As a psychotherapist who works with children and adolescents, I often hear how their parents are too strict and unfair. Many children and adolescents feel their parents punishments are not appropriate and their parents are out of touch with today’s world. I also hear parents tell me no matter what rules or punishments they impose that their children refuse to follow the rules. While this disagreement has been going on for many, many years, I would imagine with the Coronavirus and teenagers doing school remotely and not able to spend time with friends that the argument has become unbearable for some families by this time.

From my experience, one of the major issues in this situation is the difference between discipline and punishment. Many people may feel there is no difference between the two concepts. However, there is a major difference between the two terms. The difference can determine how many arguments you and your teenager have regarding the issue.

Discipline is used to teach a child or teenager about rules and life. Punishments are used to tell a child or teenager they did something wrong such as breaking a house rule. However, punishments often have no association to the broken rule and often make a child feel like they are bad and they often don’t know which rule they broke. Punishments do not teach they only make a child feel bad or angry. For example, if it was the child’s turn to take out the garbage and they forgot and played their video game online with friends. Discipline would be having them take out the garbage and clean the dinner table for a week and they could not play their online game. A punishment would be that they were grounded and had to stay in their room for two weeks without any electronics. What connection does the grounding have to forgetting to take out the garbage?

Research has shown that discipline is a more effective way to teach children\teenagers about rules and appropriate behavior. The discipline needs to have some association with the rule that was broken. A punishment which tends to make a child think they are bad and has no association to the rule they broke typically teaches a child nothing. What it typically does is make a child feel like they are a bad person and they often don’t understand why they are being punished. All punishment tends to teach some children and teenagers is that they are worthless and they feel unlovable.

I had a fourth grader ask to come to therapy because they were tired of getting in trouble at home. They felt like they were a bad person and he had no idea why he was doing bad things at home on a regular basis. Therefore, the punishments taught him nothing except it did lower his self-esteem. Research also has shown that children and teenagers who feel they are bad people are more likely not to graduate high school and to get involved with drugs and alcohol. They feel they are bad so they feel they should be doing things associated with “bad kids.” They give up trying because they don’t believe anyone will see them as a lovable person who is worth something.

As I stated discipline has been shown to be more effective with children and teenagers. However, before a parent imposes discipline there are important steps for the parent to take:

1. First, the parent needs to let the child\teenager know that they love them and that the child\teen is not bad, but they made a mistake.

2. The parent needs to explain to the child when they made a mistake and what was the mistake. Additionally, emphasizing to the child that they are not the mistake, their choice was a mistake.

3. Explain that they are imposing the discipline to help the child learn from their mistake and hopefully they won’t make the same mistake again.

4. Let the child know when the discipline starts and ends. Also do not make it too long or severe. It should be in proportion to the mistake. It should also needs to be age appropriate.

5. Finally, ask the child if they understand and if they have any questions.

One thing that makes disciplining a child or teenager easier is having a behavior contract. It is important that parents sit down with their child or teenager and develop a behavior contract regarding house rules and expectations a parent has for them and consequences if the child violates the contract. Therefore, if your child makes a mistake, the consequence is already known because it is in the contract. Therefore, it is less likely that the child will feel like a bad person or confused about the consequences because everyone in the family agreed to them. This also makes it easier the mistake was the choice they made not them.

I recommend contracts on a regular basis. The contracts help reinforce the discipline and that choices have consequences. Therefore, the parent is teaching a child to think before they act. Thereby, significantly decreasing the odds that they will make a bad choice. It can also help a child deal with peer pressure because you have already discussed what you feel is appropriate and inappropriate. A contract also help to reduce arguments at home. If everyone agrees to the contract and a teenager violates the contract they cannot blame Mom and Dad for the consequences. Mom and Dad are only enforcing the agreed upon contract. The teenager needs to take responsibility for their choice.

Dr. Michael Rubino is a psychotherapist with 20 years experience treating children and teenagers. For more information about Dr. Michael Rubino’s work visit his website at www.RubinoCounseling.com or his Facebook page www.Facebook.com/drrubino3 or his podcasts on Spotify or Apple.

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