How to Determine the Right Consequences When Setting Boundaries

Boundaries with TeensNot long ago I (Dr. Townsend) took my kids and some of their friends to a major league baseball game for an outing. While we were watching the game, a young boy sitting behind us was making everyone miserable. He was out of control, loud, and rude.

His parents did try to manage him, but their efforts were ineffective. They shushed him, praised him when he was quiet, bribed him with food, and threatened to take him out of the game. Nothing worked.

Finally, one of my son's friends turned to me and said, "That guy needs some serious consequences." I made a note to myself to call his parents when I got home and congratulate them. I don't often hear that kind of thing from adolescents.

If you are like many of the people I talk with, you may often have difficulty identifying and following through with appropriate consequences. Let's take a look at a five simple principles that can guide you in determining the right consequences when setting boundaries.

1. Remove the Desirable, Add the Undesirable

A consequence is either removing the desirable or adding the undesirable to someone else's life as the result of a rule violation. If you have a teenager, examples might include the removal of television privileges or the addition of extra chores.

In my experience, removing something other people want is usually more effective than adding something they don't want. This is true for two reasons. First, many people today have a lot of extracurricular demands (sports, music, theater, church, and so on), so they have less free time to do whatever has been added to their already busy schedule.

Second, it requires more of your time and energy to supervise and monitor added responsibilities than it does to remove an activity. So, before you impose a consequence that involves adding something, make sure it is worth your personal investment.

2. Don't Interfere with a Natural Consequence

Whenever possible, allow other people to face a natural consequence to an undesirable behavior or attitude. Don't intervene. For example, allow the other person to:

  • Lose a relationship as a result of being selfish
  • Spend the night at the police station after being picked up for loitering late at night
  • Miss out on going to a movie, concert, or event as a result of having spent all their money

These types of consequences are powerful and effective. Even better, all they require from you is that you get out of the way! Of course, many situations do not have a natural consequence, and in those instances, you need to apply something of your own making.

3. Make the Consequence Something That Matters

A consequence must matter to the other person. He or she must be emotionally invested in it. She needs to want and desire what she is losing; she needs to not like what she is having to add. Otherwise, the experience doesn't count for much. For instance, if you have a loner kid who loves her music, she likely won't mind being restricted to her room with her stereo. That is why you need to know your own teen's heart, interests, and desires.

This might lead some people to ask: What if nothing matters? You might be a parent who has tried everything, but your teen doesn't really seem to care. Keep in mind that your teen may be engaging in a power play with you, holding out to see how far you will take this. If so, the consequences do matter to your teen, but she doesn't want you to know, either because she's so angry at you that she wants you to feel helpless. Or, she is waiting you out in hopes that you will drop the consequence. In these situations, you may need to talk with your teen about her anger and try to connect and defuse things while also keeping the limit going. In time, your teen will likely become aware that she is only hurting herself, and will begin to respond.

When you do see a positive response, be sure you are warm and encouraging with your comments. When people submit to a consequence, they often feel humiliated, weak, powerless, and alone, which puts them in a very vulnerable position. They need grace and comfort. So refrain from lecturing, making jokes, or showing that you were right. Treat others as you'd like to be treated in a similar situation.

4. Give the Most Lenient Consequence that Works

How severe is too severe? How easy is too easy? You'll want to ensure that the consequences fit the violation appropriately. The time should fit the crime. When consequences are too strict, it can lead to alienation, discouragement, or increased rebellion. When they are too lenient, it can lead to increased disrespect and a lack of the desired change in the other person.

So, give the most lenient consequence that works. Keep your mind on the goal, which is a heightened sense of responsibility, accountability, and self-awareness. If a more lenient consequence changes behavior, and the change lasts over time, then you are on the right track. If it does not, and you are providing the right amounts of love, truth, and freedom, then you may want to increase the heat of the consequence over time until you see change.

5. Preserve the Good

Here's another good rule of thumb: the best consequences matter the most, but preserve good things the other person needs. Impose consequences that are a big deal, but don't remove activities that are good, such as participating in sports, taking music or art lessons, going to church, etc. These activities teach important lessons in discipline, cooperation, skill building, and coaching, and in so doing contribute to your child's development or the other person's growth.


    Taken from Boundaries with Teens by Dr. John Townsend. Click here to learn more.

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    • Wife.Mom.Me on

      Labels won’t make a change. Boundaries must be defined and consequences given for there to be a difference.

    • Janet on

      Dee is correct about narcissistic spouses. I experienced exactly what she described. When I took on a full time job as he demanded, he still expected me to fulfill the jobs that he deemed “women’s work”. I spoke with our pastor and he told me to stop doing what I was doing and let natural consequences occur. The house became disgusting and he did nothing, nor did he ask our children to help. It was like that until the day I separated from him. THEN he cleaned.
      At one point, after at least a year of counseling, he got angry at me for asking him to do certain things. But I hadn’t even asked, our therapist had. He then told me he would never again do anything that made me happy again. He meant it and he followed through as he punished me for being a noncompliant source and he began grooming our daughter to be his new source. When I asked him to leave our bed when he began demanding that I not touch him and that I sleep as far on the edge of the full size mattress we slept on, he took the blankets I set up on the couch in the next room and headed for the basement where our oldest daughter had slept while she was home from college. He stopped speaking to me and was totally disagreeable from that moment on.
      You can’t correct a narcissist. Not unless they see a benefit in it for themself.

    • Dee on

      Setting boundaries with a narcissistic spouse does more harm than good. I tried everything for almost 30 years with little cooperation. Consequences like a dirty house or few groceries meant nothing to him. I wish I didn’t spend all those years trying to help a grown man stop acting like a child. He became dangerous when he realized I was leaving and then quickly replaced me before the divorce with a new girlfriend who he is marrying soon. I am so thankful and grateful to God to be free, even though I am starting over in so many ways.

    • Debbie on

      Possible narcissist?

    • Julie on

      Karen: In my humble opinion it is time to involve law enforcement with this former volunteer. What you’ve described is theft. Or you could write her one final, formal letter that states if the items are not returned by x date, the matter will be turned over to law enforcement.

      Tell us how it turns out!

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