The Five R’s of Punishment: Why Harsh Discipline Might Backfire with Your Teen

by Nancy Reynolds

This post: The Five R’s of Punishment: Why Harsh Discipline Might Backfire with Your Teen

Nothing really prepares you for that moment when your teen makes a colossal mistake. Years of “what’s right and what’s wrong” lectures suddenly seem to fall on deaf ears, and, in the blink of an eye, your teen makes a poor decision that perplexes and infuriates you.

I know that’s how I felt when my daughter, who was 15 at the time, snuck out of a friend’s house where she was spending the night to drink with a few boys down the street.

Seriously? The “what ifs” alone sent my mind into overdrive. Didn’t she know better? Didn’t she listen to anything I said? How could she have defied me and my rules to that degree?

Doing what I thought was the right thing to do, I clamped down hard.

After giving her a piece of my mind and yelling, I grounded her for a week, took her phone away and restricted her from spending any time with her friend.

It took me a few days to realize that in my attempt to teach my daughter a lesson, I was also sending a clear message to her that I was so disappointed in her that perhaps I didn’t love her quite as much as I once did.

Her self-esteem plummeted, she retreated to her bedroom, she refused to talk with me, and she broke into tears at the mere mention of the incident.

Overall, my daughter was a good kid (and, frankly, so was her friend). Sure, she had her typical teen moments that involved rolling eyes, deep sighs, and a few “whatevers,” but she really did try hard and I hadn’t had too much trouble with her before this incident. This was, by my definition, her first big offense.

What I failed to realize at the time is that my “ruling with an iron fist” approach (albeit with all good intentions) was actually damaging our relationship. 

The fact is, she’s a teenager. She’s going to make mistakes. She’s going to make poor decisions from time to time. She’s going to get sucked into peer pressure. She’s going to disappoint me. But despite all of that, my daughter is still a great kid who needs my guidance, support, and unconditional love.

I lost sight of the big picture…

Our job as parents isn’t to teach our kids a lesson by putting the hammer down every time they mess up. It’s our job to help them learn, to guide them, to stand beside them when they make a poor choice and help them steer back to the right path without making them feel critically judged or ridiculed.

According to Jane Nelson, author of Positive Discipline for Teenagers, “Many parents feel strongly that strictness and punishment work. I would never say that punishment doesn’t work. In fact, strict punishment usually stops the misbehavior immediately. But what are the long-term results?”

And, Nelson isn’t alone in her theory. In fact, a study that tracked nearly 1,500 students over nine years found that kids who were parented harshly were more likely to turn to their peers in unhealthy ways. It turns out, harsh parenting brought out the worst in the teens’ behavior instead of getting them to tow the line.

“We are often fooled by immediate results,” says Nelson. “But sometimes, we have to be careful of the long-term impact of harsh punishment.”

According to Nelson, harsh discipline might backfire with your teen. Quite often when parents are too strict and clamp down too hard, their kids will typically adopt one (or all) of the Five R’s of Punishment.

The Five R’s of Punishment: Why Harsh Discipline Might Backfire with Your Teen



Considering the fact that harsh punishment typically involves grounding or restricted free time, teens have plenty of time on their hands to foster resentment. “This is so unfair. What I did wasn’t even that bad. It’s not like I’m going to do it again – they’re totally overreacting.”


Teenagers who face strict punishment will sometimes seek revenge on their parents to get back at them. “They think they’re winning, but I’ll get even. I’ll fight back and make their lives miserable.”


“They think they can control me – I’ll show them.” Whether they fight back verbally, do the exact opposite of what parents ask or expect of them, or aim to get back at their parents in some other way, they’ll exercise their freedom to do what they want, when they want in their own way by rebelling.


Another downside of harsh punishment is that teens will often retreat and adopt sneaky behavior to ensure they become better at not being caught. They’ll also sever the lines of communication leaving parents in the dark. “Sure, I got caught this time, I just have to get smarter about keeping things from my parents to avoid getting caught again.”

Reduced Self-Esteem

As was the case with my own daughter, harsh punishment can backfire and strike straight to the heart of your child’s self-esteem. “I’m a bad person. My mom and dad don’t love me as much because I disappointed them. I’ve lost their trust and I’ll never get it back.”

Of course, there may be instances when harsh, tough love punishment is necessary and you as a parent need to make that decision based on your own teen and the circumstances at hand, but according to Nelson, more often than not, positive discipline works far better long-term than negative discipline.

Here are a few constructive discipline tools you can use to encourage positive behavior and correct poor behavior.

Mutual Respect

Mutual respect means that you and your teen are acknowledging one another’s feelings, opinions and ideas. When your teen makes a mistake, model firmness, empathy and understanding. Listen to what they have to say. Help your teen realize that respect is a two-way street and needs to be earned. Your child needs to respect you, your boundaries and your house rules. In turn, you need to respect your teen’s growing need for more autonomy and the understanding that mistakes are part of the learning process.

Identifying the Belief Behind the Behavior

While it might be tempting to face the “bad behavior” head-on with an iron fist, according to Nelson, “Effective discipline recognizes the reasons kids do what they do (my friends talked me into it, I feel suffocated by your rules, everyone else is doing it, etc.) and works to change those beliefs, rather than merely attempting to change the behavior.”

Effective Communication and Problem-Solving Skills

Talk with your teen, connect with them, find out about their life, their friends, what bothers them, worries them, makes them happy. The more connected you are to your teen, the more you’ll encourage open dialogue. Open communication will also allow for more parental influence and a greater chance that your teen will be open to your ideas and problem-solving solutions.

Discipline that Teaches

When possible, align your discipline with the behavior and always keep discipline in accordance with the extremity of the behavior with an aim to teach, not punish. If your teen chose to text and drive, take their phone away temporarily or download an app that restricts phone use while the car is in motion. If your teen broke curfew, make curfew earlier or don’t allow them to go out for a designated period of time.“Strive for discipline that teaches and that is neither permissive or punitive,” says Nelson.

Focus on Solutions, Not Punishment

What can we do together to prevent this from happening again?” Open the lines of communication with your teen and seek – together – to find solutions as opposed to laying down harsh punishment, which has little chance of discouraging or preventing any of the underlying motivations behind the behavior.


Encouragement is a powerful motivator when it comes to parenting. By the time your kids become teenagers, you can’t force them to follow your every rule or listen to you, but you can inspire them and give them strength of purpose by building their self-esteem and recognizing and applauding positive behavior.

“Encouragement, as opposed to praise, notices effort and improvement, not simply success. It also builds long-term self-esteem and empowerment,” says Nelson.

When our kids misbehave, quite often they’re speaking to us in code. It’s our job as parents to decipher that code, get to the root of the behavior or underlying beliefs and be the support our kids need to determine what they really need to feel seen, heard, understood and loved. 

If you enjoyed “The Five R’s of Punishment: Why Harsh Discipline Might Backfire with Your Teen,” here are a few other posts you might enjoy:

7 Things to Stop Expecting from Your Teen

How to Stop Nagging Your Teen: 10 Doable Tips to Create More Peace in Your Home


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