The question: My teenage daughter is always late, and it drives me crazy. She's not a bad kid at all. But the moment I ask her what time she'll be home, what time I can pick her up, what time she'll be ready for dinner, she is never on time. The added frustration is that she's not late by hours or anything – more like 20 to 30 minutes. So she always chalks it up as no big deal. Why can't she see how wrong it is to be late? What can I do?
The answer: As human beings, we are pretty simple creatures – much of our behaviour is driven by the consequences that follow.
We continue to do things that feel good and are followed by positive outcomes (positive reinforcement), or the removal of a negative outcome such as nagging (negative reinforcement). Conversely, we tend to gravitate away from things that are followed by negative consequences (punishment) or when something that was previously reinforcing is removed altogether (extinction).
Of all of the reinforcement schedules, positive reinforcement is the most powerful and, contrary to popular belief, punishment is the most problematic. It can lead to other negative responses such as resentment or anger, particularly when it relates to parenting. Not surprisingly, consequences that immediately follow behaviours (short-term consequences) tend to be more powerful predictors of behaviour than those that are delayed by hours, days or years (long-term consequences) – particularly for kids and adolescents, where the ability to delay gratification is still being developed.
The issue you are faced with is not how to convince your daughter that her behaviour is wrong – after all, "wrong" places a judgmental value on a behaviour that, as you have said yourself, is not bad so much as it is frustrating. And – as anyone with a teen can attest – you can try to talk, talk, talk all you want to convince your teen that you are right, but that and a toonie may only get you a cup of coffee on a good day.
What you need to do is ask yourself how you are reinforcing her behaviour. And then stop. Immediately.
Put yourself in your daughter's shoes for a moment. If you were her, and you were picked up on time, dinner was ready and waiting, and not a moment of your precious teenage time was spent waiting around for the parental chauffeur-chef, what motivation would you have to change?
For the next month, do the following: Since she is consistently 20 to 30 minutes late, don't show up for at least 35 to 45 minutes after she had requested a pick-up (assuming, of course, none of these are safety-sensitive situations, such as a late-night party).
If she provides a time for dinner and doesn't show up, put away her food when she is late, so that she can warm it up on her own when she gets home. Be consistent in your behaviour, and execute it with a smile on your face. It likely won't take too long before she realizes waiting around may be a bigger deal than she thought.
Dr. Joti Samra, R.Psych., is a clinical psychologist and organizational & media consultant. She is the host of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network's Million Dollar Neighbourhood and is the psychological consultant to CITY-TV's The Bachelor Canada. Her website is www.drjotisamra.com and she can be followed @drjotisamra .
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