Around the time that your child starts secondary school, you might need to adjust your approach to discipline. Effective discipline for teenagers focuses on setting agreed limits and helping teenagers work within them.
Teenage discipline: the basics
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 him the basics of good behaviour. Now your child is growing into a teenager, you can use limits and boundaries to help him learn independence, 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 this is learning to stick to some clear rules, agreed on in advance, and with agreed consequences.
Teenagers don’t yet have all the skills they need to make all their own decisions, so 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.
is a key part of communicating with teenagers and can help avoid problems. Negotiating with your child shows that you respect his ideas. It also helps him learn to compromise when necessary as part of decision-making.
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 behaviour, 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. But you can say it more precisely – for example, ‘Come straight home after the movie ends and don’t go anywhere else’.
Discuss responsibilities with your child. For example, ‘I’m responsible for providing for you. You have responsibilities 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.
Use descriptive praise when your child follows through on agreed limits. For example, ‘Thanks for coming straight home from the movie’.
Be willing to discuss and adjust rules as your child shows responsibility or 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.
Video Family rules: how to work them out with teenagers
In this short video, mums, dads and teenagers talk together about why family rules are important, how rules are decided, and how household jobs are shared out. They also talk about how to sort out conflict over the rules.
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
If you can make the consequence fit the misbehaviour, it gets your child to think about the issue and can feel fairer to your child too. For example, if your child is home later than the agreed time, a fitting consequence might be having to come home early next time.
The aim of this strategy is to help your child understand your perspective and to learn that she needs to give and take.
For example, if your child wants you to drive him 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.
This consequence should be used sparingly – if you use it too much, it won’t work as well. 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.
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 to reinforce it:
Communication: explain calmly and clearly what the problem is to your child. Tell her how she hasn’t stuck to the rules you agreed on, and let her know 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
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 the teenage brain goes through massive growth and development during adolescence. As a result teenagers try new things but don’t always make good decisions. They’re more influenced by peers. And they feel things more intensely than you do.
At the same time, teenagers are getting better at seeing the big picture and reasoning. This means they question their world more and use creative ways to solve problems.
For all these reasons, it might sometimes feel like you’re on a collision course with your child. But you can work around obstacles with your child and guide her away from tricky situations.