How to Punish (and How Not to Punish) a Teenage Boy

Ugh. You just found out that your son has done something really bad. The kind of bad that makes you want to deny you know him.

Now what?

Sometimes your son will mess up. But it’s a moment in time. Your son isn’t doomed to be a failure or grow up to be a terrible person. All of the reasons you love them are still right there alongside whatever motivated made him do this thing you’re now dealing with.

And just like you, his feelings could be so jumbled together that it’s hard for him to sort them all out. He could be embarrassed, angry that he got caught, ashamed, in denial, or paranoid that everyone is talking behind his back or that this one mistake will forever damage his future.

What to think about when you want to discipline or punish your teenage son
What parents should think about before they punish a teenage son for making a big mistake. (Shutterstock/Julia Tsokur)

Discipline, Not Punishment

Let’s begin with the words we use to approach the problem. To punish comes from the Latin word for “pain.”

As tempting as it can be to think about what will “hurt” and “get through that thick head”—we have to focus our response with the concept of “discipline,” which means “to teach.”

We want our children to realize that while everyone makes mistakes, even really big ones, there is a way back. If they face the consequences with integrity and reflect on what they did, they will be a stronger person for the experience and you will be proud of them

How to Approach Discipline

When disciplining children (either my own or my students), I frame my response in this way:

1. Tell them exactly what they did that was a problem.

2. Tell them why the specific actions they did are against your values.

3. Tell them specifically what privilege will be taken away and for how long (which requires that you know the child well enough to know which privilege means the most to them).

4. Give them a “way back”—i.e., a way to make amends that will make them and you proud.

What Not to Say

I went right to the source—teenage boys—to find out which responses from parents are not helpful. Here are some responses boys advise avoiding:

  • I knew it.
  • How could you have been so stupid? Lots of times they actually don’t know or can’t articulate why they did what they did.
  • What were you thinking? When adults say that to boys in this situation, it’s not usually said as a question.
  • I have failed as a parent. (or any similar statement)
  • You’re just like…(insert name of the person in your family that is perceived to be a failure or has a bad reputation)

Boys can be masters of looking like they don’t care about any discipline or punishment we give them. With parents, they shrug and tell us they don’t care. That doesn’t mean our words don’t impact them—for better or worse.

What to Say and Do Instead

Here’s what boys say is more effective:

The most pointless thing is when they ground you. When my mom sends me to my room, I don’t really care. I’m a musician, so I can always find something else to do. The most effective punishment for parents is when they take everything away from you. My mom once took my phone, my Internet, Xbox, guitars, pretty much everything. She did that so I would do this list of chores she had. It worked. –Landon, 15

No matter what, don’t hand down a punishment and then change your mind or fail to enforce it:

I got into huge trouble recently, and my parents grounded me for three months, but after a month they stopped. It’s like . . . I can’t trust them. Is that weird? But that’s what it feels like. Like I can’t trust them because they didn’t follow through. -Tom, 16

It feels like they don’t even care about what you did which makes it easier to do again – Charlie, 14

If they really mess up, here’s something you can think about saying.

I love you. You are my son. That doesn’t take away that your actions have hurt another person and you need to be held accountable. You will, in time, come to terms with what you did. Through that process I will be by your side. But I will not deny what you have done and I will deeply reflect on how we got to this place. Anytime you would like to talk to me about this, I will be here.

Moving Past the Wrongdoing

Here’s the irony. These situations can eventually build the relationship between you. When the dust settles and the initial intense feelings on both sides have subsided it’s important to reconnect with each other.

The thing is that most parents don’t really talk about why they’re doing this stuff. It makes it seem that the parent likes punishing their kid. If parents just talked, it would be so much easier. Damion, 15

Generally, at the end of my time grounded, I have to have a conversation with my parents about the bigger picture, how to prevent myself from getting in trouble again, and just being a better person in general. If I had just gotten grounded and left it at that, to me, that wouldn’t really resonate. As much of a pain those conversations were, they were what actually stuck with me, not the grounding. – Cooper, 17

Remember these moments are a moment, not a lifetime. Focus on what you want him to learn from this experience and the process he goes through as a consequence. And while it can be so much easier to yell or disconnect, these conversations can be the most important you ever have with him.

This is an excerpt from Masterminds and Wingmen. 

About Rosalind Wiseman

Rosalind Wiseman is a teacher, thought leader and bestselling author.  As the co-founder of Cultures of Dignity, she works with educators, students, administrators, and parents around the world on the physical and emotional wellbeing of young people.

She wrote Queen Bees and Wannabes, 3rd Edition: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boys, and the New Realities of Girl World, the book that inspired the hit movie and musical “Mean Girls,”Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World as well as Owning Up: Empowering Adolescents to Confront Social Cruelty, Bullying, and Injustice, a new curriculum for middle and high school students. Follow her on Twitter at @cultureodignity.

Read more posts by Rosalind

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