S.P.O.T. for teens

An alternative approach to parenting adolescents, by Richard Boersma, LPC

Dick in Office 2

I’ve spent years and years of my career meeting with parents and teens.  I know the kinds of problems that emerge in many families when Jimmy moves from a sweet, happy childhood with a mostly-agreeable attitude, to a difficult adolescence full of willful attitude and thoughtlessness, low school performance, self-centered indifference to family, and perhaps even dangerous behaviors.  Jimmy’s developed a mind of his own, and seems on a collision course with disaster (in your view, at least).  This spells major conflict at home.

Too often, parents just increase their authority, or what’s left of it, by yelling louder, giving ultimatums, making threats, punishing arbitrarily, taking away things, and worse.  Some of these work pretty well on the surface, and when they do it reinforces the use of such power tactics.  After all, we’re trying to regain some control here, and isn’t that the point?  To control behavior?

Actually, no.  Your mission is to help your son or daughter grow into a responsible adult, not remain a kid who needs a warden.  Your teen will have to comply with your ultimatums and punishments, of course, and the behavior may shape things up for awhile.  Purgatory is no fun.  But being berated or shamed hurts self-esteem and self-confidence, and most typically breeds resentment as well.  Also, when your level of exasperation results in unpredictable and arbitrary consequences such as “Okay Mister, you’re grounded for the rest of the month!” or “That’s it!  No prom!” the resentment may border on hatred.  You hear “It isn’t fair,” as s/he slams the bedroom door. 

There’s a better way.  It’s based on leverage more than power, and fairness rather than dominance.  Consider the analogy of a business owner, who owes all employees some basics: good working conditions, reasonable hours, opportunities for advancement, clear policies, and a fair wage.  There is no obligation to provide overhead music, a luncheon cafeteria, stock options, a company car, a clothing allowance, etc.  These “perks” can be motivators, but they are extras. 

It’s the same in families.  You (as a parent) owe your son or daughter some basics as well: nutritious food, comfortable shelter, health care, education opportunity, and a secure, loving home.  As long as your child is in your home, these should be guarantees.  However, you do not ‘owe’ your child a cell phone, X-Box games, tickets to a Red Rocks concert, Internet access, designer jeans, a season’s pass, rights to the family car, a 1 AM curfew, an iPod Nano, money, cool sunglasses, acrylic nails, etc.  If some of these have become routine expectations, and you’re seeing little positive effort from your son or daughter, it’s time for a change.  This isn’t about appreciation or gratitude; it’s about moving toward clear and fair “working conditions, reasonable hours, opportunities for advancement, and clear policies.”

Many parents think taking away one or more of these “extras” is effective discipline.  Ever said: “OK buster, you can just forget about this weekend . . . ” (or “hand over your iPhone”; “no more video games”; etc)?  That may release your frustration valve, but it’s not likely to improve anything in the long run.  This is mere punishment, and punishment isn’t really helpful in terms of encouraging growth, wisdom, and maturity.  It’s just a way of flexing your muscle, frustrating your child, and continuing the power play between the two of you that was sufficient when he or she was younger.  Punishments are often arbitrary (not predictable), imposed (made up on the spot by the power person), and final (no discussion, no recourse, no reparation).  Plus, the severity is often based on your level of anger or frustration.

What does work?  I call it Predictable Outcomes.  It leverages those “entitlements” we just talked about in a fair, well-communicated way.  It’s prescriptive rather than reactive, meaning it is based on what you and your teen work out as reasonable behavior and rules, rather than an eruption of outrage at something that happened . . . or didn’t happen.  And best of all, it takes emotion right out of the equation (if you try). 

In brief, here’s how it works:  1) list what “perks” exist for your child (e.g., cell phone, allowance, etc); 2) list the behaviors you expect (be specific, not general: “Call me within 15 minutes after school is out” instead of “Stay in touch,” and “no four-letter words uttered at home” instead of “mind your manners”); 3) link the performance of these behaviors to perks; and 4) allow access to these things and privileges according to your child’s success in meeting the prescribed behavioral expectations. 

Here’s an example of how to start.  Most people just focus on the specific problem areas, rather than a broad menu of behaviors.  If you make the array of expectations too great, it becomes unmanageable.  You can add more things as time goes on.

Specific Behavior Expected


Points Possible

Get permission for non-scheduled after school activity, before committing to it

1 point/M-F (also when no activity, 1 point for coming home w/in 30 min. after school)

0 to 5 points

positive “improved” report from a teacher chosen at random, via my phone call

5 points once/week

0 or 5 points

Be ready for A.M. school bus without help or urging

1 point/M-F

0 to 5 points

Conflict-free day with brother and Mom

1 point M-S (1/2 point if you walk away from fight* when told)

0 to 7 points

24-hr day of no sassiness, rudeness, cussing, ignoring, or other disrespect

1 point M-S

0 to 7 points

*fight = shouting, swearing, hitting/pushing, etc.

Now, notice some things in this table.  There are no “don’ts.”  There are no “should’s.”  There are no penalties or threats.  This system details what you want to see (not all of it, just some of it at first), stated in a positive way, without direct reference to problem behaviors that concern you.  By the way, the above teen smokes marijuana, rarely his homework, lies to his parents about his whereabouts and activities, and is rude and mean at home.  So where is the mention of drug use, doing homework, lying, and attitude?  What kind of parenting is that?!  Well, we’re not done.  Now we need to leverage the perks.

Using the above chart –  which should be explained to your adolescent, if not created jointly with him/her, and posted (e.g., on the backside of the spice cabinet door) for quick, easy reference by all.  Let’s continue through our example.   What kind of point total do you think she or he would get now, today, for a typical week?  Right now, no change.  Maybe you get an after-school phone call once a week to ‘tell’ you she’s going downtown with friends (0 points, since she’s to seek permission, not tell you); perhaps she’s ready for school on her own maybe once a week (1 point for last Tuesday); you estimate she quarrels loudly with you and/or her little brother about every other day (3 points for the ‘good’ days); and maybe she gets rude and insolent with you four days a week (3 points for 3 good days).   Since her schoolwork is declining, you doubt Item #2 would yield any points.  So your estimated point total today would be 7 points.

Arbitrarily add a couple of points to require at least minimum effort; call it 10.  That becomes the level to beat for getting off Red Status, below.  Then decide whatever points you think would justify Green Status (say, 18?; don’t make it too easy or too unreasonable). We’ll talk about these color status levels in a bit.  You must record the points received (or not) every day!  Yes, every day!   Don’t rely on your memory or you’ll have a big quarrel on Friday, when you tally it up (“I was ready for school on Tuesday, you just don’t remember!!!”).  So check out how this could look on this example-student’s chart, below:

Friday Night Tally


  • Privileges & Perks

0 to 9.5 points

Red Status

  • TV and computer removed from room
  • All perks listed below also removed
  • Television in family room OK once homework is verified as done

10 to 17.5 points

Yellow Status

  • Use of cell phone (no texting cqpabilities)
  • Computer returned only for homework if needed, nightly basis only
  • I-Pod returned
  • 1 (only) weekend social outing (e.g., movie, skiing, etc. – no overnights)
  • Money for chores (if available, upon request)
  • Use of car only to-from school (back by 3:30 PM)

18 plus points

Green Status

  • ALL Yellow benefits, PLUS:
  • Cell phone texting re-instated
  • TV, X-Box, and computer returned to room, no supervision
  • Open weekend social outings, overnights OK (must keep us aware of whereabouts)
  • $10 allowance; more for chores if requested
  • Use of car unrestricted if available and if destination is clear and approved

Now you’re getting the picture: Your son or daughter will see that it pays off to comply with basic good behavior.  No more wrangling or threats or take-aways.  You simply tally up the daily point records accrued, and determine the color-status for the next week (7 days) until the next tally day.  You must do this with minimum rancor or judgment (remember, we’re taking the emotions out of it).  If she stubbornly stays on Red Status for 3 weeks straight, treat her well and without judgment.  Don’t moralize or express concern.  Let her find her own way, on her own time.  These are house rules, your “working conditions, reasonable hours, opportunities for advancement, and clear policies,” and they don’t need chiding, reminding, nagging, sympathy, or emotions from you.  You simply enforce them with unfailing, daily accounting on the point tally sheet -- no bending or compromising or “sympathy exceptions.”  She’ll soon see that she’s only hurting herself, not you.

To anchor the point, remember that you learned to become a responsible adult, and that’s what you hope to develop in your teenager.  If you come to work late, or treat your employer or workmates rudely, you’ll lose your job.  You won’t be scolded or berated or punished, you’ll just get a pink slip and be sent on your way.  If you don’t work, you don’t get the stuff you want -- cable, a movie, dinner out, gas for your car.  If you drive over the speed limit, no matter what your justification, you risk getting a speeding ticket.  The cop won’t put you down or decide to double the fine just because he’s having a bad headache, he just issues you a citation.  In the same way, Predictable Outcomes lets your son or daughter know what the house rules are, what s/he is expected to comply with, and is treated accordingly.  Love, anger, pleading, yelling, and punishment aren’t part of it, anymore.  He still gets the basic entitlements (remember them?  Love.  Shelter.  Food.  Education.)

Your biggest challenges are: 1) be consistent in daily tallying; 2) implement the status exactly as shown in your child’s own chart; and 3) hold your frustrations and aggravations at bay.  You cannot make this work if you continue the Power Play between the two of you.  You must become detached and even indifferent to his/her adherence to the specified behaviors, so that lack of compliance will not get you angry.  You can still discipline separately for unexpected or unusual behavior not addressed here, like “You skipped school?!  We’re going to meet with the Principal, and you are officially grounded for 2 weeks!

I have found the SPOT method to work well provided the parent follows these rules.  Soon, your teen son or daughter will become a participant in the plan, negotiating for some changes (not whining, negotiating) where some rule seems unfair or too restrictive.  And, well . . . that’s good communication!  I have also found that two parents with different styles can come together with this technique, which is often the basis for a teen’s disregard for home rules.