How to discipline a teenager?
Parenting a teenager can feel very disempowering. Discipline strategies we used when they were younger just don’t work any more. We can’t put them on the naughty step or make them go to their room – we can’t really ‘make them’ do anything any more! Yet, we are still responsible for them. And there needs to be some rules in place to facilitate their learning and maintain family harmony. So, how to discipline a teenager?
The short answer is, you can’t discipline a teenager. Not if you are thinking that disciplining a teenager is something you ‘do’ to a teen. We simply don’t have that power any more. And if we won’t accept that and try to impose 100% authority, there is going to be conflict and relationship damage.
The teenage years involve an inevitable handover of power from parent to child. That is right and good. After all, we are aiming to raise a happy adult, not keep them forever as children. But that doesn’t mean that parents are always comfortable with losing control over our children.
A natural response to losing authority is to assert it even more strongly. You won’t listen to me? Then I will up the stakes and take away your phone for a whole week! We can get stuck in a nasty cycle of recriminations and consequences in which we fight to maintain control but end up losing it anyway and drive a wedge between us and our teenager.
What’s the goal of discipline?
However, if we think about discipline as helping teens learn to make good decisions, rather than as asserting control, then we have a few more options. We may no longer be able to insist that they do exactly as we say but we can influence them. And the stronger our relationship with them, the more influence we are likely to have.
Making good choices should be the goal of discipline at all ages. Whereas we might achieve this through rules and consequences for younger children, to discipline a teenager we need them to get on board. It’s all about collaboration.
Collaboration not coercion
Collaboration is a key tool in parenting teenagers because it helps avoid oppositional dynamics. A teenager’s developmental imperative is to become independent (to seize power from you and take control of their own lives). Telling them what to do – or what not do – only gives them one route to express their independence: through opposition. In other words, by saying no and refusing to do as they are told.
When we collaborate with teens, we work with them to create options and allow them to make the choice. Collaboration conveys a respect for our child’s growing independence and also provides them with lots of different (acceptable) ways to assert their independence. Of course, sometimes teens will still choose opposition. But avoiding oppositional dynamics whenever possible is not only more harmonious, it tends to be more successful in influencing teens to make good choices.
Talk it through
What does collaboration look like in practice? It involves discussing the issue rather than issuing an edict. And by ‘discussing’ I don’t mean giving them a lecture. Be curious. Genuinely curious. Try to understand the issue from their point of view. This gives you much more information on which to base your decisions.
Let’s take alcohol as an example. If you discover that your teenager has been drinking vodka down the local park and you fly off the handle with a lecture on all the reasons why alcohol is bad, the chances of you having a positive impact are minimal. Because you haven’t stopped to understand why they drank that vodka. Maybe, they were pressurised into it in a situation they didn’t feel able to get out of? Maybe they are feeling socially isolated and desperate to fit it? Maybe they were just curious and wanted to have a laugh? Or maybe they did it to numb their thoughts and feelings because they are finding life really tough?
If the goal of discipline is to influence your teenager’s choices (rather than just to make your point and tell them off), then knowing the answer to that question is imperative. Be curious and avoid blaming if you want to find a good route forward.
Agree the rules
That doesn’t mean that we don’t put any boundaries in place for teenagers. However, if you want to discipline a teenager, transparency around rules and consequences is essential. Discuss the rules, agree the consequences in advance and be prepared to compromise and move boundaries as your teenager matures. And don’t forget to look out for rule-keeping not just rule-breaking. Praising teenagers and pointing out what they are doing well will help motivate them.
If you do need to implement a consequence, remember that the teenage brain is highly attuned to social rewards. That means that the reward a teen experiences from peer group approval (and the pain of being out of sync with their peer group) is much greater than any reward or consequence we can wield as parents. If drinking vodka in the park is giving them a big hit of ‘fitting in’ reward, don’t try to outgun that with bigger and bigger consequences or you will quickly end up in an escalation of conflict that drives your teenager further away and makes it much less likely that they will listen to you.
Try to keep consequences brief and predictable. Taking a teen’s phone away for a week is social death. How is that going to motivate them to make good choices? Opt for short, consistent, predictable consequences calmly implemented.
Walk away from heated moments
The rational part of a teenager’s brain is not very well wired up to the rest of their brain. Once emotions are in the driving seat, you are not going to be able to ‘get through’ to your teenager or ‘make them see sense’. That part of their brain just isn’t firing. If you persist in trying to make your point in these moments, you will just get more and more frustrated at not being listened to.
Leave them alone, let them calm down. Once their rational brain is back online, you’ll be able to talk it through.
Prioritise relationship over principle
Teens need to know that we are on their side. So a light touch is needed. Spend too much time telling them what they haven’t done or what they’ve done wrong or ‘suggesting’ better ways for them to go about things and they will start to feel like you’re the enemy rather than a supportive team member. If we want to discipline a teenager, we need them to listen to us. They will be much more to be open to listening if we are not constantly on their backs about every little thing.
Knowing how to discipline a teenager also means knowing when to just let it go!
Did you know we offer an online parenting course for parents of teenagers?