Teenage discipline: the basics
Discipline isn’t about punishment. It’s about guiding children towards 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 – this allows you to talk about how the limits and rules are working, and guide your child towards good choices
- build and maintain a warm and loving family environment – this helps your child feel 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 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 like ‘Please 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, like 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.
Using consequences as part of teenage discipline
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.
This strategy aims to help your child understand your perspective and to learn that she needs to give and take. It also helps your child understand that every action has a consequence. By doing the right thing, your child can get a positive consequence. But doing the wrong thing will mean she gets a negative consequence.
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’.
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, access to technology, or access to activities. You need to let your child know in advance that this is what you plan to do, so that she can weigh up whether losing the privilege is worth it.
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.
It’s important to explain calmly and clearly what the problem is to your child. Tell him how he hasn’t stuck to the rules you agreed on, and let him know that you’ll be applying the agreed consequence.
The idea is to encourage your child to think about her behaviour and how it could be different in the future.
You can talk with your child about the agreement you had, and what she 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 get 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 him away from tricky situations.