There are three words I heard almost every week as a teenager. You. Are. Grounded. Although my mother, using more autocratic terminology, called it “total restriction.” For the sake of my professional reputation, I will spare you examples of the many adolescent offenses I committed that landed me on total restriction. Regardless, my parents’ response was, and still is, the norm. Grounding as a punishment is on the front page for most parenting playbooks when it comes to managing the ups and downs of adolescence. A parent will catch their teen pushing a boundary, breaking a rule, or not meeting an expectation. The parent wishes to send a message to their teen that his behavior is unacceptable. They send this message by “grounding” their teen, which typically means keeping him home and limiting access to all privileges. But does grounding actually work? Does it promote healthy, enduring behavioral changes in teens? Let’s unpack this a bit.
The historical origins of grounding as a first line parenting technique are difficult to trace. It likely morphed out of the popular “time-out” intervention. The time-out, when used properly, is an effective and research informed intervention for children ages 2-7. While a full description of the “time-out” intervention is beyond the scope of this article, it typically involves responding to a misbehavior by giving the child a literal “time-out” from positive reinforcement for a short period of time. When combined with other interventions, it is a highly effective tool for younger children with behavioral challenges. However, while this may work for little kiddos, things get a little more complicated when dealing with teens.
For one, while the idea of grounding teens sounds cool in theory, it’s certainly not the most pragmatic approach. Grounding means that all privileges are removed (e.g., no car, no video games, no social media, etc.). This means a parent needs to always be home to monitor their teen. Sound fun? Probably not. In fact, grounding eventually becomes more of a punishment for the parent(s) in charge instead of the teen herself. What’s more, adolescents (especially those with ADHD) quickly forget the connection between the behavioral infraction and the punishment. This makes it less likely that grounding will lead to any long-term changes in their behavior. Finally, grounding means taking away a teen’s independence. Remember how important independence is for a teen? When parents take away this independence, it becomes even more valuable and desirable. We love what we don’t have, right? When this independence is thwarted, teens desire it more, when means the temptation to get sneaky and break the rules of “grounding” is almost irresistible. It is therefore possible that grounding makes it more likely for future misbehaviors to occur.
So how do parents turn grounding into an effective consequence? There’s no way to make it perfect, and I often caution parents against overusing consequences. However, below are four ways to make it more effective.
1.) Warmth and praise first. Consequences have utility, but they should never be the core of a behavioral change program. It is more important to rely on praise and warmth in response to positive behaviors than it is to punish negative behaviors.
2.) Think beyond time. Most parents will ground their teen for a set number of days (or in my case, weeks!). The research suggests that grounding a teen for longer than 1-2 days provides no added benefit. And as discussed above it can become more punishing for the parent who must monitor their teen. An alternative method is to set a few tasks your teen must complete to be released from grounding. For example, once your teen unloads the dishwasher, takes the dog out for a walk, and cleans their room, then and only then are they released from grounding. This puts the ball in your teen’s court and invites him to do something prosocial to earn back his privileges.
3.) Choose wisely. Grounding should be used sparingly, reserved only for major behavioral infractions. I advise parents to choose no more than 1-3 specific boundaries that will result in grounding (i.e., coming home late from curfew, physical aggression, etc.)
4.) Reconnection. Whenever a parent delivers a consequence to their child, it is critical to reconnect with that child after the consequence is carried out. Reconnecting means reminding your teen of the rule they violated, reminding them how important they are too the family, and reminding them that the behavior does not align with the values of the family.