Ep 65: ‘Punishment’ is a Trick Tactic

Episode Summary

Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Child 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.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Do you ever find that the more you try to communicate with your teens, the less they listen? You have to remind them to do their chores, to make good choices, to make it home on time and in one piece, but the lessons don’t sink in even when there are serious consequences for bad behavior. It makes it seem impossible to break through to them! But the solution may be taking a less punitive approach, and instead focusing on fostering the best relationship possible.

This week, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Laura Markham, author, parenting expert, and researcher who centers her advice around building relationships. Dr. Markham earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Columbia University. Her website, ahaparenting.com, started off small but over the years has grown into an extensive parenting resource.

We went over some of the key points from her books, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids and Peaceful Parent, Happy Sibling, where she writes about the hardest job in the world: parenting. In her words, “What could be more high stakes than raising another human being?”

Her goal is to give parents a comprehensive plan, while helping them understand that parenting is not a set of strategies, it’s a relationship.

One way to support your relationship with your teen is to think of alternatives to typical punitive punishments. If you look at the research, punishments rarely seem to have the intended effect of behavior change. Teens instead just get better at hiding the behavior you disapprove of. Instead of being more honest, teens just get better at lying. In relationships based upon mutual respect, Dr. Markham argues that there is no reason to punish. Instead, parents and teens can work together to decide on any consequences and a new plan of action for mistakes.

Rather than punishing your teen for a poor grade in a class by taking away their phone, Dr. Markham suggests sitting down with your teen, and asking how they got to the poor grade. Then the next step would be to come up with a plan together about what your teen will do get their grade back up and repair the relationship. “No punishments” doesn’t mean teens get off scot-free for bad behavior – there are still consequences.

Back Away from Yelling

Another technique for improving a relationship comes down to communication skills. Yelling matches aren’t fun for anyone. The fast you can interrupt them, the better your relationship will be. Dr. Markham stresses the ‘Stop, Drop, and Breathe’ method. Stop what you’re doing, drop your agenda, and take a deep breath. When you’re frustrated and your teen yells at you, instead of escalating, it might be better to try and see your teen’s perspective.

This is where limits come in. If your teen surpasses a clearly established limit, such as swearing at you during a fight, you need to check them on that. Tell them it’s okay to be mad, but you won’t be having a conversation with them until they cool down and are ready to talk with respect. Respect is a paramount rule, and there’s certainly a limit where behavior is no longer considered respectful.

We also think it’s good to come up with alternatives to speech that might degrade the relationship, such as, “I told you so”, “you’re lying”, or “you messed up.” We want to support our teens even when they test our limits, so we suggest saying something along the lines of, “your promise didn’t come through and that hurts our relationship, so let’s come up with a plan to fix it.”

A lot of our conversation with Dr. Markham focuses on what parents can do to work on themselves and regulate their own emotions. After all, a teen is way more likely to yell and act out if they don’t feel like their parent listens to them, or if they see their parents act out and adopt a similar behavior.

One of our biggest takeaway tips from this interview is that parents need to check in and make sure that their child is feeling heard. Part of that involves humility on the parents’ end. In our chat, we go over the means of benefits of saying sorry, admitting mistakes, explaining you aren’t always the expert on everything, and becoming a better listener. In fact, the more you listen, the less likely you teen will be to raise their voice at you.

Get your relationship back on track with these punishment alternatives and communication-building strategies from Dr. Markham!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Open a dialogue on shifting away from punitive punishments with your teen:

“Do you think you learn something when I punish you? Like when I ground you or take away your phone or your privileges? Because even though I’ve been doing that, you still aren’t doing [x-y-z]. So it doesn’t seem to be working. So I don’t want to just punish you. I want you to think for yourself. I want you to have the self discipline to manage yourself.”

-Dr. Laura Markham

2.  When your teen insults you or makes a nasty comment about you to your face:

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3.  Before exploding on your teen for getting behind on their school work try:

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4.  When talking to your teen about how they got behind on their school work:

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5.  If you teen avoids writing down a plan with verbal promises to “do some this weekend,” fire back and stick to your guns:

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6.  To hammer home why you and your teen need a written agreement on something to repair your relationship:

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7.  Let your teen know it’s okay to mess up and tell you about it:

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8. If two teens/siblings are squabbling and things are getting heated:

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9.  Show your teens you have faith in their ability to resolve differences with their sibling(s):

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10.  Get your teen to open up about how you can make them feel heard:

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11.   When your teen gripes about being out of their favorite cereal (or other food item!):

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12.  If your teen is complaining about a sibling’s impeccable timing:

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13.  Get your teen thinking of solutions before offering your own advice:

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14. When you need to cool down a yelling match:

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15.  Put a stop to flaring tempers in the midst of an argument with:

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So you have got a website, you’ve written numerous books, you’ve created this whole community, you teach parents all around the world. I’m really curious how you got started on this whole journey.

Laura: Well, I always loved children and I was always interested in children. When I was 10 and 12 and 15 and 20, I always found ways to work with kids. And I studied psychology, it wasn’t the first thing I studied. I got out of school and started a weekly newspaper. I’m also a writer and a journalist, and I wanted to make the world a better place and I thought a newspaper was the way to do that. There weren’t a lot of websites at that moment, early on. So then when my first child was born, I saw other people parenting in ways that I wanted to say to them, “I think there might be a better way to do that.”

Laura: I had read a lot of research because by then I wasn’t done with my PhD in psychology, but I was well on the way and I wanted to share what I was reading with other parents. So it took me a while, but finally I began to actually put together the website and the books took a longer time. My first book didn’t come out until 2012 and I’ve written three books in the last six years.

Andy: After all this time, creating your website, getting your PhD, working with parents all over the world. Then, finally, what prompted you to write it all down in this book?

Laura: I wanted parents to have a comprehensive plan because my website is over a thousand pages. So when you go to the website you could get overwhelmed. You could be like, “Well, wait a minute. Where do I read first? What do I do next?”

Andy: Yeah, where do I start?

Laura: This book puts in an easy to read format. The first section is not very long, but it’s the most important thing parents can know, which is they have to work on themselves, they have to regulate their own emotions. Without that, you can’t be the parent you want to be. So that’s part one. It’s only one chapter. It’s not a short chapter, but it’s only one chapter. But it is the foundation of everything I do and that’s why it’s first in the book. The second part of the book is about connection, connecting with your child. And again, just one chapter, but without connection, your child isn’t going to cooperate with you. They’re not going to do what you want. If you have a teenager, they’re not going to tell you when something happens to them that’s bad because they won’t trust you.

Laura: Parenting is not a set of strategies. Parenting is a relationship. It’s all about the connection you have with your child. So, that’s the second part of the book. And I wanted to lay those two foundational pieces out for parents in a very easy to absorb format with real suggestions like how do you build a stronger, deeper, sweeter relationship with your child? What are the things you should actually do every day? So that’s what I wanted to put in the book. And then the third part is longer. The third section is three whole chapters, but it’s all about how you coach your child to be their best self.

Laura: In a caring relationship where you respect the other person, there’s no reason to punish. And when parents start to regulate themselves at an offline off thing they can handle, when they start to connect with their child, when they start to respect their child, what ends up happening is they find that they don’t need to punish anymore. Now, kids will still need guidance, kids will still need support to work through their big emotions. And that’s what the third section of the book is, how to get that guidance in a loving way that’s still effective, it’s firm, and how to help kids with their big emotions so that they don’t need to act out.

Andy: Okay. Now you mentioned, and you talk about this throughout your books, not punishing kids. So I feel for some parents that’s kind of a novel concept because, for us, we get parents coming to our website and their first question is, “Hey, my kid did this. How do I punish them?” And so it seems a little farfetched this world with no punishments. What do you say to parents who have kind of been trained in this old school philosophy and are skeptical that this no punishment approach won’t work for their kids?

Laura: Well, I would say first of all that if you look at the research, punishment just makes kids into better liars, it doesn’t make them better behave. That’s the first thing. Secondly, if you think back on your own growing up, your own teen years, when your parents punished you, what happened? Now, sometimes you might’ve learned to sneak out of the house when they would say, “No, you’re grounded.” Or you might have figured out other ways to sneak around, but even if you did when they grounded you, you stayed in the house or whatever the punishment was, think about what happened then. You spent all your time thinking about how unfair they were, how mean they were, how they didn’t understand, how your life was so unfair, instead of thinking about, “Wow, I really did screw up. I didn’t turn in a single homework assignment in the class in science after I didn’t understand that lab and I never turned it in, and then I stopped turning in my homework in the lab. I guess I could’ve handled it differently.”

Laura: But no, when your parents punish you for that you’re just going to stay angry. “I hate science. I’m never going to use science.” And you make it all about the power struggle with the parent instead of actually looking at, “I guess I could have handled it differently.” I’m not saying that the child doesn’t have to do something to repair what they’ve done. So when the child, let’s say, they haven’t been turning in their science assignments. They didn’t understand it and they didn’t turn it in, and they were busy having fun with their friends and doing other things, doing their afterschool activities, whatever they were doing. Hanging out with their friends at the mall, whatever they were doing. And you discover as a parent that the science teacher writes a note, an email to you, and says “Your kid hasn’t turned in a homework assignment in the last month and they’re going to fail the class,” or whatever.

Laura: You as the parent could say, “Okay, that’s it. You’re grounded.” That’s one way to do it. And know what happens with that, which is the kid is not motivated to do a good job at the science. Or you can sit down with your kid and say, “Wow, teacher tells me you haven’t turned anything in. What’s going on?” And now your kid might come up with all kinds of, “Well, it was this, or it was that, or I had too much history to do,” or whatever. They might make up stuff, it might not even be true, or they might have a real reason. There might be a reason they’re so stressed out. They’re trying to study for their SAT test, whatever is going on. Maybe you have four kids in your family and they’re the one who babysits when you work your second job. Maybe they actually don’t have time. I mean there are all kinds of reasons your kid might be doing this. Some of them are good reasons, some of them are bad reasons, but whatever.

Laura: So you listen. The first thing you’re doing is you’re extending the respect that you feel that you would want to extend to you, that anyone would want in that situation. So the teenager is already saying, “Well, Mom or Dad is listening to me.” You’re saying, “Wow. So you really felt like you didn’t have time? Wow. That does feel like a lot of pressure for you. I hear you, hun.” And then you say, “And you have to catch up in science. Schoolwork comes first. It comes before hanging out with your friends, it comes before basketball. Homework comes first. So we need a plan to get your schoolwork together.” “I’ll try to do some this weekend.”

Laura: “Hun, that’s not a plan. That’s not good enough for me. You need to do some repair work. And hun, maybe there’s some more repair work. I’ve been asking you about homework and you’ve been telling me you had everything handled. And so now my trust in you is a little bit frayed here, so we need a plan that we both agree to. I want it in writing, and I’m willing to give you whatever support you need. If you need me to hire a babysitter for the little ones so that you can say the library after school, or go to the teacher’s office hours and get extra help from the teacher on that lab you didn’t understand, or whatever. I’ll hire the babysitter for the little ones. Whatever we need to do. But we need to make an agreement, in writing, about what we’re each going to do in order for you to get to complete your homework assignments and get your work in.”

Laura: And your kid might say, “No, that’ll be too much work. I can’t do that.” “Homework comes first. I hear you, it’s going to feel like a lot. It would have been a lot better to space it out over the last month. Now you’re going to be working like crazy. It’s true, you’re going to be working like crazy to catch up. I sympathize. I’ll be making you snacks, but it’s your job to get the work done.” So you’re not blaming, you’re not shaming, you’re not even criticizing. You’re not even saying “I told you so.” You’re not even saying, “Why did you lie to me?” Although you are saying “The result of you telling me you had it under control and you don’t, is that our trust is a little bit frayed here and I need a written agreement.”

Andy: I’m losing trust in you.

Laura: Yeah. “So we need something now to work on our relationship here. We need something written down that I see you having a plan and coming through and doing what you told me you would do. And we need to repair our relationship here because the most important thing to me is my relationships with the people I love. My relationship with your dad or mom,” If you’re the parent talking. “My relationship with you and your siblings, those are the relationships that matter to me. And so when you feel like you can’t tell me that you’re falling behind, that tells me I’m doing something wrong as a parent. It tells me that I wasn’t safe enough for you to tell me that.

Laura: It’s okay for you to mess up, but I want you to come tell you when you mess up and I want you to tell me soon before you’ve dug a big hole and falling in. It’s a lot easier from here for both of us. So we need to do some repair work here, hun.” So notice that your child is not just getting off with a get out of jail free card. They have to make up their sentence. They have to see they probably aren’t going anywhere this weekend except doing their work. Maybe they are going to miss the basketball game. They’re certainly not going to the mall to hang out with their friends. But it’s not a punishment exactly, it’s more that the two of you are coming up with a plan.

Laura: It’s sort of like when you set the limit. When you have a little kid and they’re in the sandbox and they’re throwing sand, you don’t say, “Oh, please don’t throw the sand.” You say, “No throwing sand. It’ll hurt the other kids.” And your kids looks right at you and they throw the sand. You say, “Okay, out of the sandbox.” You’re not nasty about it, you’re not mean about it. You’re just saying “The rule in the sandbox is no throwing sand. We’ll try again tomorrow if it’s too hard for you today.”

Andy: It looks like you can’t handle that right now.

Laura: Exactly. You can’t handle that right now. And that’s what you’re saying to your teenager, but you’re doing it in a very respectful way and you’re allowing the teenager to be part of the problem-solving. Your kid’s like, “Oh, but Mom. I have to go to the game.” Or “I have to go to the concert I was going to go to with my friends,” or the waterpark or whatever else. And you’re saying, “I hear how much you want to do that. The problem is your science teacher says these things have to be in by Monday. And it would have been great to have them done all week. Wouldn’t it be great if we could wave a magic wand and get them done all this last month? But that wasn’t what happened. So I’m here to support you and you need to get them done by Monday. So what are we going to do? What’s our plan?”

Laura: So you’re setting her limits, just like with the sandbox. But there’s no need for there to be punishment because with punishment your driving your kid away from you. With punishment, this is a kid who now is not motivated to do the science. They’re not motivated to tell you next time they have a problem because they’re going to get punished. They’re not motivated to tell you if something else, heaven forbid, happens. Like one of their friends threatened suicide, or somebody touches them inappropriately, or somebody offers them drugs or alcohol at a party. The things that you hope they would come home and talk to you about, they’re not going to talk to you about if you punish them. I don’t mean about that. I mean about anything. If you punish them about anything, you’ve just shut the door on being able to hear when something important goes down in their life.

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Andy: Early on in your book here Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids, you talk about if you’ve been kind of yelling at your kid and punishing your kid, how do you stop. And I was really drawn to this section because we talk about teenagers a lot here. So that’s like a deep hole. I mean, if you’ve been really punitive and the way that you have known to get your kid to behave is by punishing them and now you’ve got a teenager, it seems like it’s hard to transition at that point to this more positive approach that you’re talking about here. Do we baby step towards it, or what are the steps that we need to do to work towards that?

Laura: So the reason it’s so hard to make the transition is partly that you have bad habits of just yelling for instance. But there’s another reason your relationship with your child is not as close as you’d like it to be. Because if you’ve been yelling at them right along then they don’t trust you as much and they don’t have a reason to cooperate with you. So I’ll give you an example. When my daughter was, I don’t know, maybe just before the teen years, 12, 13. She had a friend over spending the night and I had told them, “You guys have to go to bed at a reasonable hour. We’ve all got to get up early. You have summer camp tomorrow and it’s an early morning.” And they were like, “Yeah, yeah. No problem.”

Laura: So that night the friend said to my daughter, “Let’s sneak out of the house and go up to the park and look around and see who’s hanging out there. I think that cute boy that I’m interested in might be out there hanging out.” And my daughter says, “We told my mother we’d have lights off at 10 o’clock,” or whatever it was. And the friend says, “You don’t have to do everything your mother says.” And my daughter said, “Yeah, but why would I lie to her? My mother doesn’t lie to me. My mother makes sense. She asks respectfully. We didn’t have to agree to this. The condition of our having to sleepover was that she said, ‘You can have the sleepover, but only if.’ And we agreed to that. I’m not going to break my agreement with my mother.” And when she told me the next day, she said, “My friend lies to her parents all the time.” Her friend who was over.

Laura: And as I talked to her about it I realized my daughter wouldn’t lie to me any more than she would burn our house down because the relationship was important to her and so it would be like burning the relationship down to lie to me and betray my trust. But this other girl, her parents punished her. She found the best way to manage them, manage her parents was to lie to the, and so that’s what she said. Maybe she got caught sometimes, but she would just come up with another lie or whatever. And yes, she would get punished, but there was no positive anything going to happen there. So if that’s the way you’ve been parenting, you get to 13 or 12 and it’s all over. It’s like your kid has already learned that the best way to manage you is to lie to you. So that’s another reason it’s so hard to make the transition.

Laura: So I don’t think you can just change what you’re doing. You can change what you’re doing, for sure, and what you say, but you also have to have a conversation with your kid about it. And they may not believe you at first. They may not believe you. But what I would do is I would sit down with my kid, whether they’re 12 or whether they’re eight or whether they’re 14, 15, 16. I would sit down with them and say, “I want to talk to you about something. I love you so much. I could never love anyone more than I love you and my relationship with you is really important to me. I try really hard to be a good parent. I’ve done the best job I knew how to do, and I think I made some big mistakes. I am so sorry about that.”

Laura: And your kids looking at you like, “What do you mean? What are the mistakes?” And you say, “Well, sometimes I’m probably not the best listener, am I?” If you’re lucky, your kid will be like, “Yeah, that’s right. You never listen to me.” Hopefully, they’ll tell you these things. Don’t get your hackles up, don’t get defensive. Just say, “Wow, it’s worse than I thought.” I mean have a sense of humor about it. Like, “Wow, I guess you really did feel like I wasn’t listening. I am so sorry. We need a way that you can clue me in when I forget to listen. If I just start to yell at you and I don’t listen, next time that happens is there a thing you could just say to me like, ‘Mom, Dad, listen please.’ Something. And I’ll just try. Even when I’m really angry, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.”

Laura: And this is something that I described in my book, “Stop, drop, and breathe.” The parent needs to just stop what they’re doing. If they’re starting to yell at the kid and they noticed that, stop what you’re doing, drop your agenda. Right now you want your kid to take out the garbage or whatever you’re yelling at them about. Do their homework, stop playing that game. But drop your agenda for a minute and take a deep breath. Stop, drop, and breathe. And then if it’s not an emergency, I know they’re on the video game, they told you they would get off at half an hour ago, they’re still on it, you just noticed. It’s still not an emergency. Your relationship with them is more important.

Laura: Turn around, go into the other room, go to the kitchen, splash some water on your face, take a few more deep breaths, and then go back into where your kid is. And then you get them to look at you. You’re like, “Hey, time out from the game for a minute. Got to talk to you.” And your kid is like “Dad, just don’t bother me.” Or, “Mom, I’m about to get to the next level,” or whatever your kid would say.

Andy: It’s really important, right.

Laura: Right. They’re trying to do whatever they’re doing. And you’re like, “Look what time it is. You were supposed to be off the game half an hour ago. You’re supposed to take out the garbage. You’re supposed to do your homework.” Whatever it is they’re supposed to be doing. And most parents are so angry at this point because they feel like they shouldn’t have to repeat themselves. Of course you have to repeat yourself, your still a teenager. They may look like they have a grownup body, they’re a teenager. Their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed. You will have to repeat yourself, that’s the way it is. Just the way you would with a kid who’s younger, you’ll have to repeat yourself. So don’t have a chip on your shoulder, have a sense of humor. But stop them from what they’re doing.

Laura: If it’s a more complicated thing where you start to yell at them and your kid’s like, “Listen. Mom, Dad, listen.” Then you really do need to stop, drop, breathe, take a deep breath, and then come back and say, “Okay, I’m listening. What do you need to tell me?” And your kid’s like, “I can’t do what you’re asking. I have a big test tomorrow. I can’t take the dog for a walk. I can’t help you out on whatever. I didn’t expect to have to do anything like that tonight. I’ve got this test to do.” And you’re thinking, “Yeah, if you’ve gotten off your game earlier you would have had time, but whatever. Now you’re in a dialogue where you can say, “Okay, how can we find a win-win solution that works for both of us?” And the reason to have this conversation with your kid to begin with it is so you can start to ease into better ways of doing things, or you can start to work as a team where your kid can say to you, Mom, Dad, listen to me. Stop yelling for a minute.”

Laura: You can also go further. You can say, “So, do you think you learned something when I punish you? When I ground you, or when I take away your phone, or whatever, your privileges?” And your kid’s going to be like, “Yeah, I learned something,” or whatever. They’re going to tell you what they think you want to hear. And you can say, “But we still haven’t solved that problem. You’re still not doing X,Y,Z that I need you to put away [crosstalk 00:22:15].”

Andy: Yeah, I keep punishing you for this.

Laura: Exactly, and it’s not working. And you can say, “So I don’t want to just keep punishing you. I want you to think for yourself. I want you to have the self-discipline to manage yourself so that when you come home from school you start your homework even though I’m not home from work,” or whatever it is. So maybe we need a better solution. And you can actually do a whole problem-solving discussion with them, but it has to start with you listening and with you not yelling. That’s where it has to start. wouldn’t start the conversation by saying, “Okay, I’ve been told punishing is wrong, I’m going to stop punishing you.” That doesn’t help. What you do start the conversation by saying is “I did the best job I could and now I want to grow as a parent and I’m willing to do some things differently. I want to listen more. I want a better relationship.”

Laura: Because remember, it’s only the relationship that gets your kid to do what you want. If you’re working and you don’t get home until 7:00 every night, your kid gets home at 4:30 and they’re just playing video games until you come in the door and they haven’t started their homework and they haven’t done anything else, that’s not going to change if you just say, “Okay, I won’t punish you anymore. I won’t use a threat.” You have to first work on the relationship so that they feel like that matters to them more. It’s like the story about my daughter and her friend, the relationship has to matter to…

About Dr. Laura Markham

Dr. Laura Markham first thought she was going to change the world by writing a newspaper. And she wasn’t too far off! After graduating with her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University, she started Aha! Parenting as a blog. Since Aha! Parenting’s infancy, the site has grown into an extensive resource for parents with kids of all ages.

In addition to her three books, Dr. Markham’s writing and expertise has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Real Simple, and Men’s Health. She has made TV appearances and regularly engages in speaking events.

Dr. Markham resides in Brooklyn, NY with her family, including her own two teens!

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