by Mark Gregston
March 2nd, 2020
Moody. Impulsive. Maddening. Why do teenagers act the way they do? While there’s no lack of scientific research on why that might be—largely having to do with the brain and how long it takes to be fully formed—nonetheless, teens are quite capable of reigning in those impulses that often result in less-than-desirable behavior. They just need a little help from you.
Sure, teens don’t always assess their risks when embarking on a new activity or adventure. But look on the bright side: Where would our world be without risk takers? You only have to look at young risk takers like Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Amadeus Mozart, Marie Curie, or Steve Jobs and his nemesis, Bill Gates. Each of these men and women achieved great success in their teens, but a few of them could have used some rules, rewards, and repercussions along the way. Just like your teen.
While you may not be expecting your teen to conquer the world, discover a medical advancement, or develop the next great technological innovation, you no doubt have high hopes for them. And if you want your teens to experience some measure of success in their lives, then they better have the character to sustain it. You want your teen to get ahead in life, but you certainly don’t want them to become a tyrant, pushing, prodding or running roughshod over anyone who gets in his way (including you). I’m going to assume that you prefer to instruct your teen to become a respectful, conscientious and compassionate adult with a working moral compass.
To accomplish that goal you need the right combination of rules, rewards and repercussions. It’s a beautiful system of interlocking circles that combined will help your teen make good choices. And ultimately, good choices will equal a good life.
The number one concern of nearly every parent I meet is “How do I set up rules my teen will follow?” If your teen is pushing, testing, or ignoring the rules of the home, take a few minutes to sit down and explain why these specific boundaries are in place. Show your son or daughter how these principles will help them get ahead in life—that before they can “conquer the world” they need to conquer themselves! In Proverbs 25:28, we read: “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.”
Now of course you don’t want to establish rules just to show your teen who’s the boss. That’s a counterproductive motive—one that will invariably lead to defiance. As Josh Mc Dowell says, “Rules without relationship causes rebellion.” That’s why you need to evaluate the rules of your house to see if they’re (1) Practical: Will your rules help your teen achieve his or her healthy personal and academic goals? (2) Attainable: Are your rules appropriate for your teen’s age, maturity and capability? and (3) Beneficial: Is there a positive outcome for your teen if he or she follows your instruction?
Word to the wise: If your rules don’t meet this criteria then scrap them!
Truth and Consequences
Okay, so say you’ve set specific rules in place and they’ve been clearly communicated. But what if your teen thinks he or she doesn’t have to play by your rules? What then? That’s when the consequences kick in. Your teenage son should know exactly what will happen if he starts skipping classes: the car is taken away. And your daughter knows if she cheats on a test, she will lose her cell phone for a couple of weeks. Those are just examples, of course. The point is that by assigning clear consequences, everyone in the house is aware of the boundaries and punishments.
So, what is an appropriate consequence for a certain behavior? Whatever rule has the greatest priority in your house should have your child’s greatest motivator attached as a consequence. For example, what if you catch your teen in a big fat lie? After having a serious conversation on the impact of lying, then make sure the consequence matches the level of deceit. There’s a difference between a fairly typical adolescent lie such as “I forgot” or “I didn’t think you’d mind” and a con job perpetrated over a long period of time.
So establish consequences, but be aware: they will only work if you stick to your guns! There are no benefits to letting your teen off the hook. It may seem like the loving thing to do, but it is actually causing them harm. Look at it this way: It’s either consequences now, or hell to pay later when their pattern of bad behavior causes them to get fired, end a marriage, or worse—land in jail!
The Rewards Card
Everyone wants a rewards card. That’s why so many credit card companies offer one. Because people like the feeling of being rewarded. And God Himself will be handing them out. In Revelation 22:12 we read, “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done.” So as parents, we should not hold back rewards, or as I often call them—privileges—for good behavior.
The consequences that you mete out for breaking the rules of the home should always be balanced with positive reinforcement. Rewards for positive behavior include things like video games, new tech toys, dinners out, vacations, clothes, parties, use of the car, and other things that motivate your teen. Give out rewards when your child shows responsibility, maturity, and positive changes.
And no, this is not bribery! While rewards and bribery may seem like identical twins, there are at least two main factors that separate them: (1) Rewards are earned for good behavior, while bribes are offered to avoid or stop bad behavior. Who hasn’t been in a supermarket or other public place and heard a desperate and embarrassed young mom say to her tantrum-throwing youngster: “Now Suzie, if you stop kicking that nice man in the shin, I’ll take you to get some ice cream!” (3) Rewards are thought out … bribery occurs under duress. Usually an act of bribery happens in the middle of a situation in which your teen has seemingly sprouted horns and a tail. It’s an act of desperation, rather than affirmation.
Rewards can be set up in advance (such as a shopping outing or a weekend adventure might be an established reward for getting good grades) or bestowed on your teen as a surprise for doing a great job at home, at school, in church service, or for a sports accomplishment. Think of rewards the way you think of getting a paycheck or a bonus at work. You’re not being bribed to do a good job by getting paid, but it certainly is a good incentive to show up everyday!
Not Just a Matter of Gray Matter
Interestingly, even neuroscience has proven that rewards can help alter behavior in teens. A recent study of teen brains vs. adult brains revealed that compared with adults, teens tended to make less use of brain regions that monitor performance, spot errors, plan, and stay focused and—no surprise here—control impulses. Now here’s the silver lining: Scientists learned that if offered an extra reward, teens showed they could push those regions of the brain to work harder, improving their scores. Conclusion: Teens don’t have to be victims of their slowly developing grey matter, and you, as parents, can help them along with appropriate rules, rewards and repercussions.
Blessed be the Tie That Binds
Finally, be aware that rules, consequences, and privileges only work if you use them together. Think of them as three separate but overlapping circles that bind together. The intersection where these principles meet is the place your teen will thrive and mature the most. Rules need consequences. Rules also need privileges. Cover them all with unconditional love and grace, and you will create an atmosphere in which your teen can flourish.
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 39 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 2,500 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents.
You can find out more about Heartlight at www.HeartlightMinistries.org. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.
For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our Parenting Today’s Teens website at www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org. It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent. There you will also find a station near you where you can listen to the Parenting Today’s Teens radio broadcast, or download the podcast of the most recent programs.