Disciplining Teens: Back to Basics

Discipline Teens: Remembering What We Learned When They Were Toddlers

Every parent has a memorable “time when I tried (but failed) to discipline my child” story. Too often, it takes place in a public place at an inopportune time. My story takes place in a grocery store. (Not very original, I know). It involves an overtired 2-year-old and an overextended pregnant mother. (That’s me.) The trip started out fine. She pointed to Cheerios she was so proud to find in the cereal aisle. She helped toss some items into the cart. Things went south when we hit the seasonal aisle. My daughter asked for a small toy, conveniently hanging at her eye level. The rest unfolded after a firm, “No, we are not getting that toy.” A full-fledged tantrum followed in front of the deli case. I can still picture the sympathetic look on the grocery worker’s face while offering a slice of cheese to my hysterical toddler as she lay sprawled out on the floor. I wish I could say I had some magical parenting strategy to salvage the moment. Instead, I abandoned my full grocery cart. Grabbed my daughter. Carried her kicking and screaming to the car. Not my proudest parenting moment.

Looking back, I recognize two, key, missed opportunities to use some of the most basic principles of effective discipline. These strategies are so core to discipline that they work not only with toddlers, but they are also an important part of parenting adolescents.

Strategy One: Catch Them Being Good

My daughter, like many toddlers, loves any chance to show off her growing independence. Giving her a task — like helping place items into the grocery cart — allows her to show off her budding abilities. My first missed opportunity was catching her at her best. I was so busy trying to get through the shop quickly that I failed to recognize her good behavior. We made it through the candy aisle without a plea for sweets. She was so helpful putting items in the cart. I didn’t even have to ask her to stay by my side and not wander. A “thank you for staying close to Mommy” or a “thanks for helping put all this food in the cart” might have changed the course of our trip.

Refocus and Notice the Positive

During adolescence, in an effort to prevent mistakes, parents often tighten rules and increase punishments. They focus on the problems. On what their teen does wrong. While intentions may be good — an emphasis on problems often backfires. All children (including teenagers!!) want a parent’s attention. If all of the focus is on problems, parents risk reinforcing negative behaviors. Instead, more attention to helpful, kind, positive behaviors makes it clear that these are desirable actions.

Give Praise and Encourage Pride

A little praise can go a long way. Teens take pride in being noticed. Don’t we all? They enjoy positive attention from parents. So “catch your teens being good” the next time they take out the trash without being asked. Or when they offer to help you put the groceries away. Or when they help a sibling with homework. Recognition goes a long way.

Above all, remember that young people live up (or down) to the expectations we set. When parents continue to expect good behavior from teens (and notice it when they live up to these expectations!) teens typically rise to the occasion.

When parents continue to expect good behavior from teens (and notice it when they live up to these expectations!) teens typically rise to the occasion.

Strategy Two: Redirect Them When They’re Not (Being Good)

My second missed opportunity in the grocery store was to redirect my daughter when she began eyeing the toys. I might have asked her to find the next item on our list, refocusing her attention on her important role as Mommy’s helper. Redirection is a common tool used with toddlers. Just ask a preschool teacher. They constantly shift focus to new activities to avoid potential problems.

It is also possible to redirect negative behavior with adolescents. Redirection with teens requires similar strategies but is shaped depending on the reason for your teen’s actions.

Adolescence is a time of trial and error. Teens are working to figure out their place in the world and gain the independence needed to leave home. Teens also face a great deal of pressure, from friends, school, parents, even themselves. Being overly critical of negative behaviors or focusing only on problems can lead teens to feel ashamed, embarrassed or helpless. They may shut down entirely. Or be driven back towards negativity.

Understand and Redirect

The first step to redirecting negative behavior in teens is to learn why they made the choice. At times, engaging in negative behavior is a teen’s attempt at coping with stress. If this is the case, redirection may take the form of gentle guidance towards healthier, more effective ways of coping with stress. Or perhaps they engaged in a negative behavior in an effort to keep up with peers. In these instances, redirection might involve working together to come up with ideas for how to get out of uncomfortable situations while saving face with friends. Other times, teens may be testing limits (which is what adolescence is all about!) and perhaps they made an unwise decision along the way. Redirection in these cases may require a back and forth conversation to help them see these mistakes as learning opportunities.

We mustn’t expect problems. But things happen. And when they do, redirecting teens towards wiser choices is an important part of parenting.

The Bottom Line of Discipline

Keep in mind the bottom line of effective discipline. Discipline is about guiding children toward constructive behaviors. It is about teaching them how to succeed in a society with rules and expectations. It is not about punishment. Nor should it be about control.

Adding these two strategies to your parenting skills supports your child’s growing independence. By catching teens being good, you reinforce the positive behaviors that will help them succeed later in life. By redirecting negative behaviors into more constructive behaviors, you guide them to make wise decisions. They are more likely to learn from mistakes and choose better next time. This kind of discipline strengthens relationships, teaches important lessons, and leads to growth.

It is easy to appreciate the rapid growth in a toddler. They quickly go from being a helpless baby to becoming a surprisingly capable little person. Adolescence is also a time of profound development. Notice and praise the growth and maturity teens show. This sends the message that you celebrate their growth, that you have high expectations, and that you are there to provide loving guidance so they can be their best selves.

Are you Effectively Disciplining Your Teen?
Three questions to test your understanding of discipline.

About Elyse Salek

Elyse Salek, M.S.Ed. is an Administrative Director of Research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Her degrees are in Psychology and Human Development from Middlebury College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Education. She is the proud mother of two children.

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