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“I think of discipline as the continual everyday process of helping a child learn self-discipline.”
– Fred Rogers
Now Is the Right Time!
Teens ages 15-19 are actively finding ways to assert independence with confidence but may also feel fragile and vulnerable about their future adult lives. They will naturally test limits and break rules. In fact, some of the conditions of adolescent development add to the likelihood that they will break rules such as your 17-year-old teen’s need for risk taking, their desire for increasing independence, their sexual curiosity and development, and their need to belong and seek approval of peers. This is a normal part of their development and necessary for their learning.
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you can choose to be purposeful and deliberate in the ways you provide guidance and discipline. Guidance and discipline for skill building can help your teen actively develop self-awareness — “the ability to accurately recognize one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior.”1 Self-awareness is a fundamental ingredient of self-management — “the ability to manage thoughts, feelings and actions, control impulses, persist toward goals, and manage stress.”1 These skills grow your teen’s sense of responsibility all the while improving your relationship.
Some parents and those in a parenting role feel that if they do not impose punishments, their teen will not understand that their behavior is inappropriate. In fact, when a teen is punished, they often feel scared, humiliated, and hurt. This overwhelming sense of fear or hurt impacts their relationship with you while also failing to teach them the appropriate behavior. Your teen is likely to miss the lesson you want to emphasize entirely and feel unsafe.
Adolescents’ brains are reorganizing from their childhood magical thinking processes to thinking more rationally and logically. They do not, however, fully form their higher order thinking skills until their early to mid twenties. Your support and guidance as they develop these critical life skills matter greatly. 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. Empathy is also an essential ingredient of self-discipline. Teens need to learn that their actions have an impact on others around them. This is developed over time and requires a lot of practice.
Research confirms that when teens learn to manage their feelings, they are better able to manage their behavior, problem solve, and focus their attention. It simultaneously strengthens their executive functions.2 This directly impacts their school success and ability to follow rules. Teens need the guidance and support of caring adults to learn these skills.
Guidance and discipline for skill building is challenging for many parents.3 Approaching guidance and discipline for skill building as teachable moments to grow your teen’s skills can be transformational in your understanding of discipline and can enrich your relationship with your teen. 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.
Why Guidance and Discipline for Skill Building?
When your fifteen-year-old is yelling at you because you won’t let them go to a social event on a school night, your seventeen-year-old is hiding their school work and claiming they have none, or your nineteen-year-old is refusing to participate in family routines, these situations are opportunities to provide guidance and discipline for skill building.
Today, in the short term, guidance and discipline for skill building can create
- a sense of confidence that you can help your teen regain calm and focus;
- a greater understanding in you of the connection between your teen’s feelings and their behaviors;
- trust in each other that you have the competence to manage your intense feelings; and
- a growing understanding of agreed upon rules and expectations.
Tomorrow, in the long term, guidance and discipline for skill building helps your teen
- build skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision making;
- learn independence 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 guide and 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 done best when you and your child/teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
“Too many children who have problems with behavior also have problems with accurately labeling their feelings.” – Maurice Elias
A teen’s behaviors are often influenced by their feelings. Feelings are spontaneous reactions to people, places, and experiences.2,4 Feelings are not right or wrong, but what your teen does with the feeling may be appropriate or inappropriate.
You can help your teen understand their feelings by asking open-ended questions. In gaining input:
- You can transform an unsafe or inappropriate behavior into a teachable moment by uncovering your teen’s feelings.
- You can better understand why your teen is behaving in a certain way.
- You can begin to teach your teen how to understand their own feelings, which will help them manage their own behaviors.
- You can grow their self-control, social awareness, and problem-solving skills.
Before you can get input from your teen to understand (and help them understand) what they are feeling, you both need to be calm. Your teen will not learn from the situation if you or they are upset.
- Ask yourself if your teen is hungry or tired. You could offer a snack or offer to have your teen take some time to rest.
- Check on how you are feeling. If you are angry, frustrated, or overwhelmed, take a “parenting time out” and take several deep breaths (it really does help) or sit quietly for a few minutes.
- If basic needs like hunger or tiredness are not issues for your teen, then take additional steps to help them calm down. This might involve offering a hug or helping them take deep breaths.
Teens ages 15-19 are working to understand their feelings, other people’s feelings, and how their own actions affect others. They will need your support in figuring all this out. When both you and your teen are calm, reflect on your teen’s feelings so you can be prepared to help. Ask yourself:
- “Does my teen have an unmet need?” They might need someone to listen or give them attention, some alone time, or some help so they can be successful at something they are trying to do.
- You can ask them about how they are feeling.
- “I noticed your face got really red. So, when you said unkind things to me, were you feeling frustrated?”
- “I saw you weren’t invited to your friend’s house on Friday night. I wonder if you are feeling sad?”
- You can also ask them about how they think others might be feeling.
- “When your friend wasn’t invited to the event, how do you think they were feeling?”
- “When you said that to me, how do you think that made me feel?”
- Use your best listening skills! Listen closely to what is most concerning to your teen without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings. It helps to use a paraphrasing technique to ensure you are fully understanding what your teen is communicating.
- Paraphrasing is echoing back to the person a summary of what they’ve said to check how accurate your listening is and also to confirm to the speaker that you have heard them. It may seem awkward at first, but this step is an important way for you to check your own understanding while simultaneously teaching teens how to listen for comprehension.
- It might go something like this:
- Teen: “When the teacher handed me the paper and I saw that I received a low grade, I got so frustrated. I wasn’t very nice to the teacher and said some rude things.”
- Parent modeling paraphrasing: “So, I hear that when your teacher handed you the paper and you saw that you had a low grade, you were frustrated and responded by saying some rude things.”
- If you hear a subtext of feeling, as in this example, you can also reflect back the feeling implied. Also, you can seek further clarification if it’s needed. Parent reflecting feeling: “I hear you were frustrated. Were your feelings hurt too?”
- Explore the mind-body connection. In calmer moments with your teen, ask, “How does your body feel now?” See how descriptively they can list their physical signs of wellbeing. Now ask, “How does your body feel when you are angry?” For every person, their physical experience will be different. Find out how your teen feels and make the connection between those symptoms and the normal feelings they are having.
- 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 just start by asking:
- “What are some ways we have been guiding and 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.
Avoid letting the questions you ask turn into accusations. Remember to stay calm and that the goal of the question is to help your teen uncover feelings.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
The fundamental purpose of guidance and discipline for skill building is to grow new skills and behaviors to replace inappropriate ones. Learning new skills and behaviors requires modeling, practice, support, and recognition.
Learning how to understand your own feelings and behaviors when your teen behaves inappropriately is a great way to start. It will help you understand what they are learning to do. You might ask yourself:
- “Do I get angry when they do a certain behavior?”
- “How do I respond to my anger?”
- “How do I want my teen to respond when they feel angry?”
Learning about your teen’s developmental milestones can help you have reasonable expectations.
- Fifteen-year-olds may feel sensitive to criticism and preoccupied with peer impressions. Conflict may arise if teens fear failure in front of you, their teacher, or their peers.
- Sixteen-year-olds may feel more confident. They may have new goals outside of school, and along with them, stress and worries. They might be tempted to stay up late studying or socializing, but that lack of sleep challenges their self-control and ability to manage anger and anxiety in healthy ways.
- Seventeen-year-olds may become highly focused on their academic and life goals and the stress of adult choices ahead. Conflicts may arise with you as they assert independence but also feel fragile, vulnerable, and scared of their future adult lives.
- Eighteen and nineteen-year-olds are considered emerging adults. At times they may exude confidence, while other times they may feel highly insecure and run to you needing comfort and security. Conflict may arise as you renegotiate your relationship with them.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.5 This is also an opportunity to establish meaningful, logical consequences for when expectations are not met.
It can be easy for parents or those in a parenting role to immediately address the underlying feelings with a simple “No” or other short answer. For example,
- When a teen is angry, instead of saying, “You shouldn’t be mad,” shift to “I see you are angry; let’s try taking deep breaths.”
- When a teen is frustrated, instead of saying, “Here, let me do it,” shift to “This can be hard. Do you want some help?”
- Each time your teen acts inappropriately 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 guidance and discipline for skill building 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 by 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:6
- 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.
- Teach positive ways to ask for attention. You may get into a habit of pointing out what teens are not doing right. For example, when they are behaving inappropriately to get attention, they have not yet learned how to get your attention in positive ways. Consider, “How can your teen learn to seek your attention in acceptable ways?”
- 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 teen 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.”
- Repair harm. A critical step in teaching your teen 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. Everyone has moments when they 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 teens misbehave during the day, they often end the day feeling bad about themselves. 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 teen who has had rough patches that day to assure them they are loved no matter what choices they make.
When you are reflecting on your teen’s feelings, you can think about unpacking a suitcase. Frequently, there are layers of feelings that need to be examined and understood, not just one. Anger might just be the top layer. After you’ve discovered why your teen was angry, you might ask about other layers. Was there hurt or a sense of rejection involved? Perhaps your teen feels embarrassed? Fully unpacking the suitcase of feelings will help your teen feel better understood by you as they become more self-aware.
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 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 necessary 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. 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 you are going to help your teen become emotionally intelligent in managing their biggest feelings, you need to acknowledge and accept their feelings — even, and especially, the ones you 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?”
- Practice deep breathing. Because deep breathing is such a simple practice that can assist your teen anytime, anywhere, it’s important to get plenty of practice so that it becomes easy to use when needed. Here are some enjoyable ways to practice together!7
- 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.
- 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.
- Follow through on repairing harm. When your teen has caused harm, they need your guidance, encouragement, and support in following through to repair it. They are learning the invaluable skill of responsible decision making.
- Include reflection on the day in your evening routine. You might ask, “What happened today that made you happy?” or “What were the best moments in your day?” You should answer the questions as well. Teens may not have the chance to reflect on what’s good and abundant in their lives throughout the day, yet grateful thoughts are a central contributor to happiness and wellbeing.
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.
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 feel grumpy, notice it and say, “I so appreciate you staying positive even when you may not feel like it.”
- Ask key questions to support their skills. For example, “You are going to see Julie today. Do you remember what you can do to assert your feelings?”
- Learn about development. Each new age and stage will present differing challenges and along with them, stress, frustrations, and anger.
- Promote an “I can” belief. Teens need to hear that you believe in their ability to learn anything with time and hard work.
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different coping strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your teen when tough issues arise.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after an inappropriate 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 feelings in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your feelings 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, apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
Learning new behaviors to replace inappropriate behaviors takes time. Teens ages 15-19 will likely not do it right the first time (or even the second or third!). That’s OK. What’s important is that you approach guidance and discipline for skill building by understanding feelings, teaching new behaviors, and practicing all the while maintaining a healthy, supportive, loving relationship with your teen. Your healthy, supportive, loving relationship with your teen is what is most important.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your teen is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and helping your teen manage their feelings. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your teen’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “You took some deep breaths and kept going — love seeing that!” or “You cleaned up your bedroom without being reminded — I appreciate that!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying “If you take out the trash, you’ll get extra game time” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You noticed the trash was full and took it out. I really appreciate that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. 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. Notice! “I noticed 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. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. 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 as ways to appreciate one another (they are never too old for this!).
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.