There’s an important distinction between grounding for protective or punitive reasons.
Punitive grounding is intended to apply uncomfortable consequences and restrictions, which can be avoided in the future by complying with parental rules. It may appear to work in the short term, but rarely triggers permanent changes in high-risk behaviors. In fact, punitive grounding often simply inspires teens to find creative ways of not getting caught. (Such as coming home on time and then sneaking out their bedroom windows later ...)
Protective grounding is intended to maintain safety, to scale choices and privileges back to the zone where teens can handle their freedom without risking harm to themselves or others.
Let’s listen in on both types of groundings being applied to a curfew violation such as coming home late without calling first:
You blew it and were irresponsible. Now you have to stay at home for the next four weekends. That’ll teach you a lesson!
Well, it seems like you aren’t quite ready yet to handle the freedom of being out that late with your friends. I’ll know you are ready when you are coming home on time or calling me to let me know when something legitimate prevents you from doing so.
For now, I’m scaling your curfew back to 9:00 to see if that’s an easier target to hit. When you are consistently home on time, we can look at extending it in 30 minute increments. I’m sure it won’t be long before you are ready to try 11:00 again.
Here’s why I advocate for protective grounding rather than punitive—brain research tells us that the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for rational thought, logic, planning ahead, and consequential thinking, is not fully and reliably connected to and in charge of the emotional and instinctive parts of the brain until age of twenty-five or so.
It’s the cortex that controls impulses in order to prevent unwanted consequences. Think of the emotional and instinctive parts of the brain as the steering wheel and gas pedal, respectively. The prefrontal cortex is the brake pedal. When the wiring is not fully connected, or shorts out occasionally, your teen moves full speed ahead in whatever direction her emotions steer her. She acts first, and if she’s lucky, she might think about it later.
(Insurance company statistics provide very compelling evidence of what happens until that cortex is fully wired in, which is why their premiums are sky high until the mid-twenties. And rental car companies won’t even let anyone under twenty-five behind the wheel of their cars!)
You might protest that your teen is perfectly responsible and logical most of the time, and you are right, of course. The cortex/brake pedal has been wiring itself in since birth, and is usually fairly well-connected by high school under ideal conditions. But add a little alcohol, a little peer pressure, a little mob mentality, or a little sexual tension, and the tenuous connections between the cortex and the rest of the brain fizzle out. Without the brakes, accidents are bound to happen.
Protective grounding is like lending your teenager your fully functional brake pedal. It’s saying, Hey, I know your brake isn’t reliable under all conditions quite yet, so I’m not going to put you on the highway in a blizzard. Let’s start with the back roads. I will keep you safe, and my brakes will stop you when yours can’t.
When our teens show us that they can’t yet make safe choices in certain conditions, we are wise to scale their freedom back to the last level where they demonstrated consistent self-control, and then inch them forward slowly again, with our support. It’s not helpful to lock them in their rooms for a month and then send them back into the fray again!
They need baby steps. They need practice. They need support, and guidance, and protection from the damaging consequences of their own impulsivity while their internal brakes gain strength and consistency.
Protective grounding provides exactly the kind of resources that the teenage brain needs to fully wire in that prefrontal cortex; safety, information, a rational and reasonable adult to imitate, and compassionate parental protection until he can trust his own brakes.