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How to Discipline a Teenager Who Doesn’t Care About Consequences

Many parents discipline their teens by taking away their cell phone privileges, video games, or screen time or giving them extra chores.

Despite having once worked, these strategies often don’t work after a while.

So how to discipline a teenager who doesn’t care about consequences?

A teacher standing next to a schoolgirl who is writing lines on a blackboard.

Consequences and Behaviorism

Using consequences to discipline is an example of behavioral management based on behaviorism.​​1​

It is a discipline strategy commonly prescribed by teachers or behaviorists.

The type of consequences parents employ is usually negative, although both positive and negative consequences can be used.

Behaviorism is a theory or doctrine that explains how the environment influences an animal’s or person’s behavior.

It asserts that people and animals are not free to act as they please but are controlled by external forces. 

Behaviorists believe that behavior can be changed as the environment changes through operant conditioning.

Using operant conditioning, a person can form an association between the environment and the behavior.

One learns how to behave in a given environment through associative learning.

In this view, the environment determines a child’s behavior.

Negative behaviors are the result of bad training.

If we apply the right consequences, we will get appropriate behaviors.

The decline of Behaviorism

Behaviorism gained popularity in the 1960s.

It was the first time psychology was considered a science because one could repeat the results reliably with the same inputs.

The power of conditioned learning was demonstrated through numerous experiments using animals such as pigeons or rats.​2​

What’s the problem?

The problem is people are not lab rats.

Humans are a lot more sophisticated than lab animals.

To assume that everything a person does could be explained or influenced by the environment is incorrect, and that has been clearly proven in studies.​3–5​

While behaviorism’s use and influence within psychology has declined, this shift hasn’t spread among parents.

Many parents still use consequences to discipline their children because it seems to work… but only the first few times they use it.

Why is behavior management still used in classrooms

Then why do teachers still learn behavior management in their training if behaviorism is so bad?​6​

It is common for teachers to use behavior management in the classroom since it is an effective way to control a group’s behavior.

In the short term, behavioral management techniques can often reliably affect a crowd’s behavior.

This is why when most parents start using consequences, they see positive results. But the short-term results usually don’t last.

Because a child is not a pigeon.

A child’s brain has a mind and a mental process, which behaviorists conveniently disregard when promoting behaviorism.

Why are punitive consequences especially harmful for teenagers

Fighting constantly is bad for anyone’s mental health, but it’s particularly harmful to teenagers since their brains are more vulnerable during adolescence.

Conflicts between parents and children are linked to adolescents’ aggression,​7​ anger management issues, anxiety, and depression.​8​

Adolescents who engage in high levels of conflicts with their parents also tend to display mood, emotional, and behavior problems.​9​

Conflicts over mundane domestic issues are among the best predictors of adolescent maladjustment.​10​

They are also linked to several psychiatric disorders, such as conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder​11​.

Boy is motivated to do homework

Have trouble motivating your child? Check out: How To Motivate Kids

How to discipline a teenager who doesn’t care about consequences

Don’t use consequences to discipline

Stop treating your child as a lab animal! They have feelings and thoughts like all people.

Imagine if someone punishes you daily to bend you to their will.

Do you think you will gladly accept and comply all the time?

You may, at the beginning.

But at some point, you probably will start fighting back.

You may argue over the rules or punishment.

You may also get angry when that doesn’t work.

That’s normal.

You are seeking justice and protection for yourself.

Temper tantrums appear because you are frustrated.

But when our children argue with us and get upset, we call them “defiant teenagers.”

So, when we are punishing teens and not allowing them to fight back, we treat our kids as lab animals and second-class citizens who have no right to speak up or defend themselves.

Teach them how to think

Discipline means to teach, not to punish.

Discipline is not to make kids suffer but to teach them positive behavior.

A better way to discipline them is to teach them how to think critically.

Critical thinking skills are crucial to the development of teenagers.

Parents have been telling their children what to do since they were babies.

The habit is ingrained in us.

But teenagers are no longer babies.

These young adults are developing their independence.

We cannot just tell them what to do.

We must also explain why they should do it.

This is how teenagers learn to make good decisions.

Teenagers don’t suddenly develop sound judgment the moment they turn 18.

It is a skill that takes time and practice to develop.

When you set appropriate limits, give them reasons.

Explain the pros and cons of every decision so that they have a process to follow when making their own decisions.

When appropriate, use natural consequences

Natural consequences are the most effective when the issue is not health or safety-related. 

Parents often fret about their teens’ unfinished school work or failing grades, but they don’t realize they cannot hold their teens’ hands forever.

Unless you plan to punish or bribe your teen through college, which will most likely not work once they turn 18, let them fail now. It’s better to fail now than to wait until they turn 18.

You cannot care for a teen their entire life if they don’t care about their future.

They need to face the logical consequences of their actions sooner rather than later.

Focus on issues, not personal blame

Parents tend to have more frequent and more intense conflicts when they believe their teenager’s bad behavior results from their personality.​12​

They are upset because they think their children are misbehaving with malicious intentions to hurt them.

Frustrated parents tend to have distorted beliefs such as perfectionism, obedience, and ruination more than non-distressed parents.

So when conflicts or incidents require discipline, focus on the issue, not personal attributions that will do nothing but make everyone angrier.

Repair your relationship

If you have been using punishments for teenagers to the point that your child no longer cares, then it is very likely that your relationship has been damaged. 

A strained relationship cannot help your teen behave.

Listening and learning are more likely to happen when your child feels connected to you.

Start now if you want to save this relationship.

The key to strengthening a relationship is not just spending more time together.

Quality time matters more.

Relationships between parents and children are special, but they’re not that different from those between friends, neighbors, coworkers, or spouses.

Kids are people too.

To build a good relationship, You need to care about them, treat them with kindness and respect, help when they need it, and support them when they’re discouraged.

The same applies to building any relationship.

The only difference between a parent-child relationship and one with an adult is that we must also protect them.

One of the best ways to teach teens appropriate behavior is to re-establish a close relationship and connection with them.

Studies find that adolescents with a supportive relationship with their parents are less likely to engage in delinquent behavior due to peer pressure.​13​

A positive relationship and a pleasant family life can go a long way in teaching teens good behavior.

Teach them how to disagree respectfully

Some parents believe that any disagreement from their children is backtalk.

However, disagreeing with someone is not the same as talking back.

It is possible to disagree with someone respectfully, a crucial skill many children don’t learn at home.

If you want your child to become a leader, not just someone who follows orders from others, you must give them the confidence and skills to discuss disagreements respectfully.

So the next time you want to discipline your teen, take some deep breaths.

Avoid power struggles in the heat of the moment.

Teach them calmly how to disagree respectfully.

Focus on the issue, not personal attributes.

Teach them a process to think through the problem to make better choices critically.

Most importantly, let them practice making decisions and doing the right thing.

Motivate your teenager intrinsically

If the discipline issue involves a lack of motivation, motivate them intrinsically to inspire behavior change.

Intrinsic motivation means your teen will want to do an activity because they enjoy it, not because they will be rewarded or punished.

Also See: Parenting Teens

Need Help Motivating Kids?

If you are looking for additional tips and an actual step-by-step plan, this online course How To Motivate Kids is a great place to start.

It gives you the steps you need to identify motivation issues in your child and the strategy you can apply to help your child build self-motivation and become passionate about learning.

Once you know this science-based strategy, motivating your child becomes easy and stress-free.




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