It’s amazing how words change over time. Take “discipline.” The word has roots in Latin meaning teaching and learning. For example, we speak of “the discipline of Medicine.” But crack open your copy of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary and you’ll see “instruction” is the second definition of discipline, and an obsolete one at that. Primarily, the word now means “punishment, control gained by enforcing obedience or order.”
When we speak of “discipline for teens,” however, we really mean the original definition. We want to set teens up for success in the wide world outside our home. We hope to teach them how to function well in society with other people.
What can we do to help our teens learn the skills they need?
Let’s start with five things that won’t work:
Intimidation? It’s the very easiest form of coercion on the planet, and some parents may use it unintentionally on their teens. Unfortunately for intimidators, in this phase of development, teens may take attempts at intimidation as a challenge to “stand up for themselves,” causing exactly the opposite effect intended.
Guilt? Guilt only works on the guilty. Constantly making teens feel guilty over their decisions only works as long as the teen considers their decisions to be incorrect… and, except in rare situations, humans don’t intentionally make wrong decisions. Over reliance on guilt only helps teens build an immunity against their own conscience.
Threats of punishment? Punishment is like Cold War Era nuclear Mutually Assured Destruction: it only works as long as each side is convinced the other side will actually launch their weapons. Like intimidation, threats of punishment only work as long as the teen respects the punishment itself.
Solitary confinement? “Go to your room!” While separation can be useful to allow disagreeing parties a chance to “clear the air,” it cuts off the flow of communication necessary to allow both sides to understand the point of view of the other.
Give up? It’s heartbreaking that some parents simply stop trying, finding the teaching process frustrating. It doesn’t solve any problems, and in no way does it equip your teen for the future.
With that said, here’s some things that can work at introducing discipline for teens:
Encourage empathy! State how you feel about their decisions, and allow them to express their feelings as well. This mutual respect is the foundation of social interaction in the “real world.”
Negotiation! Most decisions are actually negotiable, if both parties are willing to negotiate. “Bad decisions” are often based on incomplete data, not stubbornness. A relationship of open discussions encourage teens to think before they act, and flexibility lends more impact when boundaries are encountered.
Support your teen’s decisions! (But hold them accountable for the outcomes.) Teens depend on their parents to back up their decisions once negotiations are complete; if they know you “have their back,” they are more likely to respect the negotiated boundaries. Conversely, if teens are accountable for the consequences of their decisions they are more likely to seek the advice necessary to avoid those adverse outcomes.
Strive to always avoid anger. Often, teens fear their parents’ anger even more than the consequences of their decisions. Teens afraid of their parents’ anger will avoid their parents and, in the process, avoid the lessons they could learn from the consequences of their decisions.
Encourage your child to “want to be disciplined.” Empowered with the support of their parents, flexible boundaries that are proven to protect them from harm while respecting their evolving sensibilities, you may just find that your teen seeks out the discipline you wished to impart!