When Teens Disobey: A Parent’s Guide to Discipline

When Teens Disobey: A Parent’s Guide to Discipline

Remember little Johnny when he was 5 years old? He’d throw a temper tantrum, you’d sit him in the “think time” corner, and after 10 when teens act upminutes, he’d get back to behaving well enough where you wouldn’t have to threaten taking away dessert at the next meal.

Fast forward 10 years later. Johnny’s “temper tantrum” involves shoving his little brother, you threaten to keep him home from the next party, and he yells at you that you’ll never understand his life — ever.

“Think time” isn’t exactly going to work with Johnny anymore these days, especially when you’re dealing with complex negative behaviors from tweens and teens such as sulking, lying, rebelling, or disobeying. Since parents are now disciplining those who are growing up into young adults, they need to emphasize communication rather than quick-fix actions, such as a time out. They also need to understand why this is necessary and understand just what’s going on inside the adolescent mind.

Blame the brain for adolescent angst

A good place to start is to accept that everything in that kid’s body is changing. You probably remember your own growing pains that, no doubt, caused some strain within your own family, and perhaps at school. It’s also important to understand that it’s not only hormonal eruptions going on, but drastic changes in brain development, as well. The adolescent brain is rapidly growing, making new connections and pruning others, resulting in a kind of internal struggle within the brain for dominance. The National Institute of Mental Health website has a fascinating video on how adolescent brains grow and adapt.

The result of all this neural activity can be disorienting, says Greatschools.org. It’s these new connections that are responsible for distressing behaviors that include “recklessness, poor decision-making, and emotional outbursts.” On the plus side, at around age 13, the brain also starts to develop intellectual skills, such as reasoning and the ability to structure argument (OK, maybe this isn’t exactly what parents want at the moment), and to expect consequences.

Open a communications channel with your child

One benefit older children bring to the table is that they can communicate what’s bothering them, even if they need some encouragement. Take what they tell you in the context of what you’ve learned from your research. Reign in your own frustration, and be a good listener. If your teen is reluctant to tell you much, you can get some perspective at Teenshealth.org, which has first-person accounts from teens on issues such as stress and bullying. It’s also a good resource to share with your adolescent children.

Even if your teen isn’t talking, you can engage in one-way communications for the time being. Start by stating your expectations for acceptable behavior. Be explicit, and narrow down your list of complaints to those that are the most serious — swearing, lying, etc. — as opposed to something you merely dislike, such as an unusual hairstyle or ugly shirt. Above all, do not lose your temper and start yelling, or worse, hitting your child. This models the very type of behavior you want to prevent or stop, and sends the message that it’s an appropriate adult behavior, which it is not.

You still need some muscle behind your rules, so be clear about consequences, which we now know is present in most adolescent brains. Loss of privileges, such as Internet, grounding; and paying back for the behavior through chores, are appropriate and effective practices to implement for this age group. Here are scenarios that illustrate when each form of punishment is most fitting:

  1. Your child stayed out past his curfew and didn’t call first: Grounding underscores that you expect curfew to be followed, and if there is an unexpected delay, you must be notified.
  2. Your child attended an event outside his usual activities, such as a concert in the city, didn’t get permission from you, and came home late: Loss of privilege and grounding sends a strong message that going to a special event requires special permission from you.
  3. Your teenager returned your car on an empty tank and didn’t tell you, much less give you money to fill it: Requiring payback provides a very important lesson about responsible car use. Loss of privilege is appropriate, as well, since you were inconvenienced.

Creative Commons image by Ed Yourdon

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