by Chris Taylor, MFT, Author “Back to Basics"

Consequences are built on deterrence theory.  The idea is that if you cause pain to me, I will cause pain of equal or greater value in return.  Structuring a behavioral modification plan for your teen around this concept is doomed for failure.  Over time your teen will develop consequence fatigue and lose interest in changing because the threat of losing no longer holds the same weight.  It is learned helplessness and will not yield the results you desire.  So what is a parent to do to instill consequences that work?

To start we must move away from consequences in general.  Now I will make the point that there are non-negotiable like property destruction or physical violence that should have immediate responses such as loss of all privileges or possible police intervention, but what we are talking about in this article is the day to day tasks that need to be accomplished and the following of family rules.   The questions remains, what is in place of consequences?  The answer is incentives.


We are preparing our teens for the real world aren’t we?  Well, doesn’t the real world work on a get what you earn mentality?  Of course we can go to jail for breaking the law or get fired for breaking rules at work, but aren’t we more motivated by rewards then punishment.  This is true for your teens as well, so learn how to incentivize privileges instead of taking them away.

Start with all of the privileges your teen has access to and work with your teen to create a plan where they are tied to task completion.  Now when the task is not completed or a behavioral issue is present, then the privilege is not earned.  This teaches responsibility taking and independent decision making.  As a parent you can move away from nagging and it depersonalizes the lack of privilege by making it the teen’s choice.  They chose to not earn it, you did not take it away.  The trick to ongoing engagement in this plan is to make the whole system start fresh each day.  This prevents fatigue and the hopelessness that is created when there is not a clear and quick road to recovery.

As teens adapt to this new plan always encourage continued participation by praising all of their positive choices.  Over time the structure will become less important as they internalize work ethic and take full responsibility for their choices.