How not to punish your teenager
Last month in the US: TV cameras gathered to film a teenager whose mum had forced him to wear a sign in public after being caught smoking pot. It’s just one in a list of public, shame-based punishments by parents that have found their way on to the internet and gone viral this year, including the father who shot his daughter's computer and put the footage on YouTube and the mother who vandalised her teen’s Facebook page.
But shame-based punishments cause more problems than they solve. A parent’s most important role is to provide a secure base for a child to launch from, particularly in the teen years when they are exposed to a variety of situations that you hope they'd come to you for guidance on how to manage. There needs to be openness and trust for this to happen. One of the major problems with humiliating a child, particularly in this way, where it is public and long-term, is that it causes children to close themselves off and become bitter towards the parent. Trust and respect, and the ability to influence them positively, is destroyed in the process.
Shame is cancerous to self-esteem. Shaming tells a child “you are bad” or “you are a fool” instead of “you did a bad/foolish thing” and this distinction can have far-reaching and long-term consequences. When someone feels generally good about who they are, but is aware that they did something wrong, they have the ability to take responsibility, make amends and do better next time. When we are reduced through humiliation (especially by someone who has power or influence over us) we don’t feel that we can be any different or do any better and so we give up trying. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are also likely to abrogate responsibility or blame someone else when things go wrong because the consequences of owning up are too dire. When children are regularly shamed they develop a “shame core” which can then cause considerable problems, even in adulthood. It’s not something we tend to grow out of without assistance.
Fear of being shamed is not a good motivator. It seems to work on a behavioural level at the time, which is one reason why parents resort to it, but the long term, hidden emotional consequences like increased bitterness and resentment just make children more immune to the discipline efforts (even good ones), making them more likely to rebel and less likely to co-operate. Over the top punishments cause children to have less respect for a parent because it’s clear that the parent is the one who has lost control. Some ballistic punishments can also frighten children and fear is not a good basis for a parenting relationship.
Parents often resort to shaming for two other reasons: because if that’s how we were raised, it unfortunately comes naturally and because parenting teenagers is hard. Even if the childhood years have been relatively trouble-free, the teenage stage can be challenging: they want freedom and independence but haven’t yet developed the capacity to anticipate all that this may mean. Combine this with hormones, self-absorption and peer pressures that normally accompany teen-hood and there are a whole raft of combustible issues to deal with. Parents are justified in their feelings of anxiety, helplessness and frustration. But parents can make the mistake of trying to manage these feelings by meeting their teen’s muscle flexing with more of their own. We just get into a power struggle this way and power struggles can escalate very, very quickly. When things do escalate, parents can inadvertently up the ante to try and shut it down because they know it’s getting out of control, but then our actions just become more fuel for the teenager to spark off.
I’m still wearing my training wheels when it comes to parenting my two teens, but before I even think about discipline strategies or techniques I do a little assessment of the relationship I have with my child at the time. Often their misbehavior follows something else that’s happening in the family or at school. I find as a general rule, the better our relationship, the more goodwill between us, the better their behavior.
Behavior is the end result of an emotional and cognitive process, so I try to work out what that is before I jump in. For example, my daughter was in a mood for a couple of days recently. I held myself from reacting straight away and persevered with gentle questions instead. She ended up in tears and apologizing and then cleaning up her room (unasked); it wasn’t about me at all, but what had been happening with a friend over the past few days. I didn’t have to do anything except listen and giver her a cuddle and it was a good opportunity to teach her that if she doesn’t talk about what’s bothering her it builds up inside and makes her cranky.
I find the two most challenging parenting stages, toddlers and teens, are challenging for the same reason: these are the stages when children are pulling away from us and because of this our own anxiety can be triggered and we can overreact. We need to let them pull away, but not push them out, by balancing their healthy desire for independence with connectedness: nurturing with limit-setting.
When I think about what I needed to learn when I was a teenager, it was how to be assertive, how to think for myself and how to manage my emotions. These are the things I want my kids to learn, too. I also think it’s important to foster their self-awareness, self-discipline and self-respect: we don’t want to be responsible for them forever!
Modelling these qualities (most of the time) is the best way to start. A good, clear, constant line of communication is really important so we can have mutual discussions about the boundaries in different areas: bed-times, computer use, spending, language etc. and the consequences of breaking those boundaries.
Respect their opinion on their own lives and ask them what they think is reasonable (I have been surprised that often they are more conservative than me) and be open to negotiating. Give them some power and increase it as they get older so they can grow themselves up and we can relax a bit! Then be prepared to follow through on the limits you’ve agreed to. Make sure you have a partner’s support beforehand, because this can lead to conflict in the family and then family conflict can have an effect on children’s behavior; which can become a vicious cycle. Then again, if you’ve done a really good job, they will impose the limits on themselves!
Elly Taylor is a relationship counselor and author of Becoming Us, Loving, Learning and Growing Together, the Essential Relationship Guide for Parents.