Natural Consequences for Teens

We recently posed an open question on our Facebook page:

“Hey Parents of Teens! What Do You Want to Know? What topic would be the most helpful for you? If you’ve ever thought, I wish I had a guide to deal with this problem! Now is your chance to ask for that guide.”

Members of our online community replied with their most pressing questions. One concerned parent asked:

When do you discipline and when do you let them grow up and make their own mistakes? I’m not sure how to approach this one, but I think it’s likely situations where there will be life consequences, so at some point, do you just let them have those consequences and you don’t have to create your own?”

That’s a great question.

It addresses an aspect of parenting every parent has to deal with starting when their children are very young: how to approach discipline. When children become teenagers, this question becomes critical, because adulthood is right around the corner. Kids need to enter adulthood as independent, responsible problem-solvers.

And to do that, they need to learn lessons.

To learn lessons, unfortunately, they need to make mistakes, and learn to grow from them. To the parent who posed this question, you are exactly right:

“…at some point you have to let them have those consequences and you don’t have to create your own.”

Whether you realize it or not, you’ve just described two of the most effective parenting techniques available to you: natural consequences and logical consequences. We’ll discuss the official definitions in a moment, but for now it’s easy to think of them like this:

Natural consequences are results of behaviors that happen without any input from parents.

Logical consequences are results of behaviors that are imposed by parents.

Natural and Logical Consequences

This post is about natural consequences, but we’ll address logical consequences briefly, if only to contrast them to natural consequences later.

As noted above, logical consequences do not occur as a direct, organic result of the behavior – they’re planned ahead of time by a parent, explained to the child, and both parties agree on the what, why, and how of them. An example of a logical consequence for a teen would be getting grounded for coming home after their curfew on a Friday night. A typical occurrence that probably happened a million times last weekend.

In this instance, the logical consequence follows the three rules child development experts say it should:

  1. The consequence is related to the undesired behavior.
  2. It’s respectful of the child, in that they understand beforehand why the rule is in place and what will happen if they don’t follow it.
  3. The consequence is reasonable, in that it’s proportional to the unwanted behavior. In the example above – and this is contingent on circumstances of course – getting grounded for one night for being half an hour late would be reasonable. Being grounded for a month might be going overboard.

So, that’s all we’ll say about logical consequences: we’re all familiar with them, because they’re similar to the rules and results most of us have dealt with our entire lives.

It’s basic stuff.

Natural consequences, on the other hand, are even more basic. Here’s an example that does not involve a parent:

A child touches a hot stove. Their hand gets burned. They learn never to touch a hot stove again. The behavior is the touching, the natural consequence is getting burned, the lesson is don’t touch a hot stove.

Now, here’s an example that involves a parent:

It’s cold out. The parent tells the child to put on a jacket, but the child refuses. Rather than make the child put on the coat, the parent allows the child to go outside and experience the natural consequence of going without a jacket: they get cold.

As you can see, natural consequences happen by themselves. The parent neither plans nor enforces them. Most people agree that experiencing natural consequences is the most effective way for children – or anyone, for that matter – to learn life lessons, from large to small.

But it’s not always okay to allow a child to experience natural consequences.

Natural Consequences: When to Allow Them

The parent who posed the initial question is clearly asking about something a little more consequential than getting cold. Or at least we assume so. She’s entirely correct about one thing: sometimes you absolutely have to get out of the way and allow your child – or teen – experience discomfort, disappointment, and hardship, or they won’t learn the lessons they need to learn in order to become fully functioning adults.

With that said, there are three times when it’s inappropriate to allow a teenager to experience natural consequences:

  1. When their safety is at stake. For example, you would not allow your young child to experience the natural consequence of playing in a busy street. Likewise, you should not allow your teenager to experience the natural consequences of drinking and driving.
  2. When the safety of others is at stake. For example, you would not allow a young child to experience the natural consequence of hitting another child. For a teenager, the drunk driving example is perfect: driving drunk may cause others severe harm or even death. A logical consequence should be in place before a teen gets behind the wheel.
  3. When the consequences are too delayed. Meaning that they have no real effect in the short-term but could affect their health and well-being in the long-term. For example, a young child might not feel any direct consequence if you let them go without brushing their teeth – but you know that in six months this could turn into a health issue. Therefore, you set up a logical consequence. For teens, this could mean anything: self-care habits, quitting a sports team, or not studying for a test.

That last one about studying is tricky. There will be a short-term consequence – a bad grade on one test. But the long-term consequences, such as getting a poor grade for the entire semester or negatively affecting their chance to get into college or get a scholarship, might not be so readily apparent to a teenager – that’s when a parent would need to step in.

Experiential Learning

What natural consequences are really all about is learning by doing.

Or perhaps we should say learning by failing.

As adults, we know that lessons stick best when we learn them the hard way. People can tell us all they want about what we should do in certain situations. They’ll even give us perfect advice about how and why we should do certain things in those situations. And we may even believe them – but it seems we never truly know or internalize an important lesson until we experience it ourselves. And typically, the lessons that stick the very best are those lessons that come after we experience mistakes and/or failures.

So, to the parent who asked the question that inspired this post, we say this: yes, let them experience those consequences, as long as they don’t affect their safety, the safety of others, or their long-term health and well-being.

Thank you for the question!