Taking Away Your Teen’s Phone Isn’t A Magic Trick

Sure, sometimes it’s the right punishment — but sometimes it’s just pointless.

taking away a teenager's phone
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I can’t tell you how many talks I’ve had with parents who have kids who are younger than mine, asking if I still take away my kids’ phones. They explain that it used to work but it doesn’t anymore. In fact, some of them have described exactly what happened in my home: “They used to freak out and stayed on their best behavior. Now, they don’t seem to care if I have it, and I can’t get them motivated to earn it back.”

My kids got iPhones around 12 years old, and suddenly I had a wonderful new form of leverage. I realized very quickly they’d rather get sent to their room than lose their phones, and I often wondered if they were starting crap just to have an excuse to get away from the rest of the family. They no longer cared about losing bedtime stories or dessert. “Santa won’t come visit you if you are naughty” was already a thing of the past.

Then the phone trick stopped working.

One day, my son got in trouble for misbehaving in school. When I went to pick him up, he handed me his cell phone. “Here,” he said, like it didn’t phase him at all. A week later I got another call from the school. He told me that he already had his phone taken away, so he felt like he had nothing to lose.

I started to feel like handing over the phone was premeditated. It felt like we were making a trade. They got to do something that deserved a consequence, and giving up their phone (even for a month) became a way to get away with more.

After a while, all three of my kids kept repeating some of the same behaviors, knowing full well I’d take their phones. It felt like they were getting nothing out of that punishment.

It got to the point where I wouldn’t even have to ask for their phones. They would walk up to me and hand it over without a care in the world. It became an automatic response for me and for them. I realized that it was making me a lazy parent.

I realized I was taking their phones and that was it. I wasn’t talking to them as much about how they were feeling, or why they made the choices they did. I wasn’t making them help out more around the house, or spending extra time with them — things I do now that actually work. I was taking away their social ties and hoping that was going to fix the problem, but it only made them angrier and less remorseful.

I’m not saying taking away cell phones as a punishment makes every parent lazy. I’m saying it made me lazy.

And it wasn’t even working. It seemed to have zero effect. I was becoming increasingly frustrated with them. This put a bigger wedge in between us. What I needed to do was tune in, pay more attention to what was going on instead of having the phone in my possession as a knee-jerk reaction.

It’s a lot more effective when the punishment fits the crime.

Make no mistake, I still believe in taking away their phones when it makes sense. At the beginning of the school year, one of my kids video taped a fight at school and posted it on his Snapchat. The school got involved and asked that he not bring his phone to school for a week. I felt he needed more of a lesson and we completely took away the phone for two weeks. We also had a few discussions about why what they did wasn’t okay and how it affected other people. That really made a difference in the way they think, and how they use their phones.

However, if I take their phone away for not keeping up with their schoolwork, chores, or for being fresh it doesn't really do a lot in making them feel motivated to do better. Instead, I have them do their school work downstairs where I can watch them (they hate that) and make them keep their phone in their backpack. Or, if it has to do with skimping out on their chores, I have them do more chores.

These little tweaks have made all the difference, and it’s a relief that the phone isn’t such a point of contention between us any longer.

Katie Bingham-Smith is a full-time freelance writer living in Maine with her three teens and two ducks. When she’s not writing she’s probably spending too money online and drinking Coke Zero.