Ten Practices of Effective Discipline with Your Adolescent

Some approaches to discipline that can make a positive difference

Posted Sep 26, 2011

The immediate purpose of parental discipline is to provide a mix of instruction, encouragement, and correction (when necessary) to teach an adolescent to live according to family values and within family rules.

Of course, every family system is unique in what parental values and rules matter most.

The ultimate goal of parental discipline is to help adolescents develop sufficient self-discipline to manage themselves and their lives independently and well.

Over the years of counseling with parents, I've seen a number of disciplinary practices that when conscientiously applied seem to make a positive difference in how adolescents grow. Ten of these are briefly described below.

CLEAR RULES ARE CONSISTENTLY SUPPORTED. Parents specifically describe what is and what is not allowed, what must and must not happen, and they do not break faith with these fundamental ground rules by sometimes sticking by them and sometimes not. There is no confusion or inconsistency that sends a double message --"Sometimes we mean what we say and sometimes we don't" (encouraging the adolescent to bet on "don't.").The teenager knows where parents stand because they keep standing in the same place. For example, parents have made clear: "There is no using someone else's belongings without receiving permission first, and everyone will contribute unpaid labor (chores) to support the needs of the family."

PATIENT INSISTENCE IS RELENTLESSLY APPLIED. When parents ask for something to be done they will calmly and repeatedly keep after the teenager until their request is accomplished. There is no getting upset to get their way. There is no forgetting about what was asked for or giving up. The teenager knows that if it's important enough for parents to ask for, it's important enough to parents to steadfastly see that it gets done. For example, the parent persists: "The household help I requested an hour ago, I am asking you for again."

CORRECTION IS NON-EVALUATIVELY GIVEN. When parents act to correct misbehavior, that correction is free of criticism or blame, focusing only on choices the adolescent has made and needs to make differentlyThe teenager knows that being held accountable does not bring personal censure as well. For example, in response to an infraction, parents say: "We disagree with the decisions you made, this is why, this is what we need to have happen as a result, and this is what we hope you will learn from what you did."

CONSTRUCTIVE CONDUCT RECEIVES POSITIVE RECOGNITION. When parents oversee adolescent behavior, they not only supervise what needs improvement and correction, but they approve what merits appreciation as well. The teenager knows that parents always place any mistakes and misconduct within the larger context of everything she is doing well (and everything that she could be doing badly that she is not.) For example, parents maintain a positive perspective: "Any trouble you get into or problems you cause are small parts of a large person who we believe generally manages very well."

SPEAKING UP IS EXPECTED. When parents confront the adolescent about some mistake or misdeed, they stand ready to listen to her explanation of what occurred and why. They value understanding his version of events, even though attending to it may not change their mind. The teenager knows that whenever parental discipline of the corrective kind is called for, he will get a full and fair hearing so his side of things gets to be told. For example, they listen as he explains: "It was the company and circumstances that caused me to act as I did."

THERE IS RECIPROCAL GIVING. When parents make contributions to the adolescent's life, they also expect the adolescent to make contributions in return. In this sense, the parent/adolescent relationship is a contractual one, the parent making clear how it needs to work two ways, not one. The teenager knows she lives in a family system where to get one also has to give. For example, parents keep reiterating: "We do for you and you do for us."

CONCERN COMES BEFORE CONSEQUENCE. When parents encounter the adolescent's misbehavior their first response is not corrective, but empathetic. They want to know if the teenager is all right, if she is feeling okay, if there is anything the matter the teenager needs to talk to them about. Wrong or mistaken behavior can signify that there is something else going on in the adolescent's life that may be amiss. The teenager knows that even in response to misbehavior, parental concern for his wellbeing comes before deciding what is due for what he did. For example, after the incident, the parents' first question was: "Tell us about yourself before we talk about what needs to happened."

INDIVIDUAL CHOICE IS RESPECTED. When parents have a child that enters adolescence, they know that the age of command (believing "I have to do what I am told") is over and the age of consent has arrived. "You can't stop me and you can't make me!" exclaims the defiant teenager. "That's right," parents agree. "You are in charge of your own choices (and facing the consequences of those choices), and we do not dispute that freedom." For example, parents explain: "How you choose to behave is your business, but you need to know that choice affects how we choose to behave in response."

GUIDANCE IS FAITHFULLY GIVEN. When parents undertake child raising responsibility, they commit to providing ongoing guidance that explains the world, instructs about conduct, instills values, and gives ongoing feedback about how the adolescent is experiencing and managing life. Because this communication is delivered directly and with sensitivity, the teenager knows that any counsel communicated is given with her welfare in mind, and so is taken to heart. For example, after she's had a painful social episode, parents make this offer: "We have a different way to think about what happened, and we'd like to add it to the way you're thinking now."

THE FIRST CONSEQUENCE IS COMMUNICATION. When parents are deliberating how to respond to the latest minor or major infraction, the first consequence they choose is communication. "Whenever something serious like this happens," they explain, "before we decide on any penalty, we need to talk out what happened. We need to hear what you have to say to our satisfaction and you need to hear all that we have to say. And then you have to wait to see what, if any, further consequence will occur." For example, from repeated experience, the teenager has learned this much: "Any time I mess up, I know the first thing that's going to happen will be what my parents call a ‘good talking to.'"

Parental discipline is a responsibility and an art - creating influences that keep your adolescent on a constructive passage, restoring a healthy direction when he or she has momentarily fallen away. Instruction and encouragement are most of what it takes. Correction needs to play lesser role.

It's when parents, in the extremity of their concern and frustration, invest most of their influence in correction and ignore providing instruction and giving encouragement that hard times with the adolescent tend to get worse and not better. In these strained situations, as punishment becomes the disciplinary choice of first resort, parents are often left with very little influence at all.

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

Next week's entry: Listening to your adolescent