time.
When thinking about consequences, it helps to know what your child values. If they don’t value it, they also won’t learn from losing it. Is it time with friends, text-messaging, car privileges, the cell phone, music, the computer, or after-school events? By the way, should I need mention it, consequences for teenagers should never involve physical pain (other than some aching muscles from hard work).
Make the consequence relate to the privilege. A simple example might be: “If the car isn’t home by curfew tonight, then you won’t be able to use the car tomorrow.” If he continues to miss curfew each time he is given car privileges, then don’t let him drive for increasingly longer periods. And don’t even offer rides to school. Let him take the bus, so he learns from it.
Most of all, keep it calm. Keep anger and that “I’m disappointed in you” statement out of it altogether. Even side with the teen in how sad you feel that they have to experience the consequence. Our goal with consequences is to make the teen angry at himself or herself for knowingly doing something stupid, not angry at you.
Implement Change One Step at a Time
Letting your teen know what will happen well in advance is a key part of the learning process. Decide ahead of time what the rules and consequences will be so they don’t sound arbitrary or derived from anger when they are applied. Clearly communicate them to your teen.
If you haven’t done such a good job of communicating rules and consequences up until this point, then start by letting your teen know you’ve blown it when it comes to certain areas of discipline, and you will be making a change that affects everyone soon. Give them time to adjust to the idea that discipline is going to be different, before you let them know exactly how it will look.
Then, call everyone together and work out your ideas for rules and consequences together. Your teen may surprise you and come up with even stricter requirements than you originally planned. And, when it comes time to give a consequence, your teen will already understand exactly what to expect, and exactly why to expect it. In fact, they will tell you what their consequence is, because they weighed it in their mind and deliberately chose to accept it when they broke the rule.
Working out consequences well ahead of time helps everyone remain calm when your teen experiences the consequences related to breaking the rules.
Take Seriously Your Role of Managing Consequences
Some parents are surprised by the concept of “managing consequences.” They manage their budget. They manage their calendar. They may even manage employees. But most have never heard of managing consequences.
But I can’t emphasize it enough. This is one of the most vital things you’ll do in parenting adolescents. If you want your teenager to become responsible and mature, you have to let them take responsibility for their actions and feel the sting of consequences.
Let Your Teen Feel the Full Force of Being Caught Committing Illegal Acts
Illegal behavior calls for consequences that get your teen’s undivided attention. Such consequences are often out of your control anyway, but they shouldn’t be lessened in any way by you. I’ve known some parents who are quite justified in their desire for their drug-abusing teenager to be caught by the police before they sink even deeper into that lifestyle. And refusing to bail a teenager out of jail or delaying that action a day or two is another example of allowing natural consequences to take their course. An appearance all alone before a judge and being processed into jail has a way of catching a teen’s attention and changing their behavior like nothing else can. A key point is to let your teen know in advance that you won’t bail them out if they are at fault.
Tough and Tender
There are two sides to consequences — the tough side that says to your teen, “I will allow painful consequences to take place in order to teach you when you do something wrong.” This is a big shift from parenting younger kids, when our main goal was to prevent our children from getting hurt simply because they don’t know any better. And the tender side which says, “I will always love you no matter what you do and it truly hurts me to allow consequences in your life.”
Your teen wants a taste of the character of God. They want to experience the strength of a warrior and the tender, caring side of somebody promising to help them get through their difficulties. So, even if you are dealing with painful consequences, make sure your teen knows you love them, no matter what they’ve done.
Consequences, when applied correctly or allowed to happen naturally, change your child’s thinking. They teach adolescents how to think or act differently the next time.
This concept is among the most important I can teach you today. So, take time to call your family meeting and begin developing, communicating and enforcing this incredibly effective tool and responsibility of parenthood.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas. He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids. He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.
His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.org. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.
Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program. Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.