What Happens When Teens Break Rules?

By Haydee Camacho
Being clear about consequences to rule breaking helps teens behave more responsibly.
Being clear about consequences to rule breaking helps teens behave more responsibly.

When it comes to living with teens, many parents have rules like get home by 11 p.m., empty the dishwasher and no media after 10 p.m. But many teens are clueless about what will happen when they break a rule because parents haven’t discussed it. Then, when rule is broken and a consequence is announced: “You’re grounded for a week.” To a teen it might seem confusing and unfair.

Clear Consequences

If a teen isn’t aware of the consequences of her behavior, she won’t feel responsible for her actions. You need to be very specific and spell out exactly what you want her to do, or not do, and what will happen if she breaks the rule. “Here is what’s expected of you. This is what will happen if you don’t comply." By being clear, you put the responsibility for what happens squarely on her shoulders. She knows what’s expected, and she can decide if good or bad things will happen to her. For parents, it eliminates the stress of nagging and power struggles.

Developing Brain

An immaturely developing brain may also add to teens' rule breaking. Research from the National Institutes of Health indicates that the teen brain is undergoing tremendous changes. The prefrontal cortex, which is the region of the brain associated with judgment and impulse control, doesn’t develop fully until age 25. Other parts of the brain, like the walnut-shaped amygdala, which plays a role in emotion and aggression, appear to mature much earlier. “The realization that the amygdala matures, or comes ‘online,’ sooner than the prefrontal cortex suggests that a mismatch may be contributing to the emotionality and impulsivity of adolescence,” said Dr. Andrew Garner, FAAP, a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Reward the Good

Parents can also reward good behavior instead of emphasizing punishment of negative behavior, notes Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University and author of "You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10 to 25.” Find an incentive that motivates your teen. For instance, instead of taking away money as a penalty, give a bonus in allowance when she does something good.

Focus on What Matters

Check that your teen understands not only your expectations for acceptable behavior, curfews and adherence to house rules, but also the consequences. Pick your battles wisely, leaving the objections to things that really matter like smoking, alcohol, drugs or permanent changes to his appearance. Eventually, he’ll become an independent, responsible and communicative young adult.

About the Author

A native New Yorker, Haydee Camacho has been writing articles since 1986. Her work has appeared in "New York Daily News," "Newsday," "Big Apple Parenting," "Voice of Youth Advocates" and various community newspapers. Camacho holds a Master of Library and Information Science from St. John's University.