Dear Cathi,

What do you do when you tell your daughter you are going to take away her phone and she says no and keeps it?

Eventually I won’t be able to physically take it from her. I feel helpless and I think she doesn’t respect my authority.

What should I do?
Tanya R.

Dear Tanya,

I can’t tell from your email what actions proceeded your wanting to take your child’s phone away, but my intuition tells me a rule was broken the consequence of which was phone removal. I feel your frustration and commend you on making the choice NOT to engage in a physical tussle with your child over the phone in question.

My motto is: As it relates to discipline, it’s best to be “pro-active” rather than “reactive.” So let’s press the rewind button on this event and set the stage for an alternative conclusion the next time this happens.

Step One: Distinguish between “wants” and “needs”

Make sure you are very clear with your child and yourself about the distinction between a privilege and a right. Children often confuse the two. While your responsibility as a parent is to meet your child’s “needs” (food, water, safety, love, shelter), “wants” (cell phones, laptops, cars, a later curfew) are privileges that fall into the category of parental prerogative. In other words, don’t fall for it when your child says, “You can’t take my phone. It’s mine!” What’s yours is yours and what’s theirs is yours too.

Step Two: Help your child understand that actions have consequences

Help your child understand the concept that all actions have natural and realistic consequences. For example, preparing in advance for an exam (action) usually results in better mastery of the material (consequence). Saying “hello” to a friend (action) typically results in a “hello” back (consequence). Staying out past a predetermined curfew (action) results in an earlier curfew the next night (consequence) or being grounded the next night (consequence). Overuse of a cell phone at the expense of schoolwork (action) results in the phone going on sabbatical until the schoolwork is finished (consequence). Although you can’t predict all of your child’s transgressions, don’t sell yourself short. You know your child pretty darn well and can foresee many of their future decisions and choices (especially the poor ones). Laying out the consequences of future action in advance puts the onus of future decision-making solidly back in your child’s lap. If they should decide to break a rule regardless of your family agreement, then they are also choosing the consequence that awaits them.

Step Three: Make Sure the Punishment Fits the Crime

In the heat of the moment, punishments may not fit the crime. Let’s say you discover your child has broken the “no texting during homework rule” and, in anger, you tell them as a consequence they have lost their cell phone for a month. Parents say all kinds of things in the heat of the moment. And, in this particular case, losing the cell phone during homework time may be a natural consequence. Losing the cell phone for a month is overkill. You know you’ve overdone it when the punishment is harder on you than it is on your child!

Step Three: Put Rules and Consequences in Writing

Just the process of calmly sitting down with your child and laying out rules and consequences in advance, lessens the likelihood you will react in a tough moment out of rage or frustration. A written document acts as a buffer between you and your child after rules have been broken. Notice I said “when”, not “if” rules are broken. It’s a child’s job to test the boundaries of our rules. It’s our job to enforce them. Your response when your child breaks a rule is, “Check the agreement. What is the consequence if rule #2 is broken?”

Step Four: Follow Through

Remember that regardless of whether or not you succeeded at following Step One, Two, and Three, your child will likely see it differently and will still fight you on it by begging, cajoling, crying, stonewalling, screaming, and/or whining. You must remember: intermittent reinforcement is the most powerful of all reinforcements. This means if you don’t enforce understood consequences, your child becomes a dog with a bone, tenaciously working you in hopes you will give in after each episode of misbehavior. Giving in is a highly effective way of training your child NOT to take your rules and consequences seriously.

Step Five: If Necessary, Go on Complete Privilege Shut Down

But what if you have diligently gone through Steps One through Four in advance of this cell phone incident and STILL your child refuses to give up the phone? I know this is going to sound cold, but, it’s then that you need to bring out the big guns: Operation Shut Down. All of your child’s privileges go away i.e. transportation, TV, laptop, video games. You name it. It’s gone, until your child hands over the cell phone. Trust me, you won’t need to do this more than once. And if you do, there is always the eject button; a call to Verizon disconnecting the phone.

I hope this helps.