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Appropriate Consequences for Chore-Ditching Teens

Father and son folding laundry

​​​​​By Luis F. Morales Knight, Ph.D.​

As a practicing clinical child and adolescent psychologist, one of the most common complaints I hear from parents is about how their teens refuse to do chores. Usually the complaint is sharpened by the parents' realization that not only are they the breadwinners, caregivers and providers of privileges to their children, they also get stuck with all of the housework.​

I always encourage parents to require their children to take on a fair share of the labor to maintain the family home. However, when a teen refuses, there are some reactions that work better than others.

If you're like many parents, your first impulse is to punish your child immediately. The trouble is, when you do this, you're in a reactionary mode while your anger level is high. In this state, it's very easy to over-punish. As a result, your teen will likely do one of two things: clam up and stop responding or lash out and escalate the situation.

Both of these are losing propositions for you, and winning propositions for your children.

Understanding the Teenage Mind

The teenage brain is not fully developed yet — especially its prefrontal cortex, which is the area that deals with rational thought and consequences. (If you've ever wondered why teens tend to do things that seem mind-boggling to any rational adult, that's why.) Teens are not good at putting the brakes on their behaviors and planning for the future. They are very good, however, at escalating situations by thinking with their emotions.

Adults, on the other hand, are not going to go to the same extremes children might, and parents don't have the time or energy for extended power struggles. Kids are much more motivated to drag out a battle until Mom and Dad become exhausted and give up. (And when kids learn they can outlast their parents, even more power struggles follow.)

I recommend you play to your strengths, which include your ability to manage your emotions and your ability to simply wait.

Nonconfrontational Approaches Work Best

In addition to being more effective in changing your teen's negative behavior, a nonconfrontational approach models important life skills, such as patience and thoughtfulness. These are skills you want your child to emulate.

With respect to a child who refuses to do chores, a nonconfrontational ​​approach requires two things:  

  1. You understand that you have, so far, provided a wide array of services to your child for free.
  2. You realize the value of no longer providing those services at zero cost.

In other words, the reason your teen doesn't do chores is because she doesn't have to. In almost every instance, her consequence for refusing to do a chore was that you went ahead and did the chore. She paid no price.

You need to flip that script. Here are a few examples to show you how:  

  • Laundry: When your son refuses to do his laundry, let him know that it's okay. He doesn't have to ​do his laundry, but you won't do it for him. You'll be happy to show him how to do it when he runs out of clean clothes, but you will not rescue him from dealing with the problem.

    If you have a teen who is particularly bad about leaving clothes on the floor and stepping on them, take a nonconfrontational approach by reconsidering how much you spend to buy his clothes. While you're legally obligated to clothe your child, you don't have to buy pricey, trendy apparel. Perhaps $200 for secondhand items is the most you'll fork over for someone who won't care for his belongings. Your local Goodwill will be happy to take the expensive, if unloved, clothes left strewn all over the floor.

  • If your teen hasn't been mowing the lawn, avoid another long argument about his lack of motivation. Instead of fighting or providing a free lawn-mowing service, let him know you resolved the situation. You might say, for example, "I noticed you haven't been mowing the lawn, so I hired a lawn service. It cost $200 and to pay for it, I sold the Xbox and all the Xbox games on eBay. I probably could have gotten more for all that, but I was in a hurry so I set a price that worked for me."

More generally, keep in mind that the time you spend doing work your teen should be doing is time he or she owes you. Take for example a situation where your chore-ditching teen asks you for a ride to the mall. You might respond by saying, "Honey, I can't take you to the mall today. I used up all my spare time doing your chores. Now if you do your chores, that will free me up to do things like take you to the mall so you can hang out with your friends."

As you can see in these examples, the consequence is appropriate to the transgression. Not only that, it's directly connected in a way that, despite a teen's underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, he or she will still see the obvious link between the negative behavior and the negative consequence it produced.  

Use Their Love of Technology to Your Advantage

Another catch-all consequence that can be effective in correcting teens' negative behaviors is restricting their access to technology. Or, more to the point, setting limits on the amount of screen time you provide them for free. After all, you don't get to enjoy premium cable channels unless you do the work to earn the money to pay for it. Why should it be any different for your teen? 

Most likely, your teen is attached to a smartphone or tablet. Either you paid for the device and the internet service, so it's yours, not hers, or maybe it is hers, but it "lives" in your house. If she wants the device to stay with her, she will have to do the work to keep it. Simply setting and enforcing the expectation that screen time comes AFTER work time can be motivational and have an amazing effect on teen behavior.

The Key to Success

To turn a chore-ditching teen into a chore-doing teen, keep calm and remember to use a nonconfrontational approach. Respond to ​the negative behavior dispassionately, like a cop issuing a speeding ticket. Explain to your teen what he or she did wrong, then issue an appropriate and​ relevant consequence.

You'll find the laundry done and the lawn mowed sooner than you think! ​​