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Effective Discipline for Unruly Teens

Some disciplinary techniques are more effective than others. Fortunately, today there's a great deal of scientific evidence to back up behavior modification strategies. In order for a consequence to be effective, it must be:
  • Unpleasant for your teenager
  • Not too long (teens will give up if the consequence lasts too long)
  • Not negotiable after the rule has been broken
  • Immediate
  • Age-appropriate
  • A good match for the misbehavior

Disciplinary techniques that are effective can largely be grouped into two categories: 1) taking away something that is pleasurable (e.g., your attention, an exciting environment, a fun activity, etc.), and 2) imposing something that causes discomfort (e.g., paying a fine, doing extra chores, etc.). The consequence should always fit the misbehavior.

Draft a list of “Most Important House Rules” and put an appropriate consequence next to each one. Because these are the most important rules in your house, the disciplinary techniques should be fairly stiff. Next, clearly number and write the rules and their respective consequences on a large sheet of paper. For example:
  1. Bedtime is 11:00 P.M. Go to bed on time every night. If you don’t, you will skip your extracurricular activities the next day (or the next time you have one).
  2. Complete and turn in homework every day. If you don’t, I will go with you to school to discuss the matter with your teacher.
  3. Go to school every day. If you skip school or leave school, I will go with you to school to discuss the matter with the principal.
  4. No putting holes in walls or windows. If you do, you will spend the next weekend fixing the holes instead of going to any social activities.
  5. Drugs are not allowed in the house. If I think you have any, I will call the police and we will search your bedroom.

In a moment of downtime when you don't anticipate an immediate power struggle, approach your teenager and say, “I love you too much to let things go on like they have been, and it is my job to keep you safe and help you prepare for adulthood, so we are going to have some important rules. These are the basic rules in our house, and the consequences for not obeying them.”

Next, show your teenager your list.  Ask if there are any questions, or if there is anything that isn't clear. Tell your teenager that the new rules are in effect immediately. Then tell her you love her, and end the conversation. Post the rules in a conspicuous place, and expect her to begin testing them right away.

Now let’s look at what doesn’t work…

Here is a list of disciplinary techniques that should be avoided, either because they are ineffective, or because they cause more harm than good:

1. Yelling: When you're yelling, you're certainly not talking with your teen, and too much yelling, or yelling that is too fierce, may cause your teen to feel angry, intimidated, resentful, or shamed. Expect yelling, tears, withdrawal, or a teen who learns to ignore you until you calm down.

2. Withholding affection: Withholding affection ties your love to your teen's behavior, and is completely opposite from the concept of unconditional love. A mother or father who withholds affection becomes cold and distant until the behavior improves, forcing the teen to (a) suffer the lack of support, and (b) become an amateur psychologist as he tries to figure out what is making you so upset. Moms and dads who withhold affection believe it will make their teenager shape up-quick. In reality, the teen will retreat, and in anger and hurt, rebel against you.

3. Traps: Laying traps for teens, to see if they'll lie, lose control, or misbehave in a seductive situation, is unfair and disrespectful. Support your teen. Plan for him to succeed – not fail.

4. Threats: Warnings are an effective disciplinary approach, but threats are not. Threats have an element of coercion, and they make a teen obey through fear or by threatening harm. The teen whose parents use threats will feel uneasy in the one place he should feel secure: his family. Teens who are threatened often get into lying or deceptive behavior. Since most threats are “empty,” they also learn not to trust what the parent says.

5. Shutting down: Shutting down and not talking to your teen about what is bothering you or him, or about his behavior, is not effective in addressing misbehavior or avoiding it in the future. Confrontation is hard. But if you talk about it, everyone feels better afterwards.

6. Shaming: These are verbal forms of humiliation, like mocking or making fun of a teen in public. Teens will live up to your expectation – good or bad – and they'll internalize your opinions of them. Keep your reinforcements positive.

7. Sarcasm: Sarcasm is a way of putting distance between you and your teen. It puts teens down, builds resentment, and it hurts. Consider what audience you are being sarcastic for. Often parents are at their most sarcastic when other parents are around—they're not really talking WITH their teenager, their talking ABOUT her. This isn't right.

8. Physical abuse: However you feel about physical discipline, there is no doubt that punching, shaking, slapping on the face or hands, beating, whipping, hair-pulling, burning, binding, or any other physical attacks on teenagers are never acceptable, no matter what the teen's misdeed or attitude, no matter how frustrated or angry you are. Teens who have suffered physical abuse spend years fighting against lowered self-respect, mental health issues, and behavioral problems. They often become part of a cycle of violence as they, too, begin to suffer from delinquency, crime, and violent patterns as both abusers and victims. If you or anybody else in your teen's life is resorting to physical abuse to handle your teen, you need to change these patterns, and to do this, you need help and support.

9. Nagging: Nagging is continuous harping about a task, a habit, or a personality trait. Nagging is a completely ineffective technique of getting a message to your teen and, while it's not particularly damaging, it does tend to damage the communication pathways between parents and teens. Say it once, then say it again strongly, and then be done with it and move on to action. 

10. Humiliation: Humiliation wears down a teen's self-image and self-respect. Humiliation teaches a teen that you don't value him. Respect your teen—his body, his mind, and his ego. Never underestimate the damage that can be done by humiliating a teen. One of the most common triggers of suicide in teens and adolescents is a humiliating experience.

11. Guilt trips: Guilt is especially destructive when imposed on teens, when they're already deeply self-conscious and self-disparaging.

12. Commanding and demanding: Commands and demands are sometimes necessary for safety reasons, but they should only be used in emergencies. Commands and demands are a power-play. Instead of, “Why? Because I say so!” …try using requests. They'll go a lot further in fostering mutual respect. For teens that tend to be willful and push buttons, commands and demands will often get you exactly what you don't want: resistance when you need something done immediately. Enlist the teen's help. In most cases, a gentle request will actually save you time.

My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

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