As a clinician in private practice specializing in adolescents, I have come in contact with many families and heard their troubles. General disrespect, blended family issues, suspected drug use—there are a wide variety of problems that will bring a family to seek counseling. The number one issue parents bring through my door, however, is teens who don’t do their chores. Be it schoolwork, the dishes, the laundry—the energy parents must expend to get their children to do these tasks is exhausting. Yet what can parents do? It is necessary that teens learn that there are responsibilities in life. Chores must get done, and a large part of a parent’s job is to educate his or her children about these necessities of life. I have a three-pronged approach I offer parents. Most have tried one two of these techniques, but rarely have they employed all three, and in combination they are quite effective. Few teens can withstand the power of rewards, consequences and consistency when they are all used at once.
Rewards can come in many shapes and sizes, and if used properly are very effective. Most people will work harder to gain something they want than to avoid something they don’t. It is important that the rewards be something your adolescent actually wants, so sitting down and talking to your teen is important. Why make a pizza party a reward for good grades, after all, if your child would rather have the money? Or why give money if your child would rather have the keys to the car for a night? Parents also should never underestimate the power of their praise as a reward. Although they hide it well, most teens still love their parents very much, and a ‘Well done!’ means a lot to them. An evening out with your child can be a reward for both of you. Rewards should be delivered in a timely fashion whenever possible—the closer in time the reward is to the desired behavior, the stronger the reinforcement for the child to repeat the desired behavior. Lastly, it is imperative to follow through on rewards promised, because a child who has worked hard to earn something that was promised that is then denied has been punished instead of rewarded and not only will be less likely perform the desired behavior again, but is also less likely to trust the parent in the future or to work for any other promised rewards.
As with rewards, consequences should be tailored to the child. While one child might do anything to avoid having his cell phone withheld, the other might be more motivated by the possibility of having access to the computer, television or computer games restricted. Money is often a huge motivator—if your child receives an allowance, making a standardized ‘fee for incidents’ agreement is very helpful-- $5 for not doing the dishes, $10 for every hour she is home past curfew (most parents find it wisest to make this rule ‘till the parents know you’re home’, thus avoiding any ‘I was home at…..’ arguments). I always encourage the parents I see to sit with their teens to develop this list of what behavior gets what punishment, with the understanding that while the teen has some input, the parents have the ultimate decision-making power Involving teens in the process of making the list of consequences affords them a sense of power and responsibility and lets them know their opinions matter.
The more concrete and explicit a family can be about the unwanted behavior and the consequence that will follow it, the better for all involved. That way, both parents know what the consequence should be, and there is no ‘But Dad said…’ because everyone knows what should happen.
The most important aspect of changing an adolescent’s behavior is consistency. All the rewards and consequences in the world don’t mean a thing if they are not there when expected. When the subject of adolescents not doing their chores comes up in therapy, I first ask parents about how consistently rules are applied and followed in the home. Is the same behavior always rewarded or punished every time it occurs? A child who loses allowance one week for not doing the dishes but finds that behavior goes unnoticed the next week has learned that there is a bit of the lottery system involved in not doing chores. ‘Who knows?’ he correctly figures, ‘I might get away with it this week!’ Many parents tell me they are ‘quite consistent’ and honestly believe it, then rattle off a list of exceptions. ‘It was all right that he was late that night, because he said Joe left late’ or ‘He is restricted from his cell phone for a week—he only has it to call us after practice 5 days a week.’ Consistency becomes even more important when parents, finding that their early attempts to discipline failed, increase the length of time of punishment till it loses its meaning. ‘If a week with no TV didn’t teach you, I’ll take away TV for a month!’ they figure. However, it is often very hard to remain firm when nagged by a teen for a month. In addition, by the end of 30 days, chances are good the child has forgotten why the punishment was imposed in the first place. Taking the TV away for one night but really taking it away can be much more effective. Consistency goes for rewards, too. A teen who gets praise for bringing home good grades one semester will feel rewarded and is more likely to bring home good grades the next semester. If the good grades go unnoticed that next semester, however, the incentive to perform well is removed, and the poor grades may return. Although the amount of reward may be reduced for repeat good behavior (less money, if that was the reward, less praise, etc.), a reward of some sort should be offered as often as possible and as soon as possible after good behavior.
When parents bring their adolescents on board by asking them what rewards (and even what punishments) would give the most incentive to change their behavior, they have made the first step to finding their children more compliant with chores, schoolwork, and housework. When a system of rewards and punishments is established and followed by all family members consistently, you will find the behavior of the adolescents is generally much improved.