White Paper on Punishing Teens

I do more and more counseling with teens and their parents and the majority of the parents all want to know one thing: how do I punish my teens when they do wrong?

And my answer is always the same: That’s the wrong question. If you know the right question to ask, the other question almost answers itself.

The right question to ask is “What offenses should be punishable offenses?” Once you answer that question, then the query about the type of punishment will hopefully resolve itself. Since I believe the consequences for anyone doing something unethical, immoral or evil should always fit the crime, this applies as much to teens as anyone else.

If you can determine what things should be punished and what things should not be punished, then you can tailor the consequences to the crimes. I personally believe there are many things not worth punishing a teen for. And most, if not all, of you reading this are going to disagree with at least some of my personal list. That’s your choice, and I respect it. And I say that because that principle is at the core of my list. I believe in personal choice, even for my own teenagers. I don’t think it is the job of a parent to enact consequences for actions of their teen that hurt no one else. In this, I believe I am copying God’s example. God does not bring justice upon our heads immediately when we sin. God allows us to sin and will talk with us as we wrestle with what we’ve done.

But, going along with the principle of not punishing for actions that hurt no one else is the principle of not jumping in to rescue them when their actions cause them troubling results.

Therefore, let me give you the list of things I now believe we should NOT punish teens for. After each one, I have given a brief explanation.

  1. Bad Grades, missing assignments, poor test results:  In this case, the consequence  is built into the result. At the same time, it is equally inappropriate to reward a teen for good grades etc. Let them handle this stuff themselves.
  2. Drug and Alcohol Use:  There are exceptions to this–and I will cover that in a later article–but I believe that a child who experiments with drug or alcohol use in such a way that does not immediately hurt other members of the family should not be punished. Neither should they be rescued and defended when the experimentation goes wrong.
  3. Not going on Family Outings:  if they don’t want to go, that is their choice. As with all of these, you can negotiate, discuss, challenge and set boundaries on teens all you like. But punishing them for not doing what you want them to do is not appropriate. God doesn’t do that.
  4. Sexual Activity:  Once again, there are exceptions to this one, especially if their actions have hurt others or shown no respect for societal laws and values. But if a teen chooses to be sexual, and they have not broken laws, hurt people or put others in danger, then punishment is not appropriate. If a parent has a good relationship with a teen–which includes telling them they are free to live their own life–then you have opened a good door to help your teen evaluate their moral and sexual choices. If you haven’t a good relationship, punishment won’t accomplish anything.
  5. Messy rooms: Oh my. I could base an entire counseling practice on just helping teens and parents cope with the inevitable messy rooms. Don’t bother punishing a child for this. It’s a meaningless punishment. It needs to be their space where they learn to cope with clutter. It is their space and their choice. Let them live in their filth.


I can see some parents looking at this list saying “what do you discipline a teen for?” Good question. And that’s the subject of the next article.

I can also imagine some of my own children reading this and calling BS on me. Full Disclosure: This is what I have come to believe about parenting. It does not mean I perfectly kept to these principles, especially with the older kids. But, as with all of us, I did learn a thing or two by helping other parents work through these things.

In the next three articles, here is what we will cover:

  1. What you should discipline teens for:
  2. How to deal with teen crises (alcohol, sex, drugs) when discipline is not appropriate
  3. How to choose a punishment to fit the crime
  4. Building a solid relationship with pre-teens that will pay dividends when they reach teen years.