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Teenager who breaks house rules

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Dear Dr. Laura,
I am trying to use your advice about not punishing. I want to influence my children positively. I am finding it hard with my 15 year old, 9th grade boy. As an example, last night he broke our house rule of leaving his phone out in the dining room when he went to bed. I found it this morning and he lost it for today, which is our House Rule. I didn't know any other way to handle it. He blew up. His dad was home, so he blew up right back at him. It even got physical which is so traumatic for all of us! Is taking his phone away the type of punishment you are telling us to avoid? I consider it a consequence and I can't think of a better one.
Thank you,


What an upsetting situation, for everyone. I know that when teens break the rules, parents often feel helpless. It takes a lot of self-discipline to keep things from escalating. But we are the adults, and we owe it to our kids to model that self-discipline.

Let's look at it from your son's perspective. A teenager who breaks the house rule about leaving his phone in the dining room at bedtime has something going on. Is it as benign as a new crush he hoped to hear from? Is it as extreme as a worry about something that will happen the next day that will get him into trouble, that he needs help with? 

Cracking down without knowing the reason doesn't help anyone. It increases his anxiety and you are now the enemy, insuring that we won't confide in you or ask you for help. In this case you not only cracked down verbally AND took away his phone, which is his lifeline. When he got upset, there was a physical altercation. If that's the kind of modeling the adults in the house are providing, you can't really expect your son to exhibit self discipline.

Yes, removing the phone is punishment. You start with a kind conversation. You ask what made him take the phone into his room. You empathize with the fact that all the other kids are allowed to do that. You express confidence that he won't be a social pariah if he is offline from 9pm to 7am. You hug him. You tell him from now on you expect him to follow the family rule, or to come to you with a special request. That night you double check where the phone is before you go to bed. You always go to bed after him. Every night you check. After awhile it's a habit. 

More importantly, after awhile you are having real conversations with your son so you actually know what is going on in his life, and so he actually WANTS to follow your family rules. Just like he wouldn't burn your house down, he would not burn your relationship down by compromising your trust. That's it. There is no need for punishment.

Good luck!
Dr. Laura

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