Do the Same Discipline Tactics Work for Teenagers and Toddlers?


Summer is coming to an end, as are the days of letting our kids stay up late and sleep in, eat marshmallows for dinner and pizza for breakfast. Many schools, from kindergarten to college, are already back in session. We parents can once again get some work done without (too many) interruptions.

But what the end of summer means, in practical terms, is that some of us parents need a refresher course in teaching our kids discipline.

For me, having recently gone through a divorce, relearning how to manage my three teenagers has been particularly painful — and illuminating. When my three kids were toddlers, I lived by bribery, threats, and the silent treatment. Which sounds awful, but it worked beautifully. I cajoled, ignored and smoldered my way through raising civilized kids. Although it was frustrating at times, my children learned to load a dishwasher, to put away their sneakers, to say please and thank you, to consider others’ feelings, and to chew with their mouths closed.

Nice to have that thorny discipline issue licked for good, I thought at the time.

But like so much of parenthood, that phase passed quickly. Amidst the soccer practices, the homework, and the chicken tenders and tater tots, their dad and I lost our original connection. For a long time, as we divorced, our family had bigger priorities than being polite to each other: we were all stunned, sad, and raw with anger and emotion. We had to adjust to two households, economic changes, and heartbreak. Chastising my children slipped off my priority list without my even noticing.

But this summer, a downturn in my kids’ attitudes became undeniable. I caught my 18-year-old lying to me, more than once. My 16 and 13-year-old daughters became insufferably sassy. They mocked my clothing, my cooking, my dating, my driving. I thought, more than once: who created these monsters?

The simple answer: I did. Suddenly I realized I’d become one of those parents who refused to punish my children. I wanted to be their friend. I wanted my kids to like me. I wanted to avoid all conflict with them, because the divorce brought so much unavoidable strife.

But I realized I was suffering from the loss of fundamental respect. And I wasn’t the only one. My kids were too. They seemed so angry, somehow lost, not themselves.

How – and why — does a parent rediscover healthy discipline? Too often we think discipline means punishment. But discipline actually means “to impart knowledge and skill.”

Discipline means teaching your children lifelong values, including respect for others. Most importantly, it teaches kids to self-discipline, which in many ways is self respect, an invaluable life skill. Discipline helps children of all ages feel secure, in their homes, their relationships, and in themselves.

I never thought I’d stoop to disciplining my teenagers with the same tactics that worked when they were two. But take a look at the advice from Supernanny, the ridiculously instructive and popular television series. The guidance is aimed at young kids. But replace “young child” with “teenager,” and the maxims hold.

  • Don’t see your teenager as bad - try see his acting up as a lapse in judgment that you need to correct in a positive way.
  • Don’t make rules he can’t keep. Don’t set a 9pm curfew for an 18 year old. Don’t require your dyslexic kid to get all A’s. Don’t ground your kids if you won’t be home to stop them from breaking out. In other words, why set your kid up for failure? You want your teenager to follow your rules – but you also want him or her to succeed at doing so.
  • Consistently enforce consequences.
    One of Supernanny’s top rules of discipline is to follow through with consequences for bad behavior. There are few sentient beings more dangerous than teenagers who know you’re a soft touch.
  • Remove temptation. (And recognize that the temptation has changed from cookies on the counter to Heineken in the fridge.) Teenagers have very little self-control, so don’t leave temptation in their way. Create an environment that promotes good behavior.
  • Watch the do’s and don’ts.
    Being negative makes you the heavy. Reframe your discipline vocabulary. For example, instead of saying, “Josh, don’t take the car without my permission,” say “It’s your turn to have the car on Wednesday and Sunday nights.” Or instead of, “I’ll kill you if you get pregnant,” try “I expect you to make this family proud and set a good example for your little sister.” In this way you’re telling your child what she can do, instead of constantly telling her what not to do.

I’ve been doing all of this. My kids seemed surprised at first – but being firm felt far better than the past two years of trying to be their best friend when they were treating me like dirt. A few days before school starts, we’re a few days back into a disciplined household. My kids seem happier. Relieved. Nicer.

As does their mom.



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