“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 teen’s success. Through our discipline practices, we can intentionally teach our teens to take responsibility for their actions, internalize their own sense of responsibility and self-discipline, and grow a positive parent-teen relationship.
Teens and emerging young adults ages 15-19 will naturally test limits and break rules. In fact, some of the conditions of adolescent development add to the likelihood that they’ll break rules including our teen’s need for risk-taking, their desire for increasing independence, their sexual curiosity and development, and their need to belong and be approved of by peers. Those mistakes or misbehaviors are a normal part of their development and necessary for their learning. Teens are also working on learning and exercising 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.
Research confirms that when teens 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 teens 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 teen’s needs are met. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to prepare you to help your teen take responsibility for their actions and develop a sense of self-discipline.
Whether it’s your fifteen-year-old yelling at you for not allowing them to go to a social event on a school night, your seventeen-year-old hiding their school work and claiming they have none, or your nineteen-year-old refusing to participate in family routines, our teen’s lack of cooperation, showing disrespect, or breaking the rules and the many accompanying emotions that go with those problems 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 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 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 teen. 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 teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your 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 teen:
- has the opportunity to contribute to the hopes and goal setting of the family and see 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 teen. Once you have thought of your responses, ask and listen to your teen’s responses. You might start by asking:
- “What does discipline mean to our family?”
- “Now that you are older, 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 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 teen about how they would respond to some of their behaviors that challenge you. Even though your teen may talk about rules in other people’s families, your family values might be different, and this is a great opportunity to talk about values.
- Use your best listening skills! Listen closely to what is most concerning to your 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 teen’s motivation for the misbehavior. If you can uncover why your 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 teens have that motivate misbehaviors. These defined areas comes from a research-based teacher’s guide entitled Cooperative Discipline by Linda Albert.3
- How Your 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 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 teen is acting with the goal of getting your attention can clue you in to why your 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 Teen: Every 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 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 Teen Misbehaves and Why: Whether it involves back talking, refusing to do something or go somewhere, or giving an impassioned “I don’t have to listen to you!” the message of these behaviors is “let’s fight!” Your 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 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 Teen: Because teens are attempting to gain power, they may also possess important potential skills like leadership, assertive communication, and independent thinking. These are key attributes for wellbeing and often 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 teen who’s in charge. Our body language may get bigger and more aggressive to overpower our teen. We may scold, punish, or send a 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 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 Teen Misbehaves and Why: This can manifest as a frustration tantrum: “I’m too upset to do my homework.” A 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 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 occurrence based on anxiety or an excuse. But, teens themselves often don’t know whether it’s real or perceived. The goal of the 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 teen refuses to do what they’ve committed to doing time and again.
- Empathizing With Your Teen: Your 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 others’ 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 teen to follow through on their commitments. We may feel like failures as we attempt to get our teen moving while they dig in and refuse to budge. This tool will show you more effective ways to respond.
- How Your Teen Misbehaves and Why: 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 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 like 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 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 teen or siblings since their teen is intending to harm others.
- Empathizing With Your Teen: When your 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 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 teen and further contributes to the problem. The 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 teen misbehaves, remind yourself that there is meaning underlying their behavior. Ask yourself these two questions:
- “What need is my teen trying to get met right now?”
- “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 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 teen before offering a correction or redirection. That way you strengthen the relationship and help your teen feel safe.
- Brainstorm coping strategies. There are numerous coping strategies you and your 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 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 teen shuts down and refuses to tell us what’s going on, we have to dig for clues. Though your 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 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 teen learn to seek your attention in acceptable ways to you?”
Proactively teach these kinds of attention-getting behaviors. Would you like your 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 teen’s feelings so you can be prepared to help. Ask yourself:
- “What needs is my 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 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 teen first. But then, guiding them to communicate their need is key.
- Teach assertive communication through “I-messages.” When you or your 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 teen, and from teen to teen. 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 teen: “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 teen. If power is their issue, this helps them regain their own personal power.
- Repair harm. A critical step in teaching our 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.
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 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 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 teen learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say: “I’d love to see you try that in a different way where you get your needs met and no feelings are hurt in the process.” This practice will prepare your teen to use it when they require your attention, and they are tempted to misbehave to get their needs met.
- Offer limited and authentic choices. Particularly for a teen who is acting out to seek power or even revenge, they have lost sense of their own control and are attempting to meet that need. Offering them a choice even if small – “Do you want pizza tonight or spaghetti?” – can return a sense of control to their lives. It also offers valuable practice in responsible decision making.
- Recognize effort. Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like: “I notice how you stopped yourself from interrupting me. That’s excellent!”
- Accept feelings. If we are going to help our 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 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 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 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 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 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 evening routine. Be sure you end screen time one hour before bedtime so that your teen has the chance for a good night’s sleep. Share some reflections together. Begin by asking about worries or problems that your 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. 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 teen is exerting considerable effort to create a power struggle or seek revenge, ask for help. Engage your 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 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 teen’s hurtful behaviors, you can understand their thoughts and feelings better. For example, your 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 teens’ behavior. See if you can dig further to find compassion and understanding and share that with your teen.
Refrain from judging your teen’s friends. You want your 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 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 teen needs to take some steps to help heal that wound. It takes tremendous courage, however, to do so. So, in order for your 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. What can they do (a card, a hug, an apology, a service)? They may need to hold your hand through that process, and that’s okay! They are learning the invaluable skill of responsible decision making.
Step 4. Support Your Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your 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 teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Catch your teen doing things right. Recognize any positive behavior, especially when the behavior is something that you have recently talked about. For example, if your 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 teen into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2. Third, if you feel that your 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 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 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 teen’s sense of competence and responsibility. Add to their motivation to work hard with the following actions.
- Notice! It may seem obvious but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When teens are using the self-management tools you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I notice you when you got frustrated with your homework, you moved away and took some deep breaths. Yes! Excellent.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like articulating mixed emotions – in order to recognize. 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 teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. Include high fives, fist bumps, and hugs in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another (they are never too old for this!).
Be specific. “Good job” seems to not carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “You were careful with your words when you were upset earlier. Love seeing that!” – can promote more of the same.
Avoid gifts or other physical rewards for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on our teens. When you remove the money, 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 teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for 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.