Ep 65: 'Punishment' is a Trick Tactic

Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, and Peaceful Parent, Happy Sibling, founded Aha! Parenting as a resource for parents who are struggling to control their disobedient, disrespectful, and/or depressive kid. Dr. Markham shares her secrets for how to flip punishment on its head and get the best possible results--and relationship--with your teen.

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Full show notes

You caught your teen lying to you. He missed curfew, and the reason was NOT finishing a school project with his friend. One glance at his friend’s Instagram feed clearly shows the two of them at a party.

Now you’re angry. Your teen has taken advantage of your trust, and you want justice. You might want to raise your voice and scream and yell. You might even want to punish him. But this is also where you might want to stop for a minute, and consider something about punishments for teenagers.

More and more research is showing that coming up with punishments for teenagers doesn’t make them behave better. In fact, it’s more likely that punishing kids teaches them to become better liars. (More on that below!)

If punishments for teenagers aren’t helping, though, what can parents do to enforce their own rules? To get some quality, scientifically-backed ideas, I spoke with Dr. Laura Markham.

Dr. Markham is all about setting limits and enforcing boundaries without yelling or using punishments for teenagers. She earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Columbia University, and is the founder of the website Aha! Parenting. She is a parenting expert, a researcher, and the author of the books Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, and Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids Workbook. And as a mother, herself, she knows the value of having a strong, emotional connection with your kids.

So what is the number one thing we can learn from this parenting expert?

An Emotionally Stable Relationship

The first thing Dr. Markham wants parents to understand is that parenting is NOT a set of strategies. Parenting is a relationship. She wants parents to have a comprehensive plan for connecting with their teen. For her, the goal is to build a strong, trusting, and lasting relationship without reverting to old-fashioned punishments for teenagers.

According to Dr. Markham, the first step for parents is to learn how to regulate their own emotions. Your kids, especially teenagers, know how to push your buttons. Sometimes it can feel like a personal attack. In these scenarios, though, she says it’s vitally important to take a breath and ask yourself,

“Why does my kid feel the need to treat me this way right now?”

Likely, the answer is that your teen doesn’t feel understood. It might also be possible that your teen doesn’t feel like you’re listening. Instead of dishing out punishments for teenagers when they act out, Dr. Markham suggests that parents pause and ask their teens,

“Hey, what’s going on? What’s making you want to treat me this way?”.

When you withhold anger from your teen, you make it easier for your child to connect with you. This feeds into the second step, which is learning how to reinforce that connection.


In any relationship, a consistent line of open communication is extremely healthy. Without healthy, open communication, there is no relationship. In this way, you want to make it as easy as possible for your teen to talk to you. Here’s how:

If your teen is struggling with a serious problem, you want your teen to tell you about it. However, giving punishments for teenagers who mess up makes them less likely to be open about their troubles in the future. Teens won’t share bigger school or friendship problems if they are afraid you will get angry, or punish them.

If you yell at your teen for missing one school assignment, what kind of reaction will your teen expect when they want to voice something more serious? They might be too afraid to share more complex problems, like a friend who is touching them inappropriately. We don’t want that.

Coaching Your Child

If you can regulate your own emotions and teach your child that they can trust you with their problems, you’re on the right track! In fact, you’re ready for the advanced techniques… Next, comes Dr. Markham’s third step: coaching your child to be his or her best self.

Teens need guidance working through new emotions, and it’s a parent’s job to be an emotionally-stable coach. By demonstrating calm, attentive, connectedness with your teen, you can meet them where they’re at, and help them work through their problems. Dr. Markham says showing off your inner-zen can help your kids feel deeply understood. They may not even feel the need to act out!

Imagine that! A relationship with your teenager where they don’t feel like pressing your buttons and making you mad! Wow! And no punishments for teenagers were involved in the making of this relationship!

Not Punishing Your Kids

Dr. Markham explains that the parent-child relationship is like any other relationship. There should be mutual care and respect. There will of course be arguments, but in a caring relationship where one person respects the other, there is no reason to punish.

Not using punishments for teenagers when they cross the line might sound like a novel concept to some parents. If you’re still skeptical, Dr. Markham asks you to think about your own teen years. How did you react when your parents punished you? Did you think about how you messed up, and how you were going to behave better in the future? Probably not! You probably reacted by thinking about how unfair your parents were! You probably thought they were being mean, and that they didn’t understand what you were going through.

Dr. Markham points out that punishments for teenagers only perpetuate their anger and holds their focus on the power struggle. If a teen is being punished for lying, they aren’t motivated to stop lying in the future. They are just motivated to be better at getting away with it to avoid punishment. They become better liars!

To be clear, kids still need discipline. A better way to approach bad behavior is to encourage teens to reflect on their wrongdoing. Dr. Markham wants parents to recognize that punishments can ruin a teen’s motivation to reflect. So how do you motivate your kid to reflect on their mistakes?

Teaching Kids the Importance of Your Relationship

Let’s say you get an email from a teacher explaining that your teenager has fallen behind on homework. This might be a surprise, especially if you asked your teen a week ago how homework was going, and they said they had it under control. You are now understandably angry, but if you don’t implement punishments for teenagers, how do you get your child to learn from messing up?

Dr. Markham says that first you have to listen to your kid. Extend that mutual respect by listening to their reasoning for messing up. They might have a weak excuse, but often, your teen has a valid reason for acting out! You won’t know unless you listen. Then, after listening, you can acknowledge what feelings led them to misbehave, how they feel now, and clarify what’s most important. (Hint: it’s your relationship!)

For example, if your teen says they fell behind because they had already done hours of homework and wanted a break, you can check out our Parenting Scripts tab for word-for-word advice about how to make this disagreement about improving your relationship!

Instead of blaming, shaming, or criticizing your kid for screwing up, repairing the relationship comes first. Dr. Markham suggests having your teen put a plan in writing to repair the relationship as a consequence.

This is NOT a ‘get out of jail free’ card, but it’s also NOT a punishment. While using punishments for teenagers when they screw up, you are driving them away and straining the relationship. By framing the consequences around repairing the relationship, you are instead teaching your teen the value of trust and honesty with you.

More From Dr. Markham

Creating and sustaining a positive relationship with your teens is hard work, and there are all sorts of nuances to getting it right. Thankfully, Dr. Markham specializes in helping parents improve their relationships with their kids. We talk about punishments for teenagers and several additional topics from her books, such as:
  • How to repair a punitive relationship with your teen
  • Understanding prefrontal cortex development in teens
  • Why parents do need to repeat themselves
  • Setting and modeling basic rules in the home
  • What to do when your teen is yelling at you
  • Coaching teens in emotional regulation
  • Encouraging Mastery - teaching kids to do things because they enjoy them
Dr. Markham is an amazing resource for parents! She has so much knowledge and experience, and it’s all backed by research! I really hope you’ll take the time to learn a thing or two about punishments for teenagers from her. I certainly did.

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Dr. Laura Markham
Dr. Laura Markham
Making the world a better place one family at a time by supporting parents.....Author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids & Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings
Ep 65: 'Punishment' is a Trick Tactic
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