Discipline and your teen

Definition of Discipline:

  • A branch of knowledge or learning
  • Training that develops self-control, character, or orderliness and efficiency
  • The result of such training or control is self-control or orderly conduct
  • Practices to be imparted to disciples
    Adapted from Webster's New World Dictionary, Second College Edition.

    Discipline is one of the greatest challenges parents face, and it gets more complicated during the teenage years. Teenagers need discipline to feel secure and safe while becoming more independent. One of the goals of discipline is to learn self-discipline, and since we are not always with our teens, they need lots of practice to monitor themselves. They will make mistakes, and it's our job to tolerate some, and help them avoid others…especially the ones that put their well being at risk. Another goal is to establish limits and teach children to live with the consequences of their actions.

    Our job is to step back, while continuing to pay attention to the changes and behaviors we see. We are consultants some of the time, and other times we have to continue our role of rule-setter and consequence-enforcer.

    There may be confusion when 'discipline' and 'punishment' are talked about. They are often used to mean the same thing, when in fact they are different. Since discipline means "to teach" it's up to us to continue to ask the question, "What does my child need to learn to live a good life," and what consequences will help them to learn? When we punish from a place of anger and frustration we often over-react and communication breaks down. It's very hard to teach when you are angry. Discipline is different than reacting to our children from anger and fear. For instance when you daughter is yelling at you because you won't let her go out before she does her homework, and you feel your temperature rising, take a few breaths, and tell her that when you both cool off you can talk about other possibilities.

    Adolescence is a time when children move quickly from being dependent, where they look up to parents and want to please them, to becoming independent and wanting to make their own decisions and think for themselves. This change can be hard to cope with for both you and your teenager.

    Don't be surprised if your teenager seems to temporarily reject your values. It's a time of transition, and a time for you and your teen to evaluate values and issues around who has the control. Shouting, hardheaded and irrational behavior, moodiness, and crying, can be expected from time to time. Your teen may be under stress as they learn to manage their lives and deal with the increase pressure and responsibility.

    Stay connected

  • Connect with your teen and show them positive regard, because no discipline will be successful unless this is the basis. Maintaining a good relationship takes time and effort. Find things that you can do together that you both enjoy. Even watching a favorite TV show together will help you understand what your teen likes and what he is learning. Go for a drive because when you are not looking eye to eye, some teens will open up. Take walks, go shopping, play cards, cook dinner, and do these things with the intention of connecting with your teen…not just getting things done.

  • Listen to your teens ideas without insisting on your own. This really takes practice. It's so easy to give advice, and it's challenging to really listen without telling your teen what to do. Take an interest in things that your teen is interested in. Listen to her music (if you can) and have her tell you what she likes about it. If the words are offensive, set limits and don't let her play it when you're around. Tell your daughter what you don't like about the music and why. When it comes to clothes, do your best to "zip it" and not say what's on your mind, unless you think there is too much skin showing and you really want her to change. This takes lots of practice.

  • Issues of trust are an important part of your relationship with your teen. There will be times when trust is broken and will need to be earned back. Don't label your child a liar or thief, but do give him consequences for going against your values. Give him a chance to make it up, and don't hold a grudge. Forgiveness is something we all need.

    Set limits

  • Teenagers need rules and limits. If you can work the rules out together your teen will feel that she has some control, and you may get more buy-in. Listen to what your teen thinks is fair, but in the end, it's up to you to set the limits. Sometimes you may need to say "I don't know yet if you can go to the party, I need to give it more thought." If they push or whine you can always say, "Well then, the answer is no." Don't be afraid to be the parent who asks to talk to the adult who will be home during a party. Your teen won't like it, but they'll get used to the fact that you care and are willing to make sure they are safe. Keep in mind that rules and limits for 13-year-olds are not the same for 15-year-olds, and are different than the rules for 17-year-olds.

  • There will be risk taking, so do all you can to talk with your teen ahead of time about the kinds of situations they may find themselves in. For example, what would they do if they were with someone who was drinking and that person passed out? What if they want to leave a party and no one can drive them? What if they are harassed by someone? What if a friend told them about an eating disorder and said not to tell anyone. If you problem solve together, without critisizm, they will come to you when they need help.

  • Contracts sometimes help your teen to understand the rules clearly and review them over time. When your teen starts to drive, a contract is a good way for everyone in the family to be clear about the rules and laws. Spell out what you expect and have them sign it. At the end you can put in the statement, " I agree to follow these rules. I understand that if I break the rules my driving privileges will be taken away." When we are clear with expectations and consequences we are preparing our teens for their adulthood. (see attached example…your rules will be different).

  • Talk with the parents of other teens. Find out what rules they have, and make sure that they know that you don't mind them calling if their child is spending the night. You may want to have a get-together with the parents of your child's friends. This will show your child that the parents are working together, and lying and breaking the rules will be harder in this crowd. Parents can also talk about positive things like planning parties and trips.

  • If you are in the middle of an argument, don't focus on establishing rules. This should be done when everyone has calmed down. Mean what you say, and say what you mean….so don't threaten to take everything away FOREVER!

  • Gradually remove limits, as your teenager gets closer to leaving home. They need time while they are still under your roof to experiment with more freedom. Pay attention to their grades and mood. Check in with them on sleep and friendships.

  • When rules are broken, there needs to be a consequence, but take time to think it through instead of reacting. Whenever possible use logical consequences like, "Since you came home late tonight, you'll have to be back an hour earlier tomorrow night." And, depending on your child and the seriousness of how late they were, they may have going out privliges taken away for a day or two. If you can't think of a logical consequence, you can use one that you know will have meaning to your child. For example if your child curses in your presence and it's against the family rules, you can take away a privilege like cell phone use, and tell your teen that with privileges comes responsibility, and since cursing is not allowed, he will not use the phone for X number of days.

  • Take a deep breath and listen to your teen before you start to yell or punish. Maybe there was a good reason they were late, like they had to drive a friend home who had too much to drink. Listen to the choices they made and see if you can help them think of other alternatives in the future. Practice compassion, love with limits is the goal.

  • Chores are a good way for your teen to be a part of the running of your family. If your child resists, sit down and come up with a plan based on what they are willing to contribute. Since they probably get allowance, you can make it so they don't get their allowance until they complete the chores. Teaching each child to do their own wash is a great way for you to get help and for them to learn an important skill. They will also become more aware of when clothes are really dirty compared with "Worn it for one hour, but I don't want to put it away …so I put it in the wash," syndrome.

  • Some parents are too strict and others not able to set necessary limits. Think back to how your parents were and see if you are like them or go to the opposite extreme.

  • Stay strong when you make a decision about a safety issue. Don't let your child talk you out of your position. You can say you'll think about it when you are not under pressure.

    Other things to keep in mind

  • All teens are different, and that what works for one might not work for another. Just because your son was willing to go shopping with you to help out on the weekend, doesn't mean your daughter will do the same. You may need to give her a different chore, or a different time to help you out.

  • Parents may have their feelings hurt when their teen doesn't want to spend time with them, or comes into the house without saying hello. This is normal, so try to keep your reactions in control. You can use "I" statements and say something like, "I sure do miss having some one-on-one time with you, and I feel invisable when you don't say hello. Lets find a time when we can be together."

  • There are times when you may need help with your teen. If you think your daughter is depressed, or if your son's grades are falling, or if you suspect drug use…get support and get your teen help. Support comes in many forms: A friend, relative, therapist, doctor, minister, teacher, or hotline. Never give up on your teen.

  • When your child is going through a stressful time, such as a term paper, or a crisis with a friend, be there without judgment (as much as possible), and avoid saying things like "I told you this would happen."

  • Your teen wants to know that you love him or her and still needs your positive regard and encouragement. Teens don't always show it, but they do respect your opinion and want you to be involved, "but not in their business".

    These are precious years, even though they require such super efforts on your part. Your teen is also making great efforts to fit in and to be an individual. Very soon they will leave home and your relationship will change in dramatic ways. While they are home you have the responsibility and opportunity to pass on your values and teach them as much as you can about what it means to be a successful and happy person. Of course, as parents, we have to work on our own issues, so we are available to help our teens.


    Rona Renner, RN has been a nurse for over 40 years, and is temperament specialist and parent educator. She is the Executive Director of Interactive Parenting Media, and the host of Childhood Matters Radio show, Sundays at 9AM on Green 960AM.

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