Discipline isn’t about punishment. It’s about teaching children appropriate ways to behave. For teenagers, discipline is about agreeing on and setting appropriate limits and helping them behave within those limits.
When your child was younger, you probably used a range of discipline strategies to teach the basics of good behaviour. Now your child is growing into a teenager, you can use limits and boundaries to help him learn independence, manage and take responsibility for his behaviour and its outcomes, and solve problems.
Your child needs these skills to become a young adult with her own standards for appropriate behaviour and respect for others. An important part of her journey is learning to stick to some clear rules, agreed on in advance, and with agreed-on consequences.
Teenagers aren’t equipped with the skills they need to make all their own decisions. Even if your child tells you he doesn’t need your guidance, the research shows the opposite. The limits you agree on for behaviour are an important influence on your child.
Teenage discipline is most effective when you:
communicate openly with your child, so you can check in with each other about how the limits and rules are working
build and maintain a warm and loving family environment, so your child feels safe to make mistakes. Children with warm family relationships learn to control their own behaviour, especially when guided by parents.
Negotiation is a key part of communicating with teenagers and can help avoid problems. Negotiating with teenagers shows that you respect their ideas. It also helps them learn to make their own decisions.
Agreeing on clear limits
Clear limits and expectations can discourage problem behaviour from happening in the first place. Limits also help your child develop positive social behaviours, including showing concern for others.
Here are some tips for setting clear limits:
Involve your child
in working out limits and rules. When your child feels that you listen to her and she can contribute, she’ll be more likely to see you as fair and stick to the agreed rules.
Be clear about the behaviour you expect. It can help to check that your child has understood your expectations. For example, a rule such as ‘come home after the movie’ might mean one thing to you, but something different to your child. Stating this rule more precisely will make it easier for your child to follow it. For example, ‘I want you to come straight home after the movie ends and not go anywhere else’.
Discuss responsibilities with your child. For example, ‘I’m responsible for providing for you. You have responsibilties too, such as tidying your room
Agree in advance with your child what the consequences will be if he doesn’t stick to the rules you’ve agreed on.
Praise your child when she does stick to the rules you’ve agreed.
Be willing to discuss and adjust rules as your child gets older – for example, by extending your child’s curfew.
Different families have different standards and rules for behaviour. To check whether yours are realistic and reasonable, you could talk with parents and friends who have children of the same age. Many schools can also help with guidance. Or why not connect with other parents by joining our pre-teens forum or early teens forum?
Teenagers sometimes test limits and break rules. Using our Talking to Teens interactive guide
, you can see how different approaches to handling this tricky situation can get different results.
Sometimes your child might behave in ways that test your limits or break the rules you’ve agreed on. One way to deal with this is by using consequences:
Make the consequence fit. For example, if your child is home later than the agreed time, a fitting consequence might be having to come home early next time.
Withdraw cooperation. For example, if your child wants you to drive her to social outings, you could say you’ll do this if he follows the rules. Try to avoid making this into a bribe. Let your child know beforehand that you might withdraw your cooperation as a consequence for misbehaviour. For example, ‘If you’d like me to keep driving you, you need to come home on time. If you’re late, I won’t drive you next time’. The aim is to help your child understand your perspective and to learn that he needs to give and take.
Withdraw privileges. This consequence should be used sparingly – overuse will limit its effectiveness. The idea is to remove something that you know your child enjoys – for example, going to a friend’s house. You need to let your child know in advance that this is what you plan to do. Research shows that you don’t need to withdraw privileges for a long time for this consequence to be effective. Aim for a short withdrawal that occurs within the few days following the misbehaviour.
Whatever consequence you choose, these strategies might help:
Communication: explain what’s happening to your child. State clearly that she hasn’t stuck to the rules you agreed on and that you’ll be applying the agreed consequence.
Self-reflection: encourage your child to think about his behaviour and how it could be different in the future. Talk with him about the agreement you had, and what he thinks should happen as a consequence of breaking it. Often teenagers will be much harsher than their parents. This allows you to settle on future consequences that you both see as fair.
It’s best to balance rules and consequences with warmth and positivity. Try to aim for six positive comments for every negative comment.
Why teenagers test the limits
To start with, teenagers have the job of developing into independent adults. One way they do this is to test boundaries, and then see how others react to their behaviour. This teaches them what the social expectations are. As they receive feedback, they learn what’s expected.
On top of this is the way teenage brains work. Adults rely mostly on the logical, rational parts of their brain (the frontal lobe). But because of the way their brains are developing, teenagers rely heavily on the emotional parts. Teenage brains are wired to pick up emotional cues, so teenagers are more likely to react emotionally and even ‘irrationally’ to limits and rules.