Teenage Discipline Issues

Teenage Discipline Issues

Judith Rader, MA, LMFT
August 21, 2006

Mothers and fathers must provide firm discipline in the area of responsibility, respect, and safety in order to guide their teenagers toward maturity. Parents often find this task “easier said than done,” while teenagers often play a significant part in sabotaging their parents’ efforts. This article addresses several common discipline pitfalls, along with suggestions for how parents can more successfully institute and maintain sound discipline.

  1. In two-parent families, it is vital that spouses are “on the same page” with regard to discipline; for nothing undermines discipline more than having children see their parents arguing over how to handle rules and limit-setting. Teenagers experience disagreeing parents as providing a ripe opportunity to “divide and conquer.” (“Well Dad didn’t mind when I stayed out after 9:00.” Or, “Mom said I could do it, so what’s the problem?”). It is vitally important that parents work out differences with regard to discipline, expectations, and limit-setting away from their teenagers. Only then should their “united-front decisions” be presented to their sons and daughters. For example, “Your father and I agree that you may not drive the car this week since you ignored your curfew last evening,” Or, “Your mother and I are dissatisfied that you are not following through on your designated chores. And so, during the next three weeks we will make sure that they’re completed before we allow you to go out with your friends.
  2. When introducing new discipline or new rules to address pre-existing problems, it is beneficial for parents to share a view of their own participation in the “dance” that enabled the previous situation to exist. This tact allows our teens to feel less shamed and/or less unjustly targeted as the sole cause of the problem or situation. And, in turn, this approach usually engenders their demonstrating a higher degree of receptivity to the change. We should avoid saying, for example, “You never help out around the house. Your mother and I do everything while you simply sit around and watch television. From now on, we will insist that you do some chores.” And substitute instead, “Up until this point, your mother and I have neglected discussing your involvement in chores. We pretty much just did all the household chores ourselves. But we are realizing that this situation is neither good for us, nor good for you. We need a bit of involvement from you; and we feel it’s important for you to take some responsibility around the house. So starting this week we will be including you in some of the chores."
  3. Wherever possible, it helps to give our teens some choice. Remember that their developmental stage of life is pulling for individuation. By offering them a degree of choice, we allow our teenagers some ownership in the chore (or in the solution to the problem). And this, in turn, satisfies their developmental drive to seek more initiative in, and control over their day-to-day lives. Some examples are:

    • “Your mother and I are requiring that you assume a couple of household chores each week. Here is a list for you to choose two chores from. If you have any other ideas for chores, we’ll be happy to consider those instead.”
    • “In light of your recent failure to hand in homework, we’re going to ask you to show us your completed homework each night for the next three weeks. If this request seems overly intrusive, we invite you to share other suggestions on how your father and I can ensure that your homework will get done – and we’ll be happy to consider them.”
    • “I am willing to hear your concern about the Saturday night curfew, and possibly make some changes. But I am unwilling to engage in this conversation if you use that scornful tone of voice. So if you can start over with a more respectful tone, I’ll hang in there and listen. Otherwise, you can come back later on, and we can pick up the discussion then.”
    • “I’m unwilling to permit you to go to your new friend’s Saturday night party without having more details. Please either ask him if I can give his parents a call, or let me know which of your friends are going – and I’ll check with their parents to see what they know. Based on that, I’ll let you know what my decision is.”
  4. If parents have been avoiding disciplinary actions because they are under the assumption that these steps will stress their parent/teen relationship -- and they want to keep the home atmosphere more “friendly”, think again! We can enjoy friendship with our teenagers in many arenas such as engaging in sports with them, enjoying cultural outings and vacations with them, having a good laugh together, or sharing conversation at dinnertime. But the desire for light, friendly interactions with our sons and daughters must not interfere with the requirement for firm discipline and limit-setting. Remember that parents who take their disciplinary role seriously demonstrate a degree of deep care and concern that is indeed appreciated by their children.
  5. If parents are resisting setting limits and/or enforcing consequences for their teen’s bad behavior because past history has demonstrated that their teenager will simply ignore them, it is time to seek the help of a qualified family therapist. Often parents do lose control over their teen -- finding themselves in the distressing position of having their teenager bully them, talk back at them, curse at them, and openly defy their efforts for behavioral change. Therapists who are experienced in working with adolescents can ally with teens to help discern the particular needs and struggles they are grappling with that they cannot effectively give language to. Meanwhile, therapists can ally with parents to help enforce firm, caring discipline. What emerges from such sessions is a “both/and approach” – whereby unmet needs and concerns of the teens are addressed, as are discipline issues important to the parents.
  6. Three common pitfalls virtually guarantee that teens will “tune out” their parents’ discipline.

    • Lecturing. To put it bluntly, teens hate lecturing! Lecturing at our sons and daughters puts them in a “one-down” position which they will usually react against at this critical developmental stage of their lives when their psyches are pulling for individuation and agency. When we designate a limit or explain our dissatisfaction with our teen’s behavior, it is best to do so with fewer words -- allowing them to less shamefully be held accountable for their behavior. Similarly, it is best for parents to put less emphasis on their “being right” (or their being let down, or being incredulous about their teenager’s actions), and more succinct emphasis on what we require of our son or daughter going forwards.

      For example, it is advisable to avoid lectures such as, “You have really disappointed us. You told us you would get your work done and handed in. And three weeks later, you’re still missing assignments. You have so many privileges here. You have use of the car and unlimited use of the computer. You have the big-screen TV that you asked for. You have so many things. And yet you can’t seem to do the one thing that we ask.”

      It is much more effective (i.e., more “tune-out-proof”!) to use an approach such as, “You had agreed to take more responsibility for completing your homework. Since it appears that you haven’t followed through, your father and I insist that we spend at least one half hour each night checking your completed assignments for the next three weeks. At that point, we will talk again about giving you another opportunity to more independently assume responsibility for your homework completion.”

    • Parents’ Anxiety. As our sons and daughters assume more and more independence in their teenage years (and as the stakes for their mistakes become greater), our resulting loss of control can create tremendous anxiety. To relieve the stress, we often find ourselves repeating admonitions for responsibility (“Don’t forget to get your chores done”), admonitions for respect (“Don’t forget to thank Susan’s parents when you leave”) – and most particularly, admonitions for safety. (“Remember you can only have two other people in the car when driving.” “Don’t forget to wear your seatbelt.” “Don’t forget that the curfew is 11:00.” “Remember not to talk to any strangers when you leave the concert.”)

      Teens experience repetition of the same message as annoying at best, and as a failure to be treated as an adult at worst. More specifically, they often experience such repetition as a disappointing failure on our parts to trust their judgment.

      So what’s a parent to do? It is probably best for parents to talk about issues (of safety, responsibility, and respect), outside of the event – when we can be more “present”, less reactive, and less rote in our discourse. For example, ask your daughter what she feels about driving with several friends in the car. Has she ever felt unsafe (i.e., has she ever felt that the driver was distracted)? Do her friends speed? Do they play the radio so loud that it appears to affect the driver’s ability to attend to traffic? Calmly share your concerns with her. If she sees things differently than you (for example, if she feels that it is perfectly safe to drive with a car full of teens), tell her that you understand that she has a different point of view -- but that you insist she may not drive, nor be a passenger in a car with more than two other friends in it. Calmly tell her that if you find out she has disobeyed this rule, she will lose her driving privileges for one week. And then, knowing that you have shared guidance with your teen to the best of your ability, do what all parents have to ultimately do – and that is to try to make peace with the fact that we unfortunately cannot have complete control over our teenagers’ safety.

      Similarly, ask your son if he routinely thanks his friends’ parents when he is invited over for meals. If he indicates that he doesn’t, tell him how you feel about it. Calmly share with him your reasons for feeling that a “thank you” is important – and how his not recognizing their gesture could be interpreted as disrespect. If your son disagrees with you, tell him that you certainly cannot make him extend a “thank you” to people, but that you feel strongly that this gesture will serve him well in his life – with future bosses, girlfriends, etc. Then tell him you appreciate his talking with you about this issue. And end the conversation knowing that again, parents ultimately cannot control everything our kids do. But that a calm conversation about the issues involved (rather than rote, repetitive reeling off of admonitions) will probably have some positive impact on our teens.

    • Parents’ Not Modeling the Behaviors They Require of Their Teenagers. Simply put, teens are sticklers for fairness, and can readily “sniff out” a double standard. This focus on fairness is actually a wonderful quality -- and one that parents should not discourage. (What a different society ours would be if all people who espoused morality, rules, etc. actually practiced what they preached!)

      Teens, who are idealistic enough to still adhere to a strict code of fairness, will not tolerate our telling them not to smoke cigarettes, for example, if we smoke ourselves. If we are critical of our son for not loading his dishes in the dishwasher but give our spouse “a pass” on the same behavior, our teen will probably not let this double standard go unnoticed. And if we criticize our daughter for leaving used soda cans in the car but do the same behavior ourselves, we will probably hear about it! So it’s important that parents model the behavior they request of their children, lest they lose credibility.

Finally, remember that change takes time and practice. Teenagers will be unable to turn around behavior immediately. But as long as parents keep consequences firmly in place, behavior should change relatively quickly. Meanwhile, parents must humbly accept that they too will be unable to change their behavior overnight. If we occasionally forget to enforce a consequence, it is important not to lose hope, and give up. We are all human; and, as such, change is a process that requires time and attention for all of us. But before long, we will notice that our relationship with our teens has become smoother and less stressed. And we’ll see in our sons and daughters wonderful qualities emerging of increased maturity and grace.

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Judy Rader, MA, LMFT

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Bryn Mawr, PA 19010


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