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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?

Consequences and Behaviorism

Using consequences to discipline is an example of behavioral management, which is based on behaviorism​1​. It is a type of discipline strategy commonly prescribed by teachers or behaviorists.

The type of consequences employed by parents 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 instead are controlled by external forces. 

Behaviorists believe that behavior can be changed as the environment changes through a process called 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, it is the environment that determines a child’s behavior. Negative behaviors are the result of bad training. If we apply the right consequences, we will get appropriate behaviors.

white rat held by a hand in blue glove

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 declines in its use and influence within psychology, this shift hasn’t spread among parents. A lot of parents are still using consequences to discipline their children because it really 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 affect a crowd’s behavior reliably.

This is why when most parents first 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.

teenager studies headache how to discipline a teenager that won't listen

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 one of the best predictors of adolescent maladjustment​10​. They are also linked to several psychiatric disorders, such as conduct disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder​11​.

Self-motivated learner
Have trouble motivating your child? Check out:

How To Motivate Kids

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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 on a daily basis 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 have arguments with us and get upset, we call them “a defiant teenager.”

So, when we are punishing teens and not allowing them to fight back, we are not only treating our kids as lab animals but also as 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.

The purpose of discipline is not to make kids suffer, but to teach them positive behavior.

A better way to discipline 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 ever 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 they need to make their own decisions.

When appropriate, use natural consequences

Natural consequences are the most effective consequences 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 that 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 own future. They need to face the logical consequences of their actions sooner rather than later.

Focus on issues, not personal blames

Parents tend to have more frequent and more intense conflicts when they believe their teenager’s bad behavior is a result of their personality​12​. They are upset because they think that 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 there are conflicts or incidents that require discipline, focus on the issue, not personal attributions that will do nothing but make everyone angrier.

mother braids teenage hair to build relationship you don't need creative punishments for 15 year olds

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 give them support when they’re discouraged.

The same applies to building any kind of 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 who have a supportive relationship with 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 that 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 disagreement respectfully.

So the next time you want to discipline your teen, take some deep breaths. Avoid power struggle 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 critically think through the problem to make better choices. 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 to motivate your teenager, 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 to help your child build self-motivation and become passionate about learning.

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


References

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    Mahoney MJ. Scientific psychology and radical behaviorism: Important distinctions based in scientism and objectivism. The restoration of dialogue: Readings in the philosophy of clinical psychology. Published online 1992:115-124. doi:10.1037/10112-014
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    Forehand R, Brody G, Slotkin J, Fauber R, McCombs A, Long N. Young adolescent and maternal depression: Assessment, interrelations, and family predictors. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Published online 1988:422-426. doi:10.1037/0022-006x.56.3.422
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    Slater EJ, Haber JD. Adolescent adjustment following divorce as a function of familial conflict. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Published online 1984:920-921. doi:10.1037/0022-006x.52.5.920
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    Marmorstein NR, Iacono WG. Major depression and conduct disorder in youth: associations with parental psychopathology and parent-child conflict. J Child Psychol & Psychiat. Published online February 2004:377-386. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2004.00228.x
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    Grace NC, Kelley ML, McCain AP. Attribution processes in mother-adolescent conflict. J Abnorm Child Psychol. Published online April 1993:199-211. doi:10.1007/bf00911316
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    de Kemp RAT, Scholte RHJ, Overbeek G, Engels RCME. Early Adolescent Delinquency. Criminal Justice and Behavior. Published online August 2006:488-510. doi:10.1177/0093854806286208

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University).

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