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General Rules for Disciplining Teens

Never punish when you’re angry.

In the heat of the moment, you may say something you’ll regret later or you may set too harsh a restriction. This leads us to rule number two...

Never impose a penalty you’re not prepared to carry out.

It is important to imagine your teen’s possible reactions to the discipline you have in mind, particularly if it’s on the extreme side. Example: grounding for one month because you caught him and a friend smoking out back. Might he challenge you verbally? Run away? Become depressed, or perhaps suicidal? Then ask yourself if you could live with any of those outcomes. If the answer is no, you should moderate the penalty. Not following through damages your credibility and serves to reinforce the very behavior you intended to punish.

Another point to consider: Could the punishment conceivably damage your relationship with your youngster?

Short-term consequences work best.

By “short-term,” we mean punishments lasting several hours, or several days for major violations. To ground a youngster for a month can set the stage for him to act out in some other way, such as sneaking out of the house. He may figure, What have I got to lose? I’m already grounded for a month. Most punishments lose their effectiveness if they last longer than twenty-four hours.

Punish the guilty party only, not other family members.

Example: If the whole clan has been looking forward to spending a day out on the boat, don’t let the fact that your teen is grounded scuttle those plans. Arrange for him to stay home with a friend or family member.

Don’t use guilt as a means of discipline.

“Why do you do this to me? I think you secretly enjoy torturing me.”

“How can you go out in public looking like that, with all those holes in your jeans? Everyone will think I’m a bad mother!”

If you can hear yourself in these lines, you’re probably cringing right now. In general, guilt should not be used as punishment. It often fails to produce the desired outcome, and even when it works, teenagers (like adults) resent it and find it unjust.

Help youngsters learn from their mistakes.

Confronting a teenager about a breach of conduct doesn’t have to become an inquisition. “It should be a dialogue,” advises Dr. Hofmann. In order for an adolescent to learn from her mistake, first she has to reflect on what she did and her reasons for doing it:

“Honey, you know full well that we don’t allow you to ride in a car being driven by anyone we don’t know. And yet you and your friend Jennifer went ahead and accepted a ride from two boys who don’t even go to your school. I’d like to hear your side of things and why you did that.”

The next step is to restate and clarify the problem, then help her to come up with one or more solutions: “So the two of you were up at the shopping center, and it was hot out, and you didn’t feel like walking home. But you know that you are forbidden from riding with strangers. How do you think you could have handled the situation differently?”

“Well...I suppose we could have taken the bus. Or we could have called you or Jen’s mom.”

“Right. And if the bus was late, or no one could drive you, what should you have done?”

“I should have walked.”

There are two essential messages to convey: First, every problem has a solution. Second, your child is responsible for her own conduct.

Impose discipline consistently.

To set limits but not enforce them is akin to installing an elaborate security system in your home but failing to turn it on at night. We’re not implying that discipline be applied dogmatically. One reason it’s essential to replay events with your youngster is because sometimes you learn that extenuating circumstances contributed to the misconduct. But as a general rule, when parents dispense punishment erratically, they are reinforcing the negative behavior.

Sending mixed signals does one of two things. “It may confuse the child,” explains Dr. Tomas Silber. “Worse, it can breed disrespect for the parent.” Once you’ve settled on a limit, stick to it.

This presumes that both parents regularly agree on where to draw the line, which isn’t always the case. In fact, a couple may hold radically different views, either concerning an isolated situation or across the board.

The good-cop/bad-cop routine may be useful for prying confessions from criminals on TV, but it’s a formula for trouble when practiced by mothers and fathers. Kids quickly learn to get their way by manipulating the more lenient parent against the stricter parent. There is no simple solution to this, other than sitting down together and negotiating a list of boundaries and consequences you can both live with. Putting rules into writing, as suggested earlier, is perhaps less for the child’s sake than it is for helping Mom and Dad maintain a united front. If you can’t seem to reach a compromise, consider soliciting the advice of a marriage and family counselor.

To the extent that you can, enlist the cooperation of other mothers and fathers.

Trying to steer your child in the right direction can sometimes feel like swimming against the current, especially when rules that prevail in your home aren’t shared by other families.

Surely you know many, if not all, of the parents in your teenager’s circle of friends. Perhaps a group of you can agree upon some relatively uniform guidelines regulating such issues as curfew, X-rated movies and videos, etc.

But whatever you do, don’t cave in on the core standards of behavior that you’ve set for your son or daughter. We ask you to heed the same admonition that parents have been handing their children for generations: the immortal, “If Johnny jumped off a bridge, does that mean you would too?”

Parenting: It’s Never Too Late to Make Adjustments

If you would describe yourself as overly strict (or perhaps it’s been pointed out to you by your spouse—or by your teen), begin your shift toward the middle by learning to choose your battles.

“Parents must prioritize what they’re going to try to control,” advises Dr. Margaret Blythe, director of adolescent medical services at Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis. “Everything can’t be a power struggle.” For parents and children to butt heads constantly is not healthy.

Perhaps you have the opposite problem, however, and are overly permissive. The role of disciplinarian doesn’t come naturally to everyone. No parent enjoys being on the receiving end of a teenager’s hurt and angry glare. But for mothers and fathers who have tended to overindulge their youngsters and are now seeing warning signs that a change is in order, remember this: Kids need us to be their parents first, their pals second. Consistently maintaining boundaries and following through on consequences takes on added importance when permissive parents attempt to become more authoritative. Until now, their children have been used to manipulating Mom and Dad. They can be expected to rebel against these new limits. In fact, their misbehavior may grow worse for a time. Once they come to see that their parents are serious about enforcing discipline, they will usually learn to respect the rules of the household.

Last Updated
Caring for Your Teenager (Copyright © 2003 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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