Last week’s blog, 3 Don’t and 10 Do’s of Discipline, discussed the basics of how to successfully discipline children. Today’s is about those special cases. Like teens.
Teenagers are different.
The Adolescent Brain
The area of the brain that allows people to see the long-term consequences of their actions is not fully developed in teenagers. They really can’t see themselves as the future forty-year-old they will become.
I once had one tell me that she couldn’t see the point of going to college because by the time she graduated, her youth would be gone. Several kids have told me that they didn’t think they would live past twenty-five. The distant future is empty space; only the immediate future is real.
At the time in their lives when they need to be making serious decisions about things like sexual activity, relationships, careers, and powering vehicles at high speeds, they have limited vision into the future. Add to this strong emotions, extreme stress, and peer pressure, and I don’t think any of us would volunteer to live through adolescence twice.
They need direction, but they also need to learn to make decisions: they have some big ones coming up. They need to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives. We are not they; we cannot make those decisions for them.
We do, however, need to catch them and stop them before they make stupid mistakes that will destroy their chances, and discipline them in a way that will head them in the right direction. We no longer have the advantage of being smarter than they are, and sometimes they’re sneaky. So what works?
Sit down and talk to them about the temptations they will run into.
- Let them know that you do not approve of underage drinking, but if they do try it, you want a phone call and you will come pick them up. Agree that you will not embarrass them in front of their friends and will not yell at them, but you will discuss it the next day.
- Similarly, calling and letting you know they will be late is far better than speeding to get home on time.
- Asking to be put on birth control is better than pregnancy.
Keep your eyes open to the possibility of bad behavior. Point out the risks to your child, and show them ways to solve their problems that they, with their limited experience, might not see.
If you see a problem coming, sit down with them to discuss possible solutions that would be within the rules. Make sure they understand that your main concern is their safety.
Avoid putting them in situations where they have no good options. If they don’t feel safe at a party, but they are afraid to call you, bad things can happen.
Don’t expect your teenager to always be rational.
I’ve seen girls convince themselves that if they don’t take a pregnancy test, they won’t be pregnant. One young lady asked me if it was true that you couldn’t get pregnant if you put a yellow skittle in your vagina during sex.Reality for a teenager is very different than reality for a grown-up.
If something looks fishy, butt your nose in and ask. They are living in your home, they have to follow your rules, and they do not have a right to privacy. They do have the right to your protection from their immaturity.
If the consequences to their errors are small, let them make mistakes.
Then let them live with the consequences. A failed test or a lost friend may teach a lesson that will prevent a failed marriage or a lost job.
I have known several teenagers who wrecked their cars, only to have them immediately replaced by their parents. It never ended well. If they walk for a while until they earn money for a car, they take much better care of the vehicle and, consequently, of the people inside.
Do try to protect them from the big mistakes.
Sex, drugs, and crime with all of their consequences come to mind. Some mistakes will follow them forever, and they really won’t see that far ahead. Heartbreak is inevitable, but keep a close watch for serious depression. Teens do kill themselves over temporary sadness because it is not temporary to them.
Above all, keep lines of communication open. They need to be able to tell you anything and know you won’t blow up. You can have your breakdown later in the privacy of your own room.
When discipline doesn’t work:
If kids of any age seem to be in trouble all the time, doing dumb things, or breaking rules they know well, look for something deeper going on. Take some time with them alone and talk.
- Perhaps they just need more time with you? Breaking rules is a great way to get attention.
- Kids will also act out when there are changes in their lives – good or bad. A new house, new school, different people in the home? Kids will push until they find out where the new limits are, just so they feel safe and know they can count on you.
- Sometimes kids act out because things are going on in their life that scare them. You need to find out about those things. Give them a chance to talk, be quiet and open, and listen without jumping to conclusions.
Kids may be unwilling to risk the relationship with their parents, but they may be willing to talk to Grandma, Uncle Joe, or a trusted family friend.
If this doesn’t work, they may need to talk to a therapist—sometimes it’s easier to tell a stranger what’s wrong. With a stranger, there’s no danger of hurt feelings, judgment, or resentment.
The Big Picture
For any age, penalties for bad behavior need to be immediate and proportional. Ideally, the consequence is a logical extension from what the child did, like a broken toy or failed test. Equally, punishments must require taking responsibility for their actions. The goal of discipline is to point your children in the right direction and keep them from hurting themselves along the way, so tailor reprimands to correct behavior but not to kill all hope for the future and any chance for communication. Keep open the possibility of a reward in the future: the stick does not work without the carrot in place.
Discipline must be consistent and predictable over time. Your children should know what to expect if they do that bad thing, be aware that there will be no wiggling out of it, and understand that the punishment will not be unbearable and that they will get through it.
Last, don’t expect discipline to work overnight. You’re aiming for responsible adults here, not well-behaved thirteen-year-olds. Keep the long view.