Why Consequences Won’t Stop Your Teen From Risky Behavior

Most hospitals have backup generators that kick in when the power goes out.  These generators are important, but they’re only designed for short term, intermittent use.  If you use the backup generator as the primary source of power for a long time, it’s going to break down and you’ll have problems.

In your family, consequences are your backup generator.  It’s important to have them in place, and you will end up using them from time to time, but if they’re your primary tool for parenting, you’re going to run into problems. 

Before we can get really into the problem with relying too much on consequences, we need to lay some groundwork, which means talking about influence. 

You want your teen to take out the garbage.  They have not been taking out the garbage.  You need to do something to get them to take out the garbage.  You want to change their behavior—you want influence

In our hospital analogy, if consequences are the backup generator, Influence is the electricity.  It is one of the most important resources you have as a parent.  It is your ability to guide and steer your kid when they’re getting off course.  It is as crucial to parenting as electricity is to a hospital.  You cannot parent without it. 

And, like electricity, there are a few different ways to generate influence.  And if consequences are the backup generator, what is the main power grid?  What is your primary source of influence?

Esprit de Corps

I really didn’t want to get all French on you, but this is the best way I could find to sum it up.  Esprit de corps is your main power, your main source of influence.  In your family esprit de corps is a deep understanding and trust that you’re all on the same team.  You don’t always agree, and sometimes you get mad at each other.  But at the end of the day, if asked, “Does my parent have my back?”  your kid would answer a confident “Yes.”

Esprit de corps means that you have a healthy amount of trust and rapport with your child.  It means that they value your opinion as a parent, and yes, this is possible with teenagers.   And esprit de corps means that you can talk with your teen about taking out the garbage, negotiate if necessary, and come to a solution to the problem without resorting to carrots and sticks. If you have esprit de corps, then you trust that your child wants to do the right thing and wants to succeed, but that they need help getting there. 

If you rely on consequences as your main source of influence—if your first move is to confiscate the phone for not taking out the garbage—you risk eroding your esprit de corps. 

Pot-in-the-Sock-Drawer

Let’s look at the “pot-in-the-sock-drawer” scenario.  You find pot in your teen’s sock drawer: What do you do?  What most parents do, understandably so, is jump right to consequences.  “You’re grounded for a month, and no phone after 7pm.”  The kid tries to defend himself, the parent stands their ground, and everyone leaves the conversation feeling angry and bitter. 

Why is this a problem?  Because consequences were the only means of influence. With no healthy discussion, the teen felt unheard and defensive, leading to a feeling of “me vs. you”.  When your kid they are in a battle against you, this means serious problems for esprit de corps.

When there’s no esprit de corps to support the consequences, then the teen starts thinking, “How can I get around this?” And they’ll scheme ways to sneak out at night, to steal the phone back when you’re not looking, etc.  You are enemies, not teammates. 

“Yeah, but what do I do then when I find the pot in the sock drawer?” 

Good question.  First, take several hours to allow your feelings of shock, fear and anger to run their course.  Talk it through with your partner, do some journaling, pray, exercise, whatever you need to calm down a bit. 

Then talk to your kid, and say something like, “I found this.  Please know that there will be some consequences, but before we talk about that, I first want you to know that I’m really upset, and that I think you’re a great person and I love you very much.”

And then you interview them.  If you don’t know how to do this, let me know, and I can help.   Basically, you give them as much time as they need to tell you their side of the story.  You say you believe them and that you need to look into it in order to verify.  

With this approach, you’re giving a consequence, but it’s not your main means of influence.  By waiting until you calm down, you’re able think more clearly and keep your kid’s defensiveness to a minimum.  This means you might be able to ask your teen for their input on what the consequence should be, further strengthening esprit de corps and adding to your precious influence reserves. 

We sometimes tell ourselves that if we just try hard enough or if we take away enough privileges that we can keep our kids safe.   And while there is some truth to that, I think it is important to remember that you cannot protect your child from every danger.  Bad things can happen, things you might not have any control over.  I don’t say this to scare you.  I say this to help you avoid the illusion that consequences can save your child from their own bad decisions.  Your child will make bad decisions.  It’s not your job to save them.

 

This advice is not meant to apply to every parenting situation.  As with all parenting advice, this will work for some and not work for others. 

If you like this, check out The Teen Mind, my podcast about understanding stress and anxiety and how it affects our teens.