Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Providing Parental Discipline for Your Adolescent

The primary purpose of parental discipline is to teach self-discipline

The topic of parental discipline came up in a recent interview, so I’ll take that as a prompt to visit the topic again.

Consider one definition of discipline: the mix of mostly instruction and some correction that causes the child and adolescent to learn what family and social rules to live by.

Although providing discipline for a child can be challenging, it often becomes more so with an adolescent who, pushing for freedom to grow, is less receptive to parental influence and more resistant to their authority. “You just want to run my life, that’s why you’re always on my case!” objects the young person. Reply the parents: “No, we’re on your case to prepare you to run life on your own.”

The purpose of parental discipline during adolescence is not for parents to manage the teenager’s life; rather, it is to teach the teenager sufficient self-discipline to ultimately be able to independently and responsibly manage themselves.

Begin, then, with the notion that come the beginning of a child’s adolescence (around ages 9 through 13), Attachment Parenting of the child and mutual holding on for a secure dependence comes to an end, and Detachment Parenting and mutual letting go to foster self-reliance for a secure independence begins. The childhood Age of Command (when the girl or boy believed parents had the power to make them comply) now gives way to the Age of Consent (when the young person knows that parents can’t make them or stop them without her or his agreement.)

The parental application of discipline often does not generate an appreciative response in the adolescent because it can feel unwelcome to receive. Consequently, it can also be unwelcome to provide, usually falling in the category of “thankless parenting.” To keep discipline effective during adolescence, a valued connection must be nurtured by caring, communication, and companionship for the young person to want to be willing to give consent.

In a badly alienated relationship between parent and teenager, consent can be harder for the parent to get because it is harder for the young person to give. So parents must always be mindful that they must find ways to mix in positive connections during times when they find themselves giving a lot of negative corrections. Otherwise, there is no collateral of caring to motivate the young person’s consent. It's like the teenager feeling: "If all you're going to do is criticize and punish, all I'm going to do is resent and refuse!"

Of the many tools of parental discipline with an adolescent, I’m just going to mention five: Guidance, Structure, Supervision, the Exchange Points, and Responsibility.

Guidance

Guidance is the parental power to communicate data and understanding that inform and direct the process of growing up. Guidance is a response to such basic questions as: what does the young person not know, need to know, and know that’s not so?

In the case of the last question, Guidance is not empowered to change the adolescent’s thinking or beliefs; but it does offer an additional perspective for the teenager to consider when making up her or his mind. As for giving directions, parental requests and rules tend to work better when reasons are included than when omitted. Sometimes parents get discouraged because the teenager discounts or dismisses what they have to say out of hand, or appears not to listen. However, I believe this is appearance only. An adolescent mostly listens to what parents say and enters what they say, whether agreeing with it or following it or not at the time.

I think the best parents tend to be of the speaking up (not the shutting up) kind, unafraid to offer information and raise issues, no matter how unwelcome this may be. These parents are loyal and steadfast communicators about which the teenager can gratefully say: “I always know what my parents think and where they stand.” And for those few parents who are skilled at giving “a good talking to,” often this is the only corrective discipline they have to give. Why? Because the young person knows that the consequence of any misstep or misdeed will be thorough discussion about what happened, why it happened, where it did or might have led, what needs to happen next, and how it’s not going to happen again.

Structure

The structure of family is created by parents with social rules and procedures that define how it is supposed to function and how members are supposed to behave. Children are socialized by family structure, learning to do what parents expect, and internalizing a code of personal conduct – what they should and shouldn’t do, how things are done and not done, who can make what kinds of decisions, for example. Structure is very important because not only does it secure the child, but it secures the adolescent as well, even though the teenager contests the structure for freedom’s sake more than the child.

The power of structure for the adolescent is that it gives choice points for managing conduct so that the young person is not at risk of more freedom of choice than she or he can handle. Absence of family structure does not liberate a teenager; it frightens the teenager. Over-protective parents are frustrating; but over-permissive parents are scary. Needing some social structure to live by, now the secondary family of peer group membership can take over, often to harmful effect. The job of parents is to create and patrol family structure, appreciating compliance when it occurs and providing correction when it is not, adjusting structure as adolescent maturity grows.

When parents feel called upon to correct the teenager after some major structural (rule) violation has occurred, they should never correct in anger because the emotion they express can obscure the lesson they are trying to teach. "The reason I'm being punished is because my parents are angry."  Now the young person, focusing on feeling emotionally attacked, has missed the corrective point. If parents feel angry, declare that. But separate it from correction. Correction is criticism enough. And it needs to be rationally given to be most formatively effective.

Supervision

Supervision comes in two tiresome forms–checking up on the teenager to see if he did what he said, and pursuing the teenager to get some obligatory task completed. Come adolescence, the young person actively (by arguing) and passively (by delay) becomes more resistant to parental rules and requests for freedom’s sake. The question now is: how will parents deal with this resistance? Unless a major violation is at issue (sneaking out after curfew, for example) in which case some correction may be in order, minor acts of resistance (chores not yet accomplished, for example) must be encountered if tasks are to get completed.

Delay, however, is not a punishable offense because it is not a major violation, just an ongoing irritation. That said, if parents do not consistently pursue a request to completion, they are sending a double message: “Sometimes we mean what we say, and sometimes we don’t.” Given the choice of which possibility to respond to, most adolescents will vote for “don’t.”

When it comes to backing up rules and requests, parental inconsistency is self-defeating. Therefore, it’s best for parents not to set a rule or make a request they are not prepared to keep after until compliance or completion is assured. Supervision is how this done, using their relentless insistence and repetition to wear adolescent resistance down. “I hate it when you nag me!” objects the teenager. “I hate nagging too,” agrees the parent, “I find it exhausting. However, it is honorable work and when it needs to be done to help you get something done, I will do it.”

Finally, it’s worth including here a form of supervision one parent called “active waiting.” Having requested something from her teenager and been put on adolescent hold, she didn’t say a word until asked, just silently standing by wherever he was. “What are you hanging around me for?” was the irritated question. “Go away!” To this came the parent’s cheerful, patient reply: “I’m just waiting, and will keep waiting, until you do what I asked.” I asked the mom if this was ‘silent nagging?’ She smiled: “Maybe so. It often seems to work that way.”

The Exchange Points

Adolescence is a more absorbed age when the young person’s self-preoccupation can get in the way of sensitivity to family others, like parents. It is easy for the teenager to get into one-way thinking: “All that matters in my relationship with parents is getting my needs and wants met.” To parents, this attitude can feel like all give and no get: “We do all the giving and she gets all the getting.”

Parents need to take a stand for mutuality and two-way giving in the relationship, and they do so by working the Exchange Points – all the times when the teenager depends on them to permit and provide. So, for example, when the middle school student asks for a ride over to see a friend, parents think before agreeing: “Was there something we asked for that has not been done, or something we would like in advance, in exchange for our cooperation?” Then they say, “We would be happy to take you, but before we do, that help we asked you for needs to be given.” “I promise I’ll help when I get home,” vows the teenager. No. Promises are false currency. Only performance counts. So to emphasize the importance of exchange, parents explain: “First you do for us, and then we will do for you. That way we each do something of value for the other, and the relationship works well for us both.”

Responsibility

Freedom needs to come with a cost in adolescence, and the name of that cost is Responsibility which is learned and earned by owning the choices one makes by coping with the consequences that follow. The good choices come with consequences that benefit; the bad choices come with consequences that bite. Although tempting to protectively step in between a bad choice and a bad consequence to spare their son or daughter injury, parents do so at the young person’s expense – she or he loses an important opportunity to profit from painful experience.

If a young person is going to learn sufficient self-management skills to support a functional independence, taking responsibility for her or his choice/consequence connections is essential. She or he needs to be able to say: “For the decisions I make and the outcomes I get I have no one to credit or to blame but myself, and I will learn from this experience as I grow.”

Each kind of discipline has a formative lesson to teach.

Guidance: “Why do I have to do homework?” One answer is because the young person will need this self-discipline and work ethic later on.

Structure: “Why do I have to follow your rules?” One answer is because after leaving home, the young person will have to follow more rules later on.

Supervision: “Why do I have to get used to being checked up on?” One answer is because in jobs people will be keeping after the young person later on.

Exchange Points: “Why do I have to do stuff for you?” One answer is because doing for others is part of how the young person will need to get along in relationships later on.

Responsibility: “Why do I have to suffer the consequences?” One answer is because learning from experience is something the young person will have to do later on.

The importance of parental discipline in teaching self-discipline can be explained by a very simple equation: now = later. An adolescent is just a young person in training for adulthood. Parents are the primary trainers. At stake is learning sufficient self-management skills to support a constructive independence so adolescence can be brought to a successful close.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, Surviving Your Child's Adolescence (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Risk Taking

 

Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Austin, Texas. His most recent books are: The Connected Father, The Future of Your Only Child, and Stop Screaming.

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