A number of scholars have suggested that when it comes to developmental phases, the teen years are not unlike the toddler years. Of course, teens are more mature in many ways, but the developmental tasks underlying the phases do show some similarities. In both phases, children are gaining independence from their parents, often testing their limits and experimenting with new skills. Not surprisingly, just as with the toddler years, parents often find the teen years to be challenging in the disciplinary aspects of parenting. Fortunately, we also have more parenting research and insights about the teenage brain than we’ve ever had previously. With these resources in hand, we can better understand how to provide effective and supportive discipline during this phase of development.

What Doesn’t Work for Teen Discipline?

Although many times our first response to teens testing limits and striving for independence may be to react quickly and harshly, this approach may not produce the best results. Research finds that harsh discipline, particularly yelling or ridiculing, tends to be associated with negative outcomes in adolescents. These negative outcomes include things like higher rates of depression and more behavioral problems in teens.

Similarly, approaching teen discipline from a place of anger tends to undermine our goals as well. Studies find that parents who struggle with controlling their anger when interacting with their teens tend to resort to these more harsh or hostile disciplinary approaches. Perhaps most interestingly this research shows that responding in anger makes it more likely for parents to make negative attributions about their teen’s behavior. In other words, when the anger level is high, parents are more likely to think that their teens are misbehaving intentionally or just to “push their buttons.” Both of these attributions often lead to even more anger and hostile responses, making it difficult for parents to understand the real cause of their teen’s behavior.

What Works for Teen Discipline?

Instead of harsh discipline and anger, how can we discipline teens effectively while still supporting their development? The research clearly points to positive parenting practices. Specifically, monitoring and fostering emotional regulation seem to be two key components of discipline during the teen years. Monitoring might include practices such as parents keeping track of their teens’ whereabouts, activities, and friends. In this line of research, we find that monitoring takes on a positive connotation rather than an overprotective, negative role. Parents are interested in their teens’ lives and experiences. This type of positive monitoring helps teens know that their parents care about them.

Teen Discipline

Another key aspect of effective discipline centers on helping teens learn to manage their emotions. While this may not sound like a disciplinary strategy, it does, in fact, aid our efforts in raising teens who are able to follow rules and have strong self-control. When teens understand how to manage difficult emotions like anger, frustration, or sadness in healthy ways that don’t involve aggression or acts of rebellion, they inherently become more disciplined. To learn effective emotional regulation, teens need practice recognizing and coping with their emotions. Here are a few examples of ways to foster healthy emotional regulation for teens:

  • Listen and Empathize: Teens sometimes have dramatic emotional reactions to what they perceive to be small events. During the teen years, emotions often run high. Instead of dismissing these big emotions as overreactions or teens just “being dramatic,” try to really listen and empathize. Many times, teens don’t really need (or want) our advice on how to handle a situation, they simply need a kind, listening ear in order to vent their feelings. You can be that supportive presence. Dismissing emotions only teaches children to suppress difficult feelings, and this does not help them learn how to cope with them well.
  • Discuss and Model Effective Coping Strategies: Teens are not yet adults and haven’t mastered effective strategies for coping with big emotions. You can help by modeling these in your own life. If you find yourself feeling angry or upset, show your teen what you do to calm down. Perhaps you go for a long walk, listen to music, exercise, take deep breaths or meditate. Any of these healthy ways of coping can be instructive for your teen. When your teen is calm, discuss and even practice different coping strategies and help them decide which ones work best for them. Then, when the time comes when they are upset, you can suggest one of these coping strategies for them to try.
  • Reinforce: Teens will still make mistakes. They will make poor choices, lose their tempers, or handle their emotions poorly from time to time. Try to approach the situation with understanding. After the mistake has occurred, discuss it with your teen and try to understand where things went awry. Reinforce to your teen that you know they are still learning. Help them see where they could have made a better choice or alternatives they could have chosen to handle the situation in a healthier way.

The teen years may not always be easy, but they can be a wonderful time to learn more about your child and keep your connection strong. How we approach discipline during this time can influence not only our teen’s behavior, but also on our relationship. By approaching discipline from a place of understanding and guidance rather than harshness and anger, we can help our teens develop strong emotional skills that will serve them well as adults.

Preview Blurb: Have the teen years thrown you for a loop? Are you puzzled about how to discipline your teen while still fostering their independence? This phase can be a challenging time for both children and parents. Our approach to discipline can influence our teens’ behavior and skills development. Read on to find out what research has to say about effective teen discipline. 

The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.

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