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Adolescence and developing self-discipline.

Why developing self-discipline is a battle for adolescents.

Come the onset of adolescence (around ages 9 - 13), the young person breaks the boundaries of childhood to create more room to grow because he or she doesn't want to be defined and treated as "just a child" any more.

This "room to grow" is freedom of action and interest that opens up an enormous range of choice, some of it resistant and some of it exploratory. For example, the early adolescent decides to actively and passively resist parental authority and directly and vicariously explore more worldly experiences.

Now the young person has grown out of childhood, ‘the age of command,' when he thought parents had the power to dictate what he must and must not do. And he has entered adolescence, ‘the age of consent,' when he realizes that parents can't make him or stop him without his cooperation. It's an exhilarating feeling to know that even though consequences are up to the parents, freedom of choice is now in his hands.

The age of consent, however, brings a sobering realization to the young person as well. Now she has to manage much more freedom than she knows what to do with, than she can comfortably manage. It is partly because she lacks the capacity to constructively structure all this freedom, and knows it, that she gives parents consent to partly "run" her life, to help keep it organized and on track.

From here on, parents do not strive for control (which they never really had); they work for consent -- to get the young person to agree to go along with what they want and believe is best. So while she complains and protests about their discipline, she also accepts the necessity for it, doing what they want when she knows she doesn't have to.

After all, she lives in a family, not a prison. "All right, I'll stay home, but I won't forgive you for not letting me go!" She resents them for providing the order and purpose that she needs. This is why parental discipline during adolescence is often a thankless proposition.

The purpose of parental discipline is to support safe and healthy growth in their child and adolescent. Four components of this unpopular parental responsibility are:

Motivation - encouraging the young person with positive and negative persuasion to do what is hard, or what she may not want to do but needs to do for her best interests.

Instruction - teaching the young person the essential knowledge and skills necessary to manage his life effectively, particularly the capacity to learn from experience.

Supervison - checking to make sure she has maintained important consistency of effort, has completed what she started, has met the commitments she has made, and is keeping her world of demands adequately organized so she can remember what they are.

Correction - allowing or applying consequences when mistakes or misdeeds have occurred so that the young person can learn from the errors of his ways and make a better choice the next time.

The challenge is: how can discipline from parents turn into self-discipline for the adolescent?

One opportunity to learn some self-discipline is provided by school in the form of homework. These assignments that are brought home at night after the school day is over are usually not how the young person wants to spend his or her "free" time. And getting the done can require a lot of parental discipline, particularly in the form of supervision. But if parents are relentlessly persistent, their son or daughter can finally learn to take care of this unwelcome business without having to be told or nagged.

In the process of accomplishing homework on her own,the young person acquire some work ethic - developing the self-discipline to make herself do the additional practice work she don't want to do. Those adolescents who require no parental supervision to take care of homework develop a work ethic that will serve them well in the years ahead.

Another common source of self-discipline can be athletics. Dedication to practice builds a work ethic that can elevate competitive performance. As a coach once told me, "the kids who show self-discipline to push them selves in practice are usually the ones with the mental toughness to play hard in games. That's why I tell all my players, ‘the hardest opponent to beat is never on the other team; it's in your self. It's your natural reluctance to work as hard as you can to do your best.'"

In their adulthood, parents have learned self-discipline as part of the necessary labor of daily life. For growing adolescents, however, this self-mastery can be hard to learn.

For example, it's when the young person leaves home for the final stage of adolescence, trial independence (ages 18 - 23) that the struggle for true independence begins and when self-discipline matters most of all.

Now the "enemy" to resist is no longer parents. Now they are no longer the ones to blame. Now the fight is within the adolescent, the fight to overcome the old dependent part of him self and take full responsibility for all the freedom he said he always wanted and now finally has. The hardest part of adolescence comes last. (See 4/26/09 blog, "Flunking out of college -lack of readiness responsibility.")

Self-discipline is the will power to make yourself do what you may not feel like doing, or to keep your self from giving in to what you will later regret. In both cases self-discipline advances or protects what you believe is in your best interests.

It takes self-discipline, for example, for the college student, after a late night out, to get himself up in the morning to go to class, to do assignments, and to turn them in on time. It feels easier to sleep in, put off assignments, and turn them in late or not at all.

It takes self-discipline, for example, at a party with friends, to keep one drink from leading to another and then to drunkenness, even though excessive drinking has been a problem in the past and a focus of personal concern.

In most last stage adolescents, self-discipline is in short supply because the principal components of self-discipline -- persistence, patience, and restraint -- are often not well developed. Discouragement defeats persistence, impulsiveness defeats patience, and temptation defeats restraint.

Why? Because in the more independent world of peers in which they now live, opportunities for outside influence, distraction, escape, and self-indulgence for young people abound.

At a time when many of one's peers are out for having a good time, self-discipline is not much fun. There are, however, rewards for self-discipline. You set yourself a task or resolution; you mobilize determination; you assert self-control; you successfully meet the challenge; and you build self-esteem for having accomplished what felt very hard to do. And in the process, through practice, you have further strengthened the will power on which self-discipline depends.

To become self-disciplined at this point the adolescent has to wean himself from dependency on parental discipline to structure the freedom in his life. He has to stop leaning on their instruction, supervision, motivation, and correction and become his own authority.

It is only by managing to become self-motivating, self-instructive, self-supervising, and self-corrective, that he will be able to claim responsible independence as a self-disciplined "free standing" adult.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week's entry: The disenchantment of adolescence.

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