Disciplining a Teenager
With the teen years come a whole new set of disciplinary questions for parents. Because teen behavior is naturally riskier, which is developmentally normal, that riskier behavior can potentially lead to bigger consequences. This often leads parents to question where to draw lines, how to discipline a teenager and better yet, how to get a teenager to control their own impulses to stop bad behavior before it even starts.
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Skip to the section you would like below.
- Introduction to Disciplining Teenagers
- Set Appropriate Rules for Your Teenager – How to Draw Your Lines
- Creating Consequences
- How to Discipline a Teenager
- When a Consequence Does Not Work
- Parent From a Place of Support, Not Fear
- Help Your Teenager Make Good Decisions - How to Help Your Teenager Control Their Impulses
- A Note to Our BIPOC Community Members
Introduction to Disciplining Teenagers
The goal for all discipline is to teach your child how to control their impulses and self-correct their behavior. The teenage years include additional challenges for parents as both parent and child embark in the separation process necessary for a successful launch into young adulthood. Preparing for this launch during the teenage years requies a parent to once again shift how they discipline their child.
Follow these 3 tips for disciplining a teenager
- Set appropriate rules for your teen
- Don’t be afraid to go back to an earlier stage of discipline
- Help your teen make good decisions
Set Appropriate Rules for Your Teenager
How to draw your lines
As a child grows, there are different rules a parent must incorporate.
Non-negotiable rules are rules for the welfare of the child or for others. They are rules which teach safety, compliance and set the limits of behavior. For example, ‘don’t drink and drive’. These non-negotiable type of rules make up the majority of the parent’s rules when a child is young and lessen in number as a child grows older.
Negotiable rules are rules to teach responsibility and thinking skills. These rules can be harder for parents because they are often in the gray areas of parenting. Negotiable rules set out an overall expectation, but leave the specifics up to the child. For example, ‘your weekly chores must be completed by Sunday at 6:00’. In this example, the parent has specified the expectation for chores to be completed and by when, but has left the teen to problem solve and plan for when and how they will complete all their chores by the deadline.
When a child is young, there should be no negotiable rules because they are not developmentally ready. But as a child grows older, especially when they enter into adolescence, there should be more negotiable rules and less non-negotiable rules.
If you struggle with creating negotiable rules, start by basing them off of safety concerns or family values. You can watch videos about having a family meeting and defining your family values on our resources page.
As you get more used to the idea of negotiable rules, you can invite your teen to contribute to the creation of negotiable rules. It is a great way to teach them self-discipline, problem solving and acceptance of the rules.
Have just 10 rules as your core rules to start, more than that can feel overwhelming for both you and your teen. You can always adjust the ratio of negotiable and non-negotiable rules if you have a younger teen or a teen that needs more guidance. Remember, you are working toward the majority of the rules for your teenager being negotiable rules.
Once you have your rules created, it is time to define the logical consequences that go with each rule. Logical consequences for behavior are consequences that make sense as a result of an action or behavior, and the more natural the consequence the better.
For example, using our rule from above, let’s say your teen does not get all of their chores done by Sunday at 6:00. A logical consequence may be that they need to give up the rest of their Sunday night to complete all the chores, regardless if they had plans. Or if their chores are tied to an allowance maybe the logical consequence means your teen doesn’t receive an allowance that week or they pay you the amount of their allowance.
Below are the guidelines to create effective consequences for disciplining a teenager:
- The consequence must somehow be linked to the behavior the rule addresses, the more logical or natural the better.
- The consequence must occur immediately after the behavior or in the very near future to be effective. This means if something happens on Tuesday your consequence should not wait to be enforced until the weekend. If the infraction occurs on Tuesday the consequence should also occur on Tuesday or Wednesday at the latest.
- The consequence must be consistently applied. That means every time the rule is broken the same consequence occurs, without fail. Consequences do not need to be harsh and long to be effective, if anything that just makes it harder to enforce or creates more push back from you teen. So make it easy on yourself and keep it short and simple, but consistent. Most of the time 1 to 7 days for a consequence is enough. If an offense is particularly egregious or there is a pattern of behavior or escalating behavior, then the rule itself should be changed to a non-negotiable rule with more structured consequences rather than extending consequences for a longer period of time.
Tip: The consequences for each rule should be set at the time the rule is created, not after the fact and not on the fly.
It is also important to tell your teen the consequence for each rule in advance, when there has not yet been a rule violation. This provides your teen an opportunity to ask questions and participate in a discussion about the consequence so they can learn and agree to the consequence before it needs to be enforced. Advance warning also ensures fairness in the eyes of your teen and therefore results in better compliance.
So now you know how to set rules for your teenager, but what happens when they break the rules?
How to discipline a teenager
Don’t be afraid to go back to an earlier stage of discipline
Teenagers are going to make mistakes, they are going to break rules. It is part of their job at this age.
We touched a little on logical consequence setting and implementation above and that is definitely a huge part of disciplining a teenager. Remember consistency is key so if you struggle with that, don’t worry you are not alone. Sometimes we are busy or we don’t have energy and we just let things slide. Or sometimes consistency is just something that is personally hard for us. To help with consistency, make sure you are setting yourself up for success by making realistic consequences – simple and short.
Tip: Post your rules, with the consequence right underneath it, in a common area of your house where your teen will see it on a daily basis. That way when your teen breaks a rule you can simply reference the consequence on display.
When you do need to enforce a consequence, make it as matter of fact as possible. Simply acknowledge they broke a rule and reference the consequence. If your teen pushes back, stay as neutral as possible, repeat the consequence, remind them this was what was agreed upon earlier and that if they would like to change the consequence you would be open to discussing it at the next family meeting, but for now the consequence stands.
It can also help to have a backup consequence that has been agreed upon with your teen in advance for when a teen refuses a consequence. This can be one standard consequence for all refusals.
For example, “if you refuse a set consequence, you forfeit your phone (or maybe the car) for 24 hours”.
This way if your teen breaks a rule and then they start giving you a hard time about the set consequence or they refuse the consequence that is already set you can remind them what the consequence is if they refuse to comply. Then offer them a choice to accept the set consequence or the consequence for not accepting the set consequence.
Again, remain as neutral as possible with your voice and only offer them the choice once. After that, if they refuse to choose then you automatically enforce the consequence for refusing the set consequence. If your teen is still trying to argue with you, you can remind them when the consequence will end (in our example in 24 hours), that they can choose differently next time and then just walk away*.
But what happens when a rule is broken repeatedly and the consequence does not seem to be working?
When a Consequence Does not work
Tip: You’ll know a consequence is working when it makes your teen stop before engaging in inappropriate behavior. A consequence is also working when it causes your teen to pause before engaging in inappropriate behavior or learn from the mistake.
An effective consequence does not mean 100% compliance all of the time or that your teen will never make mistakes and break a rule. An effective consequence creates space for awareness so that your teen can consider their actions and learn to make a conscious choice before engaging in behavior using their logic, not impulse. This takes lots of practice and additional brain development.
So give rules and consequences a little time before deciding whether or not it is working. If it is not working, take a look at the consequence first. If it violates any of the 3 formulas for creation, start by fixing the consequence and try again. You can also have a conversation with your teen about what might be a better consequence to help curb their behavior.
If the consequence is not the problem, then perhaps the rule does not provide enough structure for your teen. The goal of discipline is to build stamina and self-control and there will be times when your teen may need to go back to more structure in order to succeed. This is normal. View disciplining a teenager as a fluid process.
Do not be afraid to pull back a negotiable rule and create more structure whenever your teen or the circumstances indicate they need more help.
But before you add back in structure, in essence taking away some of your teenager’s freedom and independence, make sure the rule change is actually warranted or you could be sabotaging your teenager’s confidence and your teen’s trust in your parenting authority.
Parent from a place of support, not fear
Sometimes, a teen can trigger a fear reaction in a parent because they do really risky things. A parent’s fear response usually comes out as anger and outrage and sparks a knee jerk reaction to immediately take back control to protect their child out of love and ease their own anxiety.
That is a natural human reaction as a parent. And if our only job as parents was to ensure the survival of our teen, that would be an appropriate reaction all of the time. But remember our job as a parent is to not just ensure temporary survival, but to ensure the successful launch of our teen into the world to navigate and survive independent of us.
So once again, parenting and disciplining your teenager becomes more of a gray area to navigate. So when you enter this gray area of whether or not to reign in your teen’s freedom and reinstate more structure, you should ask yourself 2 questions:
- Has this rule/behavior been a recurring problem in the past?
- Was the offense so egregious that a one-time only offense warrants a change?
If you can answer ‘Yes’ to either of these questions after you have calmed down, then you can proceed to the next step, which is having a conversation with your teen about why you feel a change in rules to create more structure is necessary.
This conversation should be held only when everyone is calm. That may mean it needs to wait an hour or sometimes a day or two depending on how high emotions are.
Help your teenager make good decisions
How to help your teenager control their impulses
Teaching your teen how to identify their mistakes and modeling how to fix them paves the road for them being able to control their own impulses and correct their own behavior; a parent’s ultimate goal.
When your teenager is struggling with a rule or responsibility or they have made a serious error in judgment, explain to them what you are observing and ask them to talk about why they think they are having trouble. By leading your teen through a self-discovery journey into their behavior they can learn better solutions for future circumstances.
Below are some questions you can use to begin a conversation with your teen. Again, make sure this conversation occurs only when everyone is calm. And always start by giving your teen the chance to talk first.
- What happened?
- How did you feel?
- Why do you think it is hard to follow this rule?
- Is there anything I can do to help you succeed?
- How would you change this rule or the consequence if you could?
When you have this conversation, practice reflective listening so your teen really feels heard. A lot of the time a teen will accept rule changes and consequences as long as they feel their opinion has really been heard. So when your teen tells you their story and why they broke the rule, repeat it back to them. For example, “you snuck out of the house to be with your friends because you felt like you were going to miss something important and that the rule was unfair”.
Remember: Reflective listening does not mean you need to agree with your teen or even that they are going to get away with their behavior. You are simply granting them space to hear them and acknowledge them.
End the conversation with, “is there anything else you think I should know”. Make sure you have given them the opportunity to say everything they want to say and you have reflected it back to them, then you can say how you view their behavior and your opinions.
Sometimes, your teen will provide insight that will allow you to work together to amend the rules and consequences so your teen can succeed. This is growing the tools necessary for a teenager to control their impulses and behavior.
Other times, your teen might not know why they are struggling or they may not want to participate in the conversation or problem solving process.
If the latter occurs, you can detail how you are going to change the rule and give them a chance to make any comments they would like.
If you end up taking away a negotiable rule and replacing it with a non-negotiable rule, make sure you have a plan to revisit the rule at a later date. Remember, the goal for disciplining your teenager is self-control. You are only putting the training wheels back on the bike until your teen regains their balance.
Set a time for 3 weeks or a month out to revisit the rule to see if the rule can go back to a negotiable rule based on how your teen is responding. Let your teen know at the time of the rule change when you plan to revisit this rule.
Also, it always helps to end the conversation with “I love you, you are going to make mistakes and that is okay. I’m here to help you get back on track and I know you will do better next time”.
By ending the conversation with confidence in your teen, you are setting them up for success and giving them confidence in themselves. You are teaching your teenager resiliency and self-confidence.
Often the hardest part of this process for a parent is to listen without interrupting your teen or trying to logic with them about why their behavior was in error. Do your best to hold off on interrupting and lecturing. It takes practice, so keep trying because the payoffs with your teen are huge.
A teenager who feels heard and seen by their parent will develop more trust and closeness with their parent and will naturally work to follow the rules.
Remember to grant yourself and your teen some grace. It is hard being a teenager and navigating the body, brain and hormonal changes that come with this stage of life as well as all of the social aspects of adolescence. It is also important to remember that it is the first time you have ever parented this particular child in this particular situation, so it is okay to stumble and not know what to do and to even make mistakes. Share those stumbles and mistakes with your child to remind you both that you are human and that you are both going through this transition together.
*Note: The above tips are meant to help the majority of parents. Teenagers who struggle with certain disorders, high sensitivity or trauma may need a different approach that is individualized to their needs and how they best respond. Sometimes walking away from a teenager in distress when they have these additional challenges is not the best thing to do and can lead to further escalation for the teen. If you would like to discuss personalized options for your child, we invite you to schedule a free 30 minute consultation with us so we can tailor tips that would work best for your family.
A note to our BIPOC community members
As a certified parent coach we recognize the struggles and adversities our Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities face. We also understand that due to systemic racism and racial bias, BIPOC teenagers do not have the safety and advantage of behaving in the same manner as white children and therefore their culture of disciple is different than white culture.
We recognize the use of punishment as a parenting tool is prevalent in BIPOC communities because BIPOC parents and caregivers must protect their teenagers from an unforgiving and biased white culture because the consequences of failed discipline outside of the BIPOC community can mean death or imprisonment.
We do not condemn or judge any parent for parenting the best they can with the tools they have and we always acknowledge the effects culture and an environment of adverse challenges and systemic racism has on both parents and children.
We seek to help all BIPOC parents and caregivers who need parenting support in a culturally informed way to meet the needs of each individual family.
Please schedule a free consultation to see how we can support you.