Dear Enda,

No matter what we do, our son, who’s 15, just keeps breaking every boundary we set him. If we tell him to come home at 10pm, he will deliberately stay out later. We’ve tried every punishment that we can think off. We’ve grounded him, taken his phone and PlayStation away, cut off his WiFi, but he just fights back on everything we do. Please help.

>> Enda writes:

So! Your son keeps breaking the boundaries you set him and, every time he steps out of line, you believe that you really need to get him back into line.

Every punishment you add is designed to reinforce to him that you really mean what you say and he’s not going to get anything back until he starts obeying your rules. Right?

Punishment comes from a place of fear and anger on your part. You need to feel in control and have power over your son. It is an act of revenge and retaliation that is intended to cause suffering. So, what are you hoping he will learn from you punishing him?

Children learn what they live. By being punished, your son feels humiliated, shamed and stupid. It teaches him how much of a failure he is. If at any stage, he complies with your demand after you punish him, he is only doing it to get back whatever it is you have taken from him. Not because he intends on changing his behaviour.

At the moment he is way too angry at you, because every time you punish him, you disrespect him. As you’re finding out the hard way, he is losing respect for you, also.

Punishment does not teach him anything except anger, hurt and resentment, so to improve things we need to radically change our response. To create a new way of connecting with him, we need to foster an approach that builds mutual respect, trust and connection.

Boundaries need to be flexible enough so that he can breathe in them. So, ask yourself, what learning do I want him to learn from this? Is this boundary flexible?

Consequences need to be logical and rational and must never take away respect for him as the person he is. Avoid power struggles. If he refuses to wear a coat for you, stick it in the car. When he gets cold, give it to him with a gentle reminder that it might be a good idea to bring it the next time. Don’t make hay over it.

The way back for him can be clearly demonstrated by you mirroring the behaviour you want from him. Do as I do, not as I say etc.

Every right that we are given has a responsibility that goes with it. If I drive my car, I either respect the rules or the right to drive is taken from me. Unless he is abusing technology or staying up all night on his PlayStation, don’t take them away because he has broken another boundary.

Any consequence that comes from staying out late must be related to that particular infraction. You are restricting him, because he is out late in environments where he can’t understand the potential dangers, at 15. As he learns, consequently those boundaries loosen.

As a result, he is losing things not because of your behaviour, but because of his. We must all live within boundaries including him.

You can’t change the laws of life for him, but you can show him how you have learned to live and cope with them. CL

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