How to encourage good behaviour in pre-teens and teenagers
Good behaviour in pre-teens and teenagers starts with positive communication and warm relationships. This lays the foundation for guiding your child’s behaviour in a positive way.
Here are some practical tips for putting this positive approach into action.
Tips for good behaviour
1. Take time to actively listen
Actively listening means paying close attention to what your child is saying, both with their words and their body language. This lets you tune in to your child’s thoughts and feelings. And it shows your child that you care and are interested in them.
2. Set clear rules about behaviour
Family rules set clear expectations about behaviour. If you can, involve all family members in the discussions about rules. Try to keep the rules positive. For example, instead of saying ‘Don’t be disrespectful,’ you could say, ‘We treat each other with respect’.
3. Broken rules: follow up calmly, firmly and consistently
You can do this by using a brief and fair consequence that you and your child have agreed on in advance. It helps if you link the consequence to the broken rule – for example, ‘Because you didn’t come home at the agreed time, you’ll need to stay home this weekend’. This also helps you communicate your expectations about future behaviour.
You can read more about setting boundaries and using consequences in our article on discipline strategies for teenagers.
4. Encourage self-reflection
If you need to use a consequence, it’s good to encourage your child to reflect on what they could do to stop the problem coming up again. For example, you could say something like, ‘Jem, I get worried when you stay out late without telling me what you’re doing. Next time, I’ll pick you up at 10 pm. What could you do differently next time so you don’t get a consequence?’ Follow up by asking your child what a fair consequence would be if it happens again.
5. Try to be a positive role model
Children – even teenagers – do as you do, so being a role model for your child is a powerful and positive way to guide your child’s behaviour. For example, when your child sees you following the family rules yourself, they get a powerful example.
6. Choose your battles
Before you get into conflict over your child’s behaviour, ask yourself, ‘Does this really matter?’ and ‘Is this really worth fighting about?’ Less negative feedback means fewer opportunities for conflict and bad feelings.
7. Take your child seriously
Your child is an individual and needs to know that they’re valued, accepted and respected for who they are. One way to do this is by taking your child’s developing ideas and opinions seriously, even if you don’t necessarily agree with them.
8. Give your child responsibility
Learning to handle responsibility is one of the biggest challenges of adolescence, and an important step towards becoming an adult. Giving your child responsibility in certain areas – like letting them choose their own clothes or hairstyle – can help increase autonomy and independence. It can also help you avoid battles over the little things.
9. Tackle problems in a positive way
Whether it’s an argument with your child or a disagreement with your partner, using positive problem-solving skills helps to keep you calm. It also gives your child a great example to follow.
10. Praise your child
Descriptive praise and encouragement are powerful motivators. When you notice and comment on your child’s responsible choices and positive behaviour, you encourage them to keep behaving that way. Just remember that teenagers often prefer you to praise them privately rather than in front of their friends.
11. Plan ahead for difficult conversations
When you need to have difficult conversations, it’s a good idea to think ahead about what you’ll say and how your child might feel. This can help you avoid conflict. Arranging a time and place where you can have some privacy also helps. For example, ‘Izzy, I’d like to make a time to talk with you about some things that are happening around the house. We can talk about it over pizza on Saturday night. OK?’
12. Keep ‘topping up’ your relationship
It might help to think of your relationship with your child as a sort of bank account. Spending time together, having fun and giving help and support are ‘deposits’, but arguments, blaming and criticism are ‘withdrawals’. The trick is to keep the account balanced – or even in the black.
13. Share your feelings
Telling your child honestly how their behaviour affects you can be good for your relationship. ‘I’ statements can be a big help with this. For example, saying ‘I really worry when you don’t come home on time’ will probably get a better response than ‘You know you’re supposed to ring me after school!’
14. Learn to live with mistakes
Everybody makes mistakes, and nobody’s perfect. It’s all about how you deal with mistakes – both your own and your child’s – when they happen. Taking responsibility for mistakes is a good first step, and then working out what you can do to make things better might be your next move. Saying sorry to your child when you make a mistake helps to keep your relationship going well. And if you show self-compassion, it models self-compassion for your child too.
15. Look for ways to stay connected
You can stay connected with your child by spending special and enjoyable time together. The best moments can be casual and unplanned, like when your child decides to tell you about their day at school over the washing up. When these moments happen, try to stop what you’re doing and give your child your full attention. This sends the message, ‘You’re important to me and I love you’.
16. Respect your child’s need for privacy
Teenagers crave some privacy and a space of their own. Asking for your child’s permission to enter their room and not going through their phone or belongings are ways to show respect for this need. Another way might be to think about what you really need to know, and what can be left as private between your child and their friends.
17. Encourage a sense of belonging
Family rituals can give your child a sense of stability and belonging at a time when many other things around them – and inside them – might be changing. Some families might choose to have Friday family pizza nights, pancakes for breakfast on Sundays, or particular traditions for celebrating birthdays.
18. Keep promises
When you follow through on promises, good or bad, your child learns to trust and respect you. Be clear and consistent, and promise only what you know you can deliver.
19. Have realistic expectations
Your child will probably slip up and break the rules sometimes. Teenagers and their brains are still under construction – they’re still working out who they are. Testing boundaries is all part of the process, so it helps to be realistic about your child’s behaviour.
20. Look for the funny side of things
Laughing or making jokes can help diffuse tension and possible conflict, and stop you and your child taking things too personally. You can also sometimes use a joke or a laugh to kick off a difficult conversation.