Strained Relations

Strained Relations: Help for Struggling Parents of Troubled Teens

Beth Proudfoot, MFT: Teens and Behavior Modification

Posted by Marcia on February 18, 2010

Thank you, Marcia, for inviting me to be a guest on your blog! May I use this opportunity to get on my soapbox about an issue I feel passionate about?

Parenting teens, as all of your readers know, is a challenging and complex job, and unfortunately we seem to have this idea in our culture that if parents could only do the Rewards and Punishments thing right, then the problems would be solved. Frankly, I’ll bet that all of your readers have tried Rewards and Punishments, and they haven’t worked. There’s a reason for this, and it’s not because the parents aren’t tough enough or aren’t doing it right.

I was a psychology student at Stanford in the late ‘70’s when Behavior Mod was all the fashion. My goodness, we had some well-trained pigeons in the basement! Unfortunately, since then, the idea that rewarding behavior we want and punishing behavior we don’t want will actually change the behavior of humans has been overwhelmingly disproven.* People, it turns out, just really don’t like to feel coerced.

Now, most people, if the punishments aren’t too severe and the rewards are pretty good, will get with the program and comply, because they see that following along is actually good for them in the long run.

Your rebellious teen is not one of these people. For a rebellious teen, anything with a whiff of coercion, even when it’s a great reward, will have to be rejected in order to prove “you’re not the boss of me.” Setting up a system of rewards and punishments with a rebellious teen will always fail.

I think the reason the Behavior Mod concept has had such a long life, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, is because it’s so simple. We’d like to believe it was this easy! Unfortunately, teens are not pigeons. They need the space, outside of a power struggle, to foresee the consequences of their actions and make choices in their own self-interest. Figuring out a way to create that space is challenging and complex. Darn it!

*Please see Alphie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards, and Murray Strauss’s Beating the Devil Out of Them, for extensive reviews of the literature on this.

Beth Proudfoot, MFT, is a child therapist, parent educator and parenting coach in Los Gatos, Ca. Her website is http://www.bethproudfoot.com.

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2 Responses to “Beth Proudfoot, MFT: Teens and Behavior Modification”

  1. Tobi Zion said

    I certainly agree with this. Although we tried to teach our kids right from wrong, my oldest child had to test the waters for himself until he actually got it! As parents, we must have a great deal of hope that our children will process and understand what is right on their own and by example from the people they love.

  2. Marcia said

    Thanks so much for reading and commenting. There’s nothing like seeing another parent’s ideas and thoughts.

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