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How to Punish a Teen Who Doesn’t Care About Consequences

Teen punishment is a disciplinary method aimed at correcting teenagers’ misconduct, ranging from grounding and loss of privileges to more severe forms like corporal punishment. However, effectiveness is debated and punishment might foster fear, anger, and resentment rather than teaching positive behavior. Continuous application of punishment can obscure natural consequences, impede cognitive learning, and prompt emotional stress responses, ultimately hindering teenagers from understanding cause-and-effect relationships.

The alternative approach suggests helping teenagers recognize and care about natural consequences. This involves setting clear limits, explaining the reasoning behind rules, and allowing teens to experience the natural results of their actions when safe. Supporting emotional regulation, offering guidance on alternative behaviors, and maintaining a positive relationship are strategies that aim to instill an intrinsic understanding of right and wrong, rather than a fear of punishment.

For teenagers who are out of control, professional help is advised, but in cases of general unruliness, improving the parent-teen relationship is key. Addressing academic underperformance, for example, calls for understanding the underlying issues rather than punishing bad grades, which could exacerbate stress and hinder learning.

Motivating teenagers requires fulfilling their basic psychological needs for relatedness, autonomy, and competence. Addressing amotivation may involve understanding social stresses and offering support. When dealing with lying, fostering an environment of trust and understanding the root causes is more effective than punishment.

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

What is teen punishment?

Teen punishment is a disciplinary consequence given to teenagers in response to their misconduct to prevent it from happening again. The consequence often involves subjecting the teen to an adverse experience of physical or emotional pain or withdrawing privileges or possessions that the teen values.

Teen punishment doesn’t have to be applied every time to create an effect. The threat of punishment is often enough to alter a teen’s behavior. The goal is that the teenager will learn to think twice before breaking a rule or acting inappropriately and abandon misbehavior to avoid punishment.

What are the types of teen punishment?

Here are 7 types of teen punishment

  • Grounding: Restrict the teen from leaving home or participating in social activities.
  • Loss of privileges: Remove certain privileges, such as access to electronic devices, internet, car usage, or family trips.
  • Additional work: Assign extra household chores as a form of restitution.
  • Reparations: Require the teen to make amends for their behavior, such as apologizing, fixing things they broke, or buying replacements.
  • Corporal punishment: Physically punish with spanking.
  • Verbal reprimands: Scold or yell at the teen.
  • Humiliation: Publicly shame the teen for their inappropriate behavior.

What are good punishments for teens 13-17 year olds?

There are no good punishments for teens because punishments tend to lose effect when used repeatedly. The goal of discipline is to teach teens proper behavior. However, no one likes to learn from someone who constantly punishes or threatens to punish them. Applying negative consequences is not an effective way to teach positive behavior.

Punishment teaches teens to fear the punishment and the punisher. It triggers anger and resentment, diverting teens’ attention from learning prosocial behavior. Even though punishment may work when the child is younger, it tends to stop working as the child grows and learns to ignore the consequences.

Why do you claim that punishment doesn’t work when society relies on it to deter crime?

Punishment for criminals is necessary to protect the public as long as people commit crimes.

The assumption that punishment must be effective because our society depends on it needs to be re-examined. Despite punishment is necessary, its effectiveness is questionable, as evidenced by the overcrowded state of our prisons. Prison operational capacities are between 68.3% and 119% in the United States, according to a study published by the University of Nebraska Omaha using data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’s Prisoners in 2019 report.​1​

The persistence of crimes, which would not occur if punishment were truly effective, suggests that punishment has not been successful in deterring criminal behavior.

In society, some people do good deeds because they believe it is the right thing to do, while others only refrain from wrongdoing to avoid incarceration. These are two types of people raised with different moral values. As a parent, you must decide what moral principles you wish to instill in your children – an intrinsic sense of right and wrong or fear of punishment.

Why does my child not care about consequences?

Your child most likely doesn’t seem to care about consequences because that’s the best option they feel they have. 

Many reasons could have resulted in this choice.

One possible reason is that constant punishment stops your teen from seeing the natural outcomes. Your teen is too busy fighting with you or dealing with the feelings triggered by the punishment to process the natural repercussions in their mind.

Another potential reason is the chronic stress from the fear of punishment prohibits their learning using their cognition, i.e., “the thinking brain”, according to many scholarly findings, such as a 2016 study published in the European Journal of Neuroscience. 

Normally, areas like the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus help us learn by consciously remembering the details of an experience. However, our brain shifts to rely more on the emotional-based amygdala and dorsal striatum under stress. Over time, this reflexive change weakens cognitive memory while boosting the emotional-based memory system, making it harder for teens to think and learn. Therefore, the more punishment there is, the more the ability to understand cause-and-effect relationships will be diminished.​2​

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

To effectively discipline a teenager who doesn’t care about consequences, help them see the right consequences. The right consequence is something your child genuinely cares about, not something they fear.

Here are 11 steps to discipline a teenager when punishment doesn’t work.

  1. Teach what “consequence” means: The essence of discipline is to teach children that they will get one type of result if they make one choice and another result if they make another choice. Teenagers make better decisions when they know the actual cause and effect and their options.
  2. Stop punishing: “Either you do what I tell you to or get punished” does not offer options; it only offers a threat leading to a forced decision. Threats and options carry different meanings and lead to different learning for the child.
  3. Set limits and explain pros and cons: When setting limits, focus on why the limits are necessary. Explain the different outcomes of different actions, not just the negative outcomes of undesired actions. Understanding why desired actions lead to good outcomes helps teenagers make better decisions.
  4. Use natural consequences when appropriate: Natural consequences are most effective in teaching when the issue is not health or safety-related. Remind them if they are about to do something that will bring bad consequences. Ask them if they are ready to face the results. If they are adamant about it, let them experience it (e.g., “If you stay up late and cannot wake up for school on time, you may get a detention for being late. Do you accept that?”)
  5. Use logical consequences for health or safety issues: If health or safety is in imminent danger, take steps to protect. For example, if your teen taunts the dog, take it away. Not being able to play with the dog is the natural consequence of you protecting the child and the dog, not a punishment.
  6. Stay on their side: After your teen has dealt with the natural consequences, there’s no need to pile on the pressure. Your child probably feels bad enough as it is without you. You don’t need to accept or agree with their action but empathize with their feelings. Support them emotionally to teach emotional regulation so you become a teacher, not an enemy.
  7. Help them develop emotional regulation: Teens may act out when they are overwhelmed by emotions. Coach them to recognize and name their feelings to help them develop self-regulation.
  8. Teach them alternative behavior: Your teen may not know how to act otherwise. Help them develop appropriate responses.
  9. Teach them how to reflect: People make mistakes. The most important thing is to learn from the mistake so it won’t be repeated. Teach your teen how to reflect on their role and prevent future mistakes.
  10. Repair relationship: People learn better from those they have a positive connection with. If punishment has been your method of motivating your teen, repair the relationship.
  11. Be a good role model: Walk the walk. If you want your child to be kind to others, they need to receive kindness from you to learn it. If you want your teen to be respectful, treat them with respect.

How can a teenager learn if there is no punishment?

A teenager can learn without punishment because no punishment doesn’t mean there are no consequences. Natural consequences teach teenagers the direct outcomes of their behavior, enabling them to see the actual cause-and-effect relationships. This understanding helps teens develop critical thinking and improve their decision-making.

In addition, no punishment doesn’t mean there is no guidance. You can discipline through patient teaching, explaining, and mentoring. Learning to recognize how their actions affect the outcomes or others is a more powerful lesson than experiencing an unrelated pain inflicted by parents. 

In addition, grasping the impact on others fosters the development of empathy, while punishment only breeds anger and resentment.

Punishment undermines trust, preventing teens from seeking guidance from their parents. Without trust and open communication, teens hide problems rather than seek help and learn from parents.

How to punish a teenager for not listening

To discipline a teenager and have them listen to you, become the person they want to listen to. People tend to care about and listen to those they feel connected to. Having a close parent-child relationship is a prerequisite to a positive connection.

Here are 7 tips for building a good relationship.​3​

  1. Be kind: Being kind doesn’t mean you let your child walk all over you. You can be kind and firm. State your boundaries while staying kind.
  2. Be warm, sensitive, and responsive: Responsive parenting helps teens develop secure attachments associated with better teen outcomes. A 2009 intervention study published in the Journal of Adolescence involving 309 parents indicated responsive parenting resulted in reduced reactivity and hostility and better parent-child relationships.
  3. Make amends: If your relationship has been tense, talk it out and repair the relationship. Talk to your teenager about your use of punishment before and why you change now. Listen to their point of view regarding the new rules. Ask for their cooperation to make this new arrangement work.
  4. Make rules for their well-being: Rules and limits make more sense when they are set to protect people you care about. A curfew exists for safety reasons, as being out late is risky. Study requirements are in place because education promotes their development and future success. Show that your rules are here to protect your family. Help your teenager understand that rules are created out of love, not a desire to control.
  5. Plan for mistakes: This new way to discipline isn’t magic that can transform your teen overnight. Your teenager will still make mistakes. Talk to them and plan for what to do when that happens.
  6. Listen: Be an empathetic listener, and don’t give unsolicited advice. Teens may complain about things, but they don’t necessarily want advice. They are still learning to deal with their developing identity and fluctuating emotions. Give them support and space to sort it out.
  7. Spend quality time together: It’s more about the quality than the quantity. Given that teens can have mood swings, time dedicated to helping them with emotional regulation is invaluable. This time is not “wasted dealing with moody teens”; it is a good investment in your teen’s emotional health.

How to punish an out-of-control teenager

To deal with a teenager who is completely out of anyone’s control, including themselves, professional help is necessary. Contact a mental health professional, such as a therapist or psychologist, as soon as possible. 

However, if a teenager is only unruly and won’t listen to you, it is more of a relationship problem between you and the teen. Relational problems can only be made worse by punishment.

Here are 5 tips for dealing with a troubled teenager.

  • Stop trying to control them: Instead, try to influence them. When you have a good relationship with your teen, you can significantly influence their behavior.
  • Find out the underlying reason: Every behavior has a motivation, which is rarely, if ever, a lack of punishment. You can only find a genuine solution when you understand the issue. Punishing indiscriminately as a quick fix doesn’t resolve the root cause. Rather, engage in calm conversations with them, reach out to their teachers for insights into school-related problems, seek advice from other parents for hints, and pay close attention to their behaviors and emotional state to gather additional information.
  • Improve your relationship: Follow the steps above to improve your relationship with your teen so they will be more likely to listen to you.
  • Teach patiently: Show your love through your patient guidance.
  • Seek professional help: Consult your child’s pediatrician or a psychologist for help.

How to punish a teen for bad grades in school

Punishment makes a teen feel bad about failing in school, but it doesn’t help them get good grades because the stress from punishment prevents them from focusing and learning effectively.

Here are tips on how to help a teenager with bad grades.

  1. Open communication: Express your concern and explain to your teen why their education matters. Education is about their development and future. Help them understand the importance of studying and the potential consequences of poor academic performance in a calm and supportive way.
  2. Identify the root cause: Avoid jumping to conclusions and assuming your teen does not study because they are lazy. Have an open, non-judgmental conversation to identify the reasons behind poor grades. Here are some possible issues that require your help rather than punishment.
    • Struggling to grasp the material – need tutoring.
    • Finding the subject boring – need help in developing motivation for kids.
    • Not having enough time to study – need time management help.
    • Feeling distracted in class – evaluation for ADHD may be necessary.
    • Difficulty hearing the teacher – screening for hearing issues is recommended.
    • Trouble seeing the board – vision testing is advised.
    • Experiencing bullying – support for ensuring safety at school.
    • Conflict with friends – need to learn conflict resolution.
    • Feeling depressed – professional medical consultation.
  3. Collaborate on a solution: Work together to develop a plan to address the identified problems.
  4. Offer support and resources: Provide your teen with tools and assistance to implement the solution. This may include tutoring, study skills workshops, time management techniques, or professional help for mental health or learning difficulties.
  5. Monitor progress: Regularly check in with your teen to ensure they follow the plan. Offer support and encouragement.
  6. Nurture your relationship: Prioritize maintaining a strong, positive relationship with your teenager. Show them you are there to support and guide them, not to control or criticize them.

Should I punish my teen for bad grades?

No, don’t punish your teen for bad grades. Punishment does not help your child identify or solve the underlying problem. Helping your teen improve their grades is a collaborative effort that requires patience, understanding, and open communication.

How to motivate a teenager who doesn’t care

The three universal psychological needs that can lead to intrinsic motivation in teenagers are relatedness, autonomy, and competence, according to the Self-Determination Theory (SDT), formulated by Edward Deci (Edward L. Deci) and Richard Ryan (Richard M. Ryan).​4​

  • Relatedness is feeling connected to others, cared for, and caring for others. 
  • Autonomy is being self-directing and having the freedom to make their own choices. 
  • Competence is feeling effective and experiencing achievement.

Strive to provide these three elements to motivate teens. Here are some examples of motivating through fulfilling these basic psychological needs.

  • Improve your relationship: When your teen feels connected with and close to you, they listen to you more and care about what you care about.
  • Give autonomy: Become an autonomy-supportive parent by providing space and freedom for them to work at their own pace.
  • Help them build competence: Help your teen find activities they enjoy and become good at to build a sense of mastery and self-sufficiency.

How to motivate a teenager who doesn’t want to do anything

To motivate a teenager who seems uninterested in doing anything, address the underlying issues that affect their motivation. Social stress from peer pressure, pubertal changes, peer rejection, and victimization can contribute to a teenager’s lack of motivation. Parents can support their teenagers by allowing autonomy, lending a sympathetic ear, monitoring their social circle non-intrusively, and tackling problems in their learning environment, such as issues with teachers or bullying.

By addressing the underlying issues and allowing teenagers to control their lives within reasonable boundaries, they are more likely to become motivated to engage in everyday activities.

However, if you suspect depression is the cause of amotivation, seek help from your child’s physician immediately.

How to punish a teenager for lying

Dealing with a teenager’s lying involves understanding the root cause and fostering an environment of mutual trust rather than imposing harsh punishments. Here are 7 tips on effectively handling lying by teens.

  1. Do not punish, as lying to avoid punishment is a natural self-preservation instinct. To prevent your teen from lying, eliminate this incentive for them to do so.
  2. Call out the lie calmly, avoiding accusatory tones to prevent further dishonesty.
  3. Identify the underlying reasons to prevent more lying. If there is no punishment, explore other factors driving their lies, such as the desire for autonomy, fear of disappointing others, peer pressure, or the need to protect their privacy.
  4. Redefine boundaries to align with the teenager’s growing need for autonomy. Review family rules and parental authority.
  5. Support the teenager’s autonomy by treating them with respect and acknowledging their feelings and needs to reduce the likelihood of lying.
  6. Strengthen the parent-child relationship, as a positive relationship decreases the tendency for teenagers to lie.
  7. Seek professional help if lying is associated with deeper issues such as mental health problems or risky behaviors.

Do you have kids?

Yes, I (the author) am blessed with a wonderful daughter. When readers come across my parenting advice, they commonly assume I don’t have children. However, I personally apply all the techniques discussed in my work. They are tried and true strategies. My daughter does well in school, and I’ve never received negative feedback from her teachers.

Are you just lucky and have an easy kid?

No, I wouldn’t say I’m particularly lucky, and my kid is far from easy. She threw so many tantrums in her toddler years that they motivated me to extensively research the topic and eventually write a book about managing toddler tantrums.

Through my child development studies, I’ve gained a deeper understanding and appreciation for the natural progression of a child’s growth. I have become significantly more patient with my daughter. Her occasional slip-ups don’t bother me because they are a natural part of development. 

Rather than focusing on the mistakes, I emphasize the learning opportunities they provide. What matters is that when my child makes a mistake, she learns from the experience and makes an effort to avoid repeating it.

My daughter’s positive behavior is not a matter of luck but a collective effort to create a supportive home environment. It’s about patience, a commitment to understanding child development and encouraging learning from life’s inevitable challenges.

References

  1. 1.
    . State Prison Overcrowding and Capacity Data. UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA OMAHA. Published March 2024. https://www.unomaha.edu/college-of-public-affairs-and-community-service/governing/stories/state-prison-overcrowding-and-capacity-data.php
  2. 2.
    Schwabe L. Memory under stress: from single systems to network changes. Bolam P, ed. Eur J of Neuroscience. Published online November 25, 2016:478-489. doi:10.1111/ejn.13478
  3. 3.
    Moretti MM, Obsuth I. Effectiveness of an attachment‐focused manualized intervention for parents of teens at risk for aggressive behaviour: The Connect Program. Journal of Adolescence. Published online September 18, 2009:1347-1357. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2009.07.013
  4. 4.
    Deci EL, Ryan RM. Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology / Psychologie canadienne. Published online August 2008:182-185. doi:10.1037/a0012801

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