My first article looked at the tendency for modern parents and other adults to focus more on controlling teen behavior rather than working on the Cause of that behavior. And while preventing problems is always the best way of dealing with problems, I still want to give you a few of the ABC’s of teen behavior management.
First of all, we have to understand how behavior management works. There are essentially three ways to change someone’s behavior: Positive reinforcement, negative consequences and neutral (no) reinforcement (kiss me or kick me, but don’t ignore me). Positive reinforcement is getting a reward right after doing the chore at hand, and is the best way to get what you want. This manifests in real life as a paycheck after weeks of work, or that new mountain bike after saving so hard. Negative reinforcement is punishment or negative consequences, like getting grounded or having your Nintendo taken away. Neutral reinforcement is getting no reward at all, as in ignoring a bully until he needs to go pick on someone else. If he receives no reward from you (fear, tears, etc.) he usually moves on to a new target. Please see the attached slide show.
Most parenting books about teens focus on the negative aspect: how to give consequences to your teen so he or she will do what you want. However, countless parents have complained to me about how their teen has nothing left to take from their room. All phones, computers, DVD players, Internet access, PlayStations and so on have been pulled but the kid still won’t clean his room or get better grades. Heck, many parents have even pulled the bedroom door!
Too often with teens, it is not about what they are losing, but what they’re not getting. If you’ve pulled everything fun from your teen’s room and he/she is still acting negatively, it’s time to rethink the problem.
The trick with teens is not so much to withhold everything from them but to compromise with helping them get what they want while you get what you want. Thus, instead of stripping their room (especially if it isn’t working), ask what they want (more freedom, more allowance, etc.). Then be certain what you want (clean room, better grades, washed dishes, etc.). Make a deal. If he or she will clean their room regularly, you’ll up their allowance. If the dishes are done on time, they get a later curfew. No performance, no reward. The trick is to find out what they really want, and that is your leverage, not what they can live without.
Each time a teen gets away with stalling, or doing a poor job at something, they are in essence being rewarded by the lack of consequences. This is the flaw to a lecture as a consequence—no real teeth in it. If you say 10 pm is curfew, then your daughter comes in at 10:05 and you just roll your eyes, your 10 pm boundary has been stretched to 10:05, a grace period that will haunt you for years to come. Do you really give consequences for being five minutes late? Absolutely, or the precedent is set. Check out the attached Calvin & Hobbes comic where mom calls Calvin inside eight times with no movement from him. That’s because he’s learned in the past that there are no real consequences for him being defiant.
Look at it this way: your daughter goes out and you say be home by 9 pm. To encourage positive behavior, tell her that if she’s in the house by 8:59, she can have Reward A (sleepover, movie choice, etc.). If she comes home at 9:01, a mere 2-minute swing, she comes in at 8 pm for the next two nights as a logical consequence. Which would you choose?
Finally, logical consequences are the best if you do have to take something away. If your son is abusing phone privileges, take away or limit his phone “reinforcement.” If your daughter is pushing curfew, take away free time. And remove the word “punishment” from your vocabulary. Substitute the term “consequence.” Punishment is just that; punitive and most often driven by anger or emotions. Consequences are logical ramifications from the behavior.
How can you tell the difference? A punishment cannot be returned and a consequence can, so to speak. For example, pretend your daughter comes home an hour late with some lame excuse about a flat tire and you call her a liar (or worse). If you find out she and her boyfriend really did have a flat tire, can you retract the sting of that name-calling? Nope, the damage is done. But if you kept her home the next night as a logical consequence, then found out she was telling the truth (don’t you hate it when teens are right?), could you give back that lost time? Yes, in a couple of ways. You could give her an extra hour here and there, or a Get Out of Jail free card for the next time (there’s almost always another next time with teens). Never loft out a threat or bluff you will not, or cannot enforce. Do NOT bribe them by giving the reward before the behavior; the real world does not work that way. Remember, they do it because it rewards them in some fashion. Good luck!!