Feature Q&A with Dr. Phillippe Cunningham
Q: I have caught my 16 year-old son and a couple of his friends smoking pot in our house. I acknowledged that I knew what they were doing, but because I was so mad, I said I would deal with it later. Just how do I deal with this? What kind of punishment should he receive?
A: One caveat about punishment is that it is most effective when a positive affective bond exists between the parent and child. Thus, it is important as a parent to balance being hard and soft. That is, parents must consistently enforce all rules and consequences but also build in opportunities to promote positive interactions with your child (e.g., praise).
If a positive affective bond exists between you and your child, you might find several strategies helpful:
- First, be very specific and clear with your son that you do not want him to use drugs or associate with peers who use drugs.
- Second, punish your son's association with these drug-using peers by taking away his privileges contingently (examples can be found below) and positively reward association with peers who you do not believe are using drugs or alcohol (i.e., access to privileges).
- Third, contact the parents of his friends and let them know that you found your son and his friends (their son) smoking pot in your house and as punishment you are limiting your son's contact with their son (a minimum of one week, however, if you catch them again you may have to mandate no contact at all). Association with drug using peers is the number one predictor of adolescent drug use.
Contacting the parents of your son's friends can be helpful in several ways: (1) it sends a clear message to your son's friends and their parents that you are serious about your son not using drugs, (2) it often leads to other parents punishing their children, (3) it provides a useful model for other parents on what to do if they were in a similar bind, (4) it elicits help from others in keeping an eye on your son (it does "Take a Village to Raise a Child"), and (5) it may serve to embarrass your son, which is a powerful motivator for most adolescents.
Fourth, if the close, emotional bond is there, having your son earn your trust can be a very powerful tool to use. Earning your trust can include mandatory supervision. In this approach you would not allow your son to be home alone without adult supervision (which may inconvenience him) and requiring an early curfew. However, as your son increases compliance with tasks (home, school) at least 75% of the time you can begin extending curfew and increasing the amount of time he is without "close" adult supervision (but you must continue to check on his whereabouts and peer associations).
Finally, make sure to pay attention to your son's efforts at good behavior and the things he does right. Because exclusive use of punishment has the untoward effect of undermining the emotional bond (not to mention increased anger, resentment, and "sneakiness") you must set up opportunities to "catch your son being good."
Dr. Phillippe Cunningham has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. He currently serves as an assistant professor at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Medical University of South Carolina.