Essay Disciplining Teens

Posted on by Nell

If you're reading this, you're probably a parent who's looking for a little help figuring out how to effectively discipline your teenager.

Or you might be a parent who's dreading the teenage years, and trying to get a plan in place.

Or your kids might be all grown up, and you're STILL not sure what the best discipline for teenagers is. (Especially if they're still living in your basement.)

Or maybe I'm the only one who's been perplexed by trying to figure it out.

Because I've confiscated my teenagers' cell phones, iPads, car keys and video games more times than I can count.

And of course I've grounded them—limiting all social contact whatsoever and forcing my sulking offspring to play board games with their parents on many Saturday nights. (I secretly like these times, and I think they might, too. Even though they snarl a bit.)

But halfway through the teenage years as a mom of five, I realized something was missing in these strategies.

They simply weren't very effective. In fact, they were expected.

I needed to add some creativity into the mix.

I needed to get bold.

And my teenagers needed to be surprised.

So here’s some of my best-ever tried-and-true discipline tactics for tweens and teens that worked in our home. (I've tried some other creative efforts that flopped, but that's a post for another time.) Also check out our podcast on this topic.

I certainly haven't given up on grounding and loss of privileges, but these additional tactics serve as "in the moment" illustrations for unforgettable lessons.

And I'm doing less yelling and more laughing.

You’ll notice there’s a “fear” factor in all of these tactics, but keep in mind, these are absolutely not meant to be sadistic pranks to humiliate your teenagers—they’re meant to prove a point, deter future misbehavior, and create an opportunity for a meaningful conversation about the lesson learned.

And you’ll only have to do them once, I promise.

Related: Check out this author's new book, Release My Grip: Hope for a Parent's heart as Kids Leave the Nest and Learn to Fly 

Curfew Clown

Late? Meet Curfew Clown

Got a teenager who’s pushing the limits of obeying curfew? Bring on the Curfew Clown. Surprise them with a super-scary clown mask suspended or propped somewhere in the dark shadows of the stairs, or in their room. Not only will you HEAR them come home (this foils kids who try to sneak in)—they’ll be briefly traumatized and get a taste of the fear we parents experience when they're late. Explain the reason for curfews is because we love them and want to make sure they're home safe and not chained up in someone's basement. Which is much scarier than Curfew Clown. Who, by the way, will show up somewhere new if they're late again.

The Uncool T-shirt

You Go Girl! Wearin' that on my sleeve!

Tired of disrespectful eye-rolls and snide comments from your socially aware adolescent who critiques your clothes, hair, and everything else? Be bold about your uncool-ness! Just head to the craft store and buy a plain T-shirt, fabric markers, sequins and any other obnoxious adornment, and write in large letters “[kid’s name] Mom (or Dad)!” Put it on the next time they’re disrespectful, explaining that if they’re going to treat you that way, you’ll BE that way!  Start by wearing it around the house, and if the behavior doesn’t change, tell them you’ll wear it in public—where people they know will see it.This will lead to panic and pleading, which opens the door for a conversation about agreeing to show each other mutual respect, and that verbal and nonverbal mockery doesn't feel good. Want to hear the whole story on this? Check out our podcast where I share all the gushy details.

The “Dance-off Countdown” text

Mom is here. And she's driving the crazy train...

As if driving kids everywhere is not infuriating enough, there’s nothing worse than arriving to pick them up at school, practice, or a friend’s house and they make you WAIT. (My son would linger with his buddies inside the junior high school for 10 minutes AFTER I texted him I was there.)  But this is remedied with a simple text: “I’m here. In 2 minutes I will pump up the bass and start dancing on the sidewalk.”  No more waiting! This text makes any tween/teen coming running. It’s extra impactful if you’re wearing your “Uncool T-shirt” and roll down the car windows with really loud hip-hop music blaring when they approach the car. They’ll know you’re not joking and you will dance boldly. And they'll listen when you explain that making you wait is NOT a good idea, EVER, for everyone’s sanity, because carpools suck and are torturous enough.

So there you go. This is what’s worked in our home, for our kids—and nobody’s called social services yet. (I’m hoping there’s a statute of limitations or something.)
Related: Check out this author's new book, Release My Grip: Hope for a Parent's heart as Kids Leave the Nest and Learn to Fly 

But in all seriousness, I did take my kids’ personalities and life situations into consideration before engaging in these tactics. These might not be appropriate disciplines to use with teenagers who are dealing with significant issues such as being bullied, mental/emotional health issues, drug addiction, self injury or anything else where these strategies might trigger something worse.

Bottom line—being a teenager is really hard, and so is being a parent of one.  And every teenager is unique, and the best discipline for one teenager won't be the same for another. You have to really know them—even when they start acting like strangers.

And you have to keep finding ways to break through the walls they put up and get them talking.

Get creative. Stay engaged. Be bold. Keep trying...let your inner freak flag fly—and raise it high!

Let them know you're still in the game, giving it everything you've got.

They need to know you will not give up on them.

So here’s my last bit of advice. And it’s for everyone:

The best strategy for raising teenagers is to love boldly by building a strong relationship with them as a parent (not as their peer.)

  • Let them know that even when they screw up—that they’re still loved unconditionally.
  • Express your love for them in words, touch and time.
  • Give them responsibilities and boundaries.
  • Allow them to have consequences.
  • Don’t be afraid of tough conversations—and remember to be a listener, too.
  • See them through the eyes of their Creator—they are unique, worthy and have a purpose—and remind them of this often.
  • Connect their search for identity and significance to a faith in a loving, almighty God who is significant in their lives, and yours as well.

And when they push you away, don’t take it personally—just stick around and stay present.

...and keep dancing on the sidewalk.

Raising teenagers is a just a season, my friends, and it will pass.

Want to hear more? Listen to this related podcast!

Written by Kami Gilmour, mom of five teen and young adult kids. She's the author of a new book that chronicles her imperfect journey of parenting in this season with a refreshing sense of honesty, humor, and practical insights:  Release My Grip: Hope for a Parent's Heart as Kids Leave the Nest and Learn to Fly.Kami is alsothe co-creator ofSoulFeed college care packages,the faith-based care package that feeds college students what matters most, and co-host at They Say Podcast where she overshares her crazy (sometimes inappropriate) stories about life, faith, motherhood and more. Kami can be reached for questions and speaking inquiries at soulfeed@mylifetree.com


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Even the most principled and dedicated parents sometimes find that their teenagers do not display appropriate moral values and self-discipline. These undisciplined and amoral behaviors can stem from several causes, both biological and environmental. Attentive parenting and in more severe cases, professional intervention, can help teenagers reach their full potential, however.

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The human brain continues to develop until adolescents reach their 20s. Thus, teenagers do not have the same capacity for reasoned decision-making and self-discipline as adults. Likewise, moral development is a process that lasts throughout adolescence. Teenagers, and in particular, young teens, are not developmentally and biologically able to exercise moral reasoning like an adult or older adolescent. Thus, some degree poor decision-making skills and amoral behavior is developmentally normal.

Although teenagers may not have the same decision-making capacity as adults, parental influences can affect the way that a teen behaves and makes choices. In particular, parental behavior plays an important role in how teenagers make decisions. For example, if a teenager sees his parents acting impulsively or making poor choices such as neglecting household responsibilities or skipping work, the teen might believe that he is entitled to make similar choices. Similarly, parents or caregivers abuse or neglect children, they may develop immoral or impulsive behaviors, explains the Child Welfare Information Gateway.

During the adolescent years, peer influences play an important role in teenagers’ choices. Because peer acceptance is a crucial part of most teens’ sense of self and increasing need to separate from the family system, adolescents sometimes base their choices on their friends’ opinions, rather than what is morally right or responsible, according to the American Psychological Association. Generally, teenagers will outgrow this type of behavior as they reach adulthood. Additionally, media influences, such as television and celebrity behavior can affect a teen’s behavior, particularly if they do not have strong role models.

Teenagers with more severe mental health issues can also display poor moral values and a lack of self-discipline. For example, teens with conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder or teens who were abused as children may show little empathy for others and make poor choices and have difficulty controlling their impulses, explains the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Only a qualified mental health professional or pediatrician can determine whether a teen’s choices and self-restraint are developmentally normal or require professional intervention.

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