“I think of discipline as the continual everyday process of helping a child learn self-discipline.” – Fred Rogers
Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent, you play an essential role in your child’s/teen’s success. Through our discipline practices, we can intentionally teach our children/teens to take responsibility for their actions, internalize their own sense of responsibility and self-discipline, and grow a positive parent-child and parent-teen relationship.
Children/teens ages 11-14 will naturally test limits and break rules. Those mistakes or misbehaviors are a normal part of their development and necessary for their learning. Adolescents’ brains are reorganizing from their childhood magical thinking processes to thinking more rationally and logically. They do not, however, fully form those higher order thinking skills until their early to mid twenties. Our support and guidance as they develop these critical life skills matters greatly. In addition, they are exercising and developing self-control, a fundamental ingredient of self-discipline. And, they are also working to empathize with others, to view thoughts and feelings from another person’s perspective. This too is an essential ingredient of self-discipline. Children/teens need to learn that their actions have an impact on others around them.
Research confirms that when young children learn to manage their emotions, it simultaneously strengthens their executive functions.1 They are better able to use self-control, problem solve, and focus their attention. This directly impacts their school success and ability to follow the rules. However, the converse is also true. Those children who do not learn to manage their emotions through the guidance and support of caring adults have attention issues, a lack of impulse control, and difficulty in problem solving.
Yet, there are challenges. A national parent survey revealed that 57% of parents report they struggle to figure out the most effective way to discipline.2
The key to many parenting challenges like disciplining in supportive ways that build skills is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your child’s/teen’s needs are met. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to prepare you to help your child/teen take responsibility for their actions and develop a sense of self-discipline.
Whether it’s your eleven-year-old yelling at you for not being able to go to a social event on a school night or your fourteen-year-old going to an unsupervised party with alcohol without your knowledge, our child’s/teen’s lack of cooperation or breaking the rules can become a regular challenge if we don’t create plans and strategies for dealing with it.
Today, in the short term, discipline can create:
- a sense of confidence that we can help our child/teen regain calm and focus;
- greater opportunities for connection and enjoyment as we work together to care for each other;
- trust in each other that we have the competence to manage our intense feelings;
- agreed upon rules and expectations; and
- added daily peace of mind.
Tomorrow, in the long term, discipline helps your child/teen:
- build skills in self-awareness;
- build skills in self-control and managing emotions;
- learn independence, life skills competence, and self-sufficiency; and
- build assertive communication to express needs and boundaries critical for keeping them safe and ready to deal with peer pressure.
This five-step process helps you discipline to build skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child/teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child/Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child/teen thinking about rules and learning agreements by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt their thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges. In gaining input, your child/teen:
- has the opportunity to contribute to the hopes and goal setting of the family and sees the connection with why we have rules;
- has the opportunity to become more aware of how they are thinking and feeling and understand when they break rules;
- can think through and solve problems they may encounter ahead of time;
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve thought through and designed themselves, and with that sense of ownership, comes a greater responsibility for implementing new strategies;
- will have more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership; and
- will be working with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their life.
- Get curious. Considering your own answers to these questions will strengthen your ability to support your child/teen. Once you have thought of your responses, ask and listen to your child’s/teen’s responses. You might just start by asking:
- “What does discipline mean to our family?”
- “What are some ways we been have disciplining that work and don’t work?”
- “What do we want for our family? What are our hopes?”
- “How do we establish rules that help us work together toward our hopes and dreams?”
- “When and why do you break rules?”
- Get ideas. Ask your child/teen about the rules of engagement that should exist in your house. What are some agreements they are willing to make about how you all interact as a family? Ask your child/teen about how they would respond to some of their behaviors that challenge you.
- Use your best listening skills! Listen closely to what is most concerning to your child/teen without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
In order to respond to a misbehavior by transforming it into a teachable moment, it’s critical to discover your child’s/teen’s motivation for the misbehavior. If you can uncover why your child/teen is acting out – and there’s always a good reason – then you can best respond in ways that prevent that destructive behavior for the future while promoting other more positive behaviors. Here are the most common mistaken goals children/teens have that motivate misbehaviors. These defined areas comes from a research-based teachers’ guide entitled Cooperative Discipline by Linda Albert.3
- How Your Child/Teen Misbehaves and Why: Whether it is yelling at you, rolling their eyes, or being rude or disrespectful, these actions are all a ploy to get your attention. And they work! If your child/teen gets your attention and successfully pushes your buttons, you’re bound to respond and quickly.
- Parent Clues on Motivation: How you feel when your child/teen is acting with the goal of getting your attention can clue you in to the fact that, that’s exactly why your child/teen is misbehaving. You’ll likely feel irritated and annoyed but not yet intensely angry. This tool will show you more effective ways to respond.
- Empathizing With Your Child/Teen: Every child/teen seeks their parent’s attention and requires it for their very survival. They need to learn how to ask for attention appropriately. This is normal, and your response will be key in helping define boundaries and practice positive skills.
- Parent Tendencies: We may be inclined to nag, scold, or come to the rescue. These responses sometimes will stop the behavior in the moment because the goal of your child/teen getting your attention has been reached. But they don’t prevent the behavior in the future nor do they teach a new skill or positive behavior to replace the misguided one.
- How Your Child/Teen Misbehaves and Why: Whether it involves back talking, refusing to do something or go somewhere, or giving an impassioned “You can’t make me!” the message of these behaviors is “let’s fight!” Your child/teen may be feeling powerless or out of control and needing to regain some power in their life. All humans – young and old – require a sense of control and power over their own lives, but they need to seek it in positive ways. A child/teen can also quietly not comply or conveniently forget as a form of passive power seeking.
- Parent Clues on Motivation: In this situation, you’ll likely feel angry, highly frustrated, or upset. Power struggles can press our hot buttons. This tool will show you more effective ways to respond.
- Empathizing With Your Child/Teen: Because children/teens are attempting to gain power, they may also possess important potentials like leadership, assertive communication, and independent thinking. These are key attributes for wellbeing and often children/teens who try to engage in power struggles need to be re-guided to hone these skills and use them in contributing ways.
- Parent Tendencies: We will be inclined to get angry and respond to our anger by fighting back, by raising our volume, yelling, and showing our child/teen who’s in charge. Our body language may get bigger and more aggressive to overpower our child/teen. We may scold, punish, or send a child/teen to their room grounded or without a gaming device. But these responses don’t prevent the behavior in the future. In fact, they can create more power struggles in the future because the child/teen again feels powerless, hurt, and rejected. The response also does not teach a new skill or positive behavior to replace the misguided one.
- Avoidance of Failure
- How Your Child/Teen Misbehaves and Why: This can manifest as a frustration tantrum. “I’m too upset to do my homework.” A child/teen might procrastinate on a task they know they must do. It could also result in refusing to go somewhere or do an activity. Some children/teens may claim boredom, sheer lack of desire, or just give up on the task and on their abilities. They may claim they’re temporarily incapable with a headache or stomach ache. It’s important, if you can, to determine whether this is a real occurence based on anxiety or an excuse. But children/teens, themselves, often don’t know whether it’s real or perceived. The goal of the child/teen here is to avoid failure. And, with an emphasis on competition and performance in academics or extracurriculars, this can be a common occurrence.
- Parent Clues on Motivation: Initially a parent may feel concerned, worried, or even sad. That worry can escalate into anger and frustration if a child/teen refuses to do what they’ve committed to doing time and again.
- Empathizing With Your Child/Teen: Your child/teen is likely so intent on being successful that they cannot bear the thought or chance of failing. They may feel like they just cannot meet their own or other’s expectations for them and their performance. They also might feel as if their identity or even others’ love is wrapped up in whether or not they can perform to a certain standard.
- Parent Tendencies: We might lecture, push, yell, or punish depending on how much we need our child/teen to follow through on their commitments. We may feel like failures as we attempt to get our child/teen moving, and they dig in and refuse to budge. This tool will show you more effective ways to respond.
- How Your Child/Teen Misbehaves and Why: Children/teens motivated by revenge may be generally more unhappy than happy most of the time. When they lash out, it’s about retaliation whether they are seeking revenge for real or perceived hurts. The undercurrent of this child’s/teen’s behavior is that they are hurting or feeling rejected. They may anger easily. They may attack with words that may cut to our very core as parents like “I hate you!” or “You don’t love me!” There may be physical attacks or the threat of physical attacks such as breaking a sibling’s toy on purpose or taking a parent’s wallet or phone. Withdrawing and giving the silent treatment can also serve as revenge if the child/teen is intending to hurt you with their removal.
- Parent Clues on Motivation: Parents will feel angry, hurt, and upset. They may even feel scared for themselves and for their child/teen or siblings since their child/teen is intending to harm others.
- Empathizing With Your Child/Teen: When your child/teen is seeking revenge, you know that they are hurting deeply. This behavior may be a protection mechanism attempting to ward off more hurt. This is a sign that a child/teen needs ongoing emotional support.
- Parent Tendencies: A parent might tend to yell or punish more harshly than with other behaviors when revenge is involved since the intent is to hurt or cause harm. This response deepens the hurt in the child/teen and further contributes to the problem. The child/teen, though they might stop in the moment, will likely continue with revenge behaviors until they get the emotional support needed. Parents, if they have tried with no success, may seek outside help. This tool will show you more effective ways to respond.
- Each time your child/teen misbehaves, ask the question: “What positive behavior do I need to teach and practice that can replace the misbehavior?”
- Remind yourself that the goal of discipline is to have your child/teen learn something. So, help them get into a learning space by being interested and curious about them. Rather than starting with what they did wrong, start with asking, “What happened?”
- Always connect first with your child/teen before offering a correction or redirection. That way you strengthen the relationship and help your child/teen feel safe.
- Brainstorm coping strategies. There are numerous coping strategies you and your child/teen can use depending on what feels right. But when you are really angry and upset, it can be difficult to recall what will make you feel better. That’s why brainstorming a list, writing it down, and keeping it at the ready can come in handy when your child/teen really needs it. Here are some ideas from Janine Halloran, the author of Raising Kids Who Can Cope with Tough Times.4
- Imagine your favorite place, take a walk, get a drink of water, take deep breaths, count to 50, do Jumping Jacks, stretch, play a game, talk with someone you trust, use a fidget, draw, write in a journal, blow bubbles, read a funny book, color, build something, listen to relaxing music, take a break, take a shower/bath, use a calming jar.
- Work on your family feelings vocabulary. Yes, at times, parents have to become a feelings detective. If our child/teen shuts down and refuses to tell us what’s going on, we have to dig for clues. Though your child/teen has been speaking fluently for some time now, they take longer to develop their feelings vocabulary. That’s because they hear feelings expressed in daily conversations much less frequently than thoughts or other expressions. Culturally, whether we are aware of it or not, expressing feelings seems like a weakness. And there are particular feelings like anger or jealousy that we would like to disown completely. In fact, it’s necessary to be able to identify our emotions to become more self-aware and successfully manage our emotions.
- Teach positive ways to ask for attention. We may get into a habit of pointing out what children/teens are not doing right. For example, when they are misbehaving to get our attention, they have not yet learned how to get our attention in positive ways. Similarly with power, if they are seeking it through misbehaviors, they don’t know yet how to obtain power in constructive ways without harming others. So consider: “How can your child/teen learn to seek your attention in acceptable ways to you?”
Proactively teach these kinds of attention-getting behaviors. Would you like your child/teen to say a polite “excuse me” when they need you and you’re engaged in a conversation? If so, practice as a family. Do a dry run so that all are comfortable, and then reinforce that positive behavior to create more of the same.
- Reflect on your child’s/teen’s feelings so you can be prepared to help. Ask yourself,
- “What needs is my child/teen not getting met?” Their needs can be emotional needs like needing a friend to listen or give attention, needing some alone time, or needing to escape a chaotic environment.
- “Can the issue be addressed by my child/teen alone or do they need to communicate a need, ask for help, or set a boundary?” One of the hardest steps to take for many can be asking for help or drawing a critical boundary line when it’s needed. You’ll need to find out what those issues are in your reflections with your child/teen first. But, then guiding them to communicate their need is key.
- Teach assertive communication through I-messages. When you or your children/teens are in the uncomfortable position of disagreeing or arguing with another, it can be difficult to know how to respond in ways that won’t harm yourself or others. That’s why teaching and practicing I-messages can provide a structure for what you can say. This statement works effectively from partner to partner, from parent to child, and from child to child. Here’s an example: “I feel _______________________(insert feeling word) when you_________________ (name the words or actions that upset you) because____________________________________.”
- This helps the individual take responsibility for their own role and their feelings while avoiding blaming language like “you did…” (which closes down the mind and ears of the other). It helps communicate the problem constructively without harming the other involved. Here’s how it might sound if a parent is using it with a child: “I feel frustrated and angry when you keep playing video games and don’t seem like you are listening because I feel ignored, and I believe what I have to say is important for both of us.”
- This is a tool that can feel empowering to your child/teen. If power is their issue, this helps them regain their own personal power.
- Repair harm. A critical step in teaching our children/teens about taking responsibility for their actions is learning how to repair harm (physical or emotional) when they’ve caused it. And they will. Mistakes are a critical aspect of their social learning. We all have our moments when we hurt another. But it’s that next step that they take that matters in healing emotional wounds and repairing the relationship.
- End the day with love. When children/teens misbehave during the day, they often end the day feeling badly about themselves. Children/teens tie your love to their behavior. If you act proud of them, they feel loved. If you are disappointed or mad at them, they feel unloved. Be sure that you spend one on one time with a child/teen who has had rough patches that day to assure them they are loved no matter what choices they make.
Create a ritual of sharing words of love and care at bedtime. Consider that ending the day reflecting on how much you appreciate one another could just be the best way to send your child/teen off to sleep.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of cooperatively completing the task together or trying out a task with you as a coach and ready support. Practice is not only nice, it’s necessary in order for children/teens to internalize new skills. Practice makes vital new brain connections that strengthen each time they perform the new action.
- Use “I’d love to see…” statements. When a child/teen learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say: “I’d love to see you try asking me again in a way that increases the chances I will say yes.” This practice will prepare your child/teen to use it when they require your attention and they are tempted to misbehave to get their need met.
- Offer limited and authentic choices. Particularly for a child/teen who is acting out to seek power or even revenge, they have lost a sense of their own control and are attempting to meet that need. Offering them a choice even if small – “Would you like to do the dishes before or after finishing homework?” – can return a sense of control to their lives. It also offers valuable practice in responsible decision making.
- Recognize effort. Recognize effort by saying “I notice…” statements: “I notice how you used our ‘wait five minutes hand signal.’ It worked! That’s excellent!”
- Accept feelings. If we are going to help our children/teens become emotionally intelligent in managing their biggest feelings, we need to acknowledge and accept their feelings – even and especially the ones we don’t like! So catch yourself. When your child/teen is upset, consider your response. Instead, you could reflect back and prompt a next step: “I hear you’re upset. What can you do to help yourself feel better?” If your child/teen is motivated by power or revenge, this is critical in returning their sense of control. Instead of focusing on their actions, the problem or the misbehavior, focus on their feelings FIRST. Take care that they feel understood. Look for ways to assist them in feeling better. Then, address the behavior.
- Practice deep breathing. Because deep breathing is such a simple practice that can assist your child/teen anytime, anywhere, it’s important to get in plenty of practice so that it becomes easy to use when needed. Here are some enjoyable ways to practice together!5
- Hot chocolate breathing. Pretend to hold your hot cup of cocoa in both hands in front of you. Breathe in deeply the aroma of the chocolate. And then blow out to cool it in preparation for drinking. Do this to the count of five to give your child/teen practice. Then, look for chances to practice it regularly.
- Ocean breathing. Practice making the noise of the sea waves while breathing deeply from your diaphragm. Close your eyes with your child/teen and imagine that your anger is a fiery flame waiting on a sandy shore. And as you breathe life into the ocean waves, they grow closer and closer to the flame to extinguish it.
- Include reflection on the day in your bedtime routine. Be sure you end screen time one hour before bedtime so that your child/teen has the chance for a good night’s sleep. Share some reflections together. Begin by asking about worries or problems that your child/teen will surely consider after you leave the room. Listen and offer comfort. Demonstrate that you are allowing and accepting the uncertainty of unresolved problems. You could say, “There’s no amount of worrying that is going to fix things tonight. So how can you talk about accepting what you have and where you are now and working on it tomorrow?” Then, turn to gratitude. Children/Teens may not have the chance to reflect on what’s good and abundant in their lives throughout the day, yet grateful thoughts can be a central contributor to happiness and wellbeing. And, grateful thoughts directly wipe out ruminations.
- If your child/teen is exerting considerable effort to create a power struggle or seek revenge, ask for help. Engage your child/teen side-by-side in taking action together to make things better in your household, at your school, and in your community.
- When you are reflecting with your child/teen about their upset, are there other ways to view the situation? Are there other perspectives to consider? Though you never want to excuse another child’s/teen’s hurtful behaviors, you can understand their thoughts and feelings better. For example, your child’s/teen’s friend Julie was cruel to your daughter today when, on most days, they are joyful friends. You might ask, “Do you know if anything is going on at home or at school that might be upsetting to Julie?” Find out. What if Julie’s parents have recently announced they are getting a divorce? There are always reasons for children’s/teens’ behavior. See if you can dig further to find compassion and understanding and share that with your child/teen.
Refrain from judging your child’s/teen’s friends. You want your child/teen to trust you with their friendship worries and problems. If you harshly judge their friends, they may lose some of that trust and may not confide in you.
- Follow through on repairing harm. When your child/teen has caused harm, it’s easier to shrink away in shame and attempt to escape the problem hoping time will heal all wounds. But if real damage has been done – emotionally or physically – then your child/teen needs to take some steps to help heal that wound. It takes tremendous courage, however, to do so. So, in order for your child/teen to learn that a next choice can be their best choice, that they can make up for the harm they’ve caused, they need your guidance, encouragement, and support in following through on those steps. They are learning the invaluable skill of responsible decision making.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s/Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child/teen some new strategies and clarified expectations regarding their behavior. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child/teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Catch your child/teen doing things right. Recognize any positive behavior, especially when the behavior is something that you have recently talked about. For example, if your child/teen is working on being polite in the morning even when they are grumpy, notice it and say, “I so appreciate you staying positive even when you may not feel like it.”
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after the negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own emotions in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your emotions are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child/teen into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2. Third, if you feel that your child/teen is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though adults tend to forget, our attention is our child’s/teen’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting tasks accomplished like getting to work and school on time in the morning. But if your child/teen is working hard to manage their big feelings, it will be worth your while to call it out. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding your child/teen’s sense of competence and responsibility. Add to their motivation to work hard by the following actions.
- Notice. It may seem obvious but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When children/teens are using the self-management tools you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed you when you got frustrated with your homework, you moved away and took some deep breaths. Yes! Excellent.”
Be specific. “Good job” seems to not carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “You went to your chill zone when you were upset earlier – love seeing that!” – can promote more of the same.
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. They need to happen along the way. Find small ways your child/teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, celebrate with game night or watching a show or movie together. Include hugs, high fives, and fist bumps in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Avoid gifts, or other physical rewards for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on our children/teens. When you remove the money or extra screen time, for example, have they internalized the skills and also the sense of responsibility for performing them? There’s less of a chance if you’ve offered a “bribe.” Focus on your attention as the best reward.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child/teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children/teens to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.