12/10/2010 01:17 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Dancing Parent: 'Punishing' Your Child? (Part 1)

"The beatings will continue until morale improves!" So the joke goes, and it's an apt clue as to how all of us, children especially, perceive punishment. 

Yet it's something every single parent must deal with throughout their parenthood: how do I get my teen's attention in such a way that he or she changes their behavior -- by either restricting what they can do, taking something away, or requiring them to perform some new responsibility -- so that they stop doing whatever it is I want them to stop doing, and start doing what I hope to teach them? 

Not easily, if at all, if you begin from a premise of "punishment."

As anyone who has made "mistakes" in trying to discipline their child knows, a punishment can boomerang on you and inadvertently drive a teen to an even worse, or potentially more dangerous, behavior. 


A father, deeply frustrated by his daughter's behavior, "punished" her by imposing a two-month summer grounding, which included not being allowed to see her friends socially, not being able to go out at night, and not being able to communicate with them online. The daughter, slipping into a deep depression as the long, lonely days wore on, began cutting herself in secret, much to her father's eventual shock and dismay. Only after much counseling has his daughter recovered from that summer.

The lesson? From a teenager's point of view (and you may well remember this view from your own teenage years), "punishments" that last too long, or seem too harsh or unfair, most often lead to them "acting out" their frustrations in some way. Then, when the next, inevitable family issue, challenge or crisis arises, you may well find yourself dealing with a far more difficult set of circumstances.

In short, punishment doesn't work, and as far as we're concerned, the problem begins with the concept itself.

To punish someone infers retribution, a penalty designed to inflict pain, suffering and loss. Because the emphasis is on suffering and not on learning, a child responds accordingly, regarding whatever the parent claims to be the reason for the punishment as just a disguise for their truer aim, which is retribution. So any intended parental lessons about taking more responsibility, or of working more diligently, or of learning to think of others first, seem secondary to the far more potent, unspoken message: that to combat parental retribution, a teen should learn how to administer retribution, too. 

And they will in some way, and usually on those closest to them. In a word: you.

So if punishment doesn't work, what does?

"Consequences." We'll offer more on this in a moment, but first, let's take things from the beginning: 

Strategy 1: Take a deep breath, take a step back, give yourself time enough to think before you lash out in some way that you may later either regret, or that may set up an even more problematic set of circumstances down the road. So wait until you can act, not just react. It's all right to say, "I'll think about it" and then give yourself the time to do so.

Strategy 2: Be clear with yourself, so that you can be clear with your child. Whatever restrictions of their privileges, limitations on their freedoms, or chores you impose on your child must be chosen to demonstrate to them that their behavior has consequences, not to punish them. Then make sure those consequences are in no way about causing suffering for suffering's sake. If they are, your child will sense it and respond ever more defensively. Rather, make sure the limitations or new responsibilities you impose are only about drawing your child's attention back to correcting the behavior that caused the trouble in the first place. Make it about learning a valuable life lesson and not about "punishment."

Strategy 3: Be appropriate, be proportional and beware of unintended consequences. Do not go hunting fruit flies with a bazooka, as they say. Be measured. Make the consequence "fit the crime." Remember, whatever consequences you impose, you will have to enforce them, or they will lose their meaning and effectiveness. And as for unintended consequences...

Strategy 4: Do not use physical punishments. Striking or spanking your child to express your upset teaches them, at the very least, that attacking others physically is not only an acceptable behavior but a satisfying way to express their own feelings of anger or displeasure at the world. This is not a lesson that helps you, your child or the world. So let's approach it another way.

Strategy 5: Acknowledge your child's positive choices and behaviors. But we don't mean that you should do that at the moment of giving them consequences; we mean that generally, so that when you do exert your authority, it's in a context of having been supportive in the past. This is just as important as identifying their troublesome traits, because we all like to be acknowledged, and we tend to do more of what garners us praise. So express your love with warmth and support for all that they do that is welcome and positive. But keep your praise realistic and balanced, because false praise rings false.


In the upcoming Part 2 of "Punishment?", we will look further into how moms and dads can deal with their own frustrations and desire to change their child's behavior in ways that focus on the lesson to be learned, and create the foundation for growth. As always, we appreciate your comments here, or at our website,, where you can also find more useful information, features and useful links, and where you can sign up for our blogs. Until next time, keep dancing! (This material is copyrighted.)