Seven Ways to Break Unhelpful Communication Patterns

Effective Discipline Shapes Behavior

Among our most important roles as parents is to shape our children into fully functioning adults. This means that we have to transform pleasure seeking, self-centered toddlers into individuals who take pride in waiting their turn and sharing. It means guiding adolescents who are wired to stretch boundaries — as a necessary step towards learning limitations and achieving self-control — to stay within safe and wise limits. We do all of this through effective discipline. Discipline means “to teach” or “to guide” — ideally in a loving, caring way. It does not mean to control or punish.

Effective discipline helps children learn that there are consequences for their actions. It teaches them to make wise decisions and have self-control. Sometimes lessons are learned best by connecting actions with very clear consequences, such as the loss of a privilege. This means that parents have to make decisions that might not be popular. It’s not always fun. We care about our relationships with our children. On some level, we know they’ll appreciate our guidance later, but that doesn’t make it easier to experience their anger with us now. It’s natural not to want to be the bad guy — to avoid this we might become overly flexible or try to convince ourselves to give our teens another chance when we really should stand our ground. We must learn to remain firm when necessary while being flexible when the situation calls for it.

At the Center for Parent and Teen Communication we support the kind of relationships that strengthen those family connections that are deeply protective to adolescents. We’ve got your back. We recognize that flexibility is indeed a virtue, but only if used wisely. And there are times that being clear and firm are required. But that doesn’t mean the — “I’m the parent! My way or the highway!” — approach always works. It’s possible to do both. To be firm and clear and to draw your child nearer.

Making the Most of Communication

Communication time is valuable — it should be spent supporting, guiding, teaching and just enjoying each other. Too many families waste critical energy reminding, nagging, and arguing. The goal is to communicate in a way that strengthens your relationships now and prepares your children for ongoing, healthy, interdependent relationships with you far into the future. This enables them to have the communication skill-sets that ensure successful relationships in the future with their adult families, friendships, and in the workplace.

A starting point is to understand that children of all ages — including adolescents — thrive on parental attention. Remember what a “good job” meant to them when they learned to wash their hands or when they turned around and stopped running away from you? Our teens want as much engagement as they can get from us – even if they deny it. They are super learners, using life experience and your guidance to build their understanding of the world.

Communication time is valuable -- it should be spent supporting, guiding, teaching and just enjoying each other. Too many families waste critical energy reminding, nagging, and arguing.

Break Dysfunctional Communication Patterns

Adolescents will do what it takes to get as much time, attention, and feedback from us as they can. They learn, based on our reactions, whether that attention comes from good behavior or from dragging us into nagging and hostile feedback cycles. The kind of cycle where we make repeated requests that descend into nagging. Where nagging met with no response escalates into hostility. It’s time to break the cycle.

When we make a command or request, our teens have a choice. They can go along with it, and we can move on and focus our energy on things that matter. On the other hand, they can also say no and force you to repeat your request. Your children learn your patterns. They know precisely how much attention they’ll get. Some parents will repeat commands once, others many more times. The problem is that this focused attention is negative and does not lead to learning. Some teens will dial up the (negative) attention a notch by continuing to refuse. Parents then resort to threats. Even if our children go along with our threats, our houses become filled with anger and hostility. Sometimes, our teens learn how to drag us to the point of repeated threats, knowing that we will eventually give up in frustration. In these cases, teens get what they want and may feel they have won the argument. On the other hand, if we follow through on their threats, our teens feel punished, like victims. Because threats are rarely rooted in reason or fairness, the opportunity for teaching through discipline is lost.

The Critical Point

To maintain strong relationships, we must avoid entering these dysfunctional cycles of repeated commands and threats. The critical point is at the initial command. When we make a request, we want our teens to go along with it. We hope they will follow our command because they value a healthy relationship with us. But this isn’t always the reality. More likely, they will begin to follow our commands when they learn the consequences for not doing so will be immediate.

Be Clear and Draw Near

Consider these seven tips for making clear rules and immediate consequences — the kind of effective discipline that teens benefit from.

  1. Give positive and focused attention. The wisdom we earned in the toddler years applies now — catch them being good, and redirect them when they’re not.
  2. Make few rules and requests. And make them about things that really matter to safety and well-being. Our children value this kind of guidance. They reject our involvement when we micromanage their lives or infringe on personal territory.
  3. Design rules to keep children safe and to prepare them to function productively in the world. Teens value rules they understand. They reject rules they think move into personal territory.
  4. When possible, involve your teen in shaping the rules. They should not be taken by surprise by our requests. When they see our requests as part of an overall effort to help them grow and gain increasing responsibility, they appreciate guidance. Consider working together to create an Teen Discipline Contract to get on the same page. No surprises in this approach to discipline, just a shared commitment to prepare teens to thrive. Teens learn that their boundaries stretch when they demonstrate responsibility.
  5. Be very clear about non-negotiables. These are the issues that will never be considered acceptable. For example, you must never text and drive as a matter of safety, or you can not attend parties where there will be drugs or alcohol present. Your teens should know there are immediate consequences for these behaviors.
  6. Exercise flexibility when the behavior is not on the list of non-negotiables or in your contract. Allow your teens wiggle room if they reasonably state they did not know they crossed a line or that you had made a request. Use this as an opportunity to teach them about your expectations. Once they understand, hold them to the plan next time.
  7. Create consequences that make sense and that are clearly related to the misbehavior. That is what makes the difference between punishment and discipline. Our goal is to teach. Not to inflict pain or create shame.

Get on the Same Page

It is important to get on the same page with other adults who are also responsible for shaping your child. Share this piece and discuss it together with them. There should be no surprises when it comes to your approach to discipline. Your teens should know the strategies you are taking to build them into responsible adults with self-control. Consider sharing a piece written just for them to get the conversation started!

About Ken Ginsburg

Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is Founding Director of CPTC and Professor of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He travels the world speaking to parent, professional, and youth audiences and is the author of 5 award-winning parenting books including a multimedia professional toolkit on “Reaching Teens.” CPTC follows his strength-based philosophy and resilience-building model. For more on Dr. Ginsburg visit

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