Teen Discipline Strategies

How useful are rules as guidelines for adolescents? As our children move into the teen years it's becoming more difficult and confusing to govern their behavior by this method. It certainly doesn't work the way it did when they were younger. For example, I can't get my middle son to keep his room clean no matter what penalties I impose for breaking the rule. Do you have any suggestions?

Let’s begin by doing some thinking about what rules are and what they are not. Parents of teenagers need to hold on to the principle “my house, my rules.” But they also need to understand the purpose of rules and have a clear idea of what they can and cannot accomplish.

As your son moves through the adolescent years, it’s increasingly important that you grasp the distinction between rules, advice, and suggestions. Rules represent the voice of authority. This is the voice that says, “Here’s the way it is, and there will be no further discussion about it.” Advice is wise counsel. It’s the voice of experience seeking to influence a young person. It says, “Here’s what I would do if I were in your situation.” Suggestions have the appearance of being even less forceful than advice. They avoid absolute statements and merely offer “good ideas” designed to facilitate positive choices.

We realize that what we’re going to say next may be hard for some moms and dads to accept. Generally speaking, skillful and effective parenting of teens involves moving away from rules (total control). Ultimately, it means making the transition from advice (firm guidance) to suggestion (caring emancipation). The ultimate goal is to set your son free to think for himself. You want him to be self-directing when he enters the adult world.

Naturally, this doesn’t mean that there’s no place for rules in the life of a teenager. Rules are essential wherever people share living space. But it’s vital to understand their purpose and how they work. There are two main reasons for implementing rules: 1) to keep safety in; and 2) to keep chaos out. In other words, rules are intended to protect and to preserve order. They cannot control anybody. Outside the context of a meaningful relationship, they may only invite rebellion.

Here are seven principles that can help you devise effective rules and avoid common problems in this area:

Have as few rules as possible.

The more rules you have, the more you’ll have to remember and the more you’ll have to enforce. It’s hard to stay consistent when the system becomes too complicated.

Make the rule specific and quantitative.

The more vague the rule, the more room there is for your teen to wiggle out of it. That’s not to mention that parents often like rules that lack clarity, since they control the process of interpretation.

Make sure you can enforce the rule.

The consequences for breaking a rule should also be clear and limited. If you don’t have the power to impose the consequence, don’t make the rule in the first place.

Ask yourself, “Is this a hill worth dying on?”

In other words, pick your battles carefully. A solid understanding of the two main purposes of rules – protection and preservation of order – can help guide you in this area. Your son’s messy room is a case in point. Does his slovenliness pose any kind of danger to himself or the rest of the family? Does it introduce chaos into the lives of other family members? If not, it might be a good idea to shut the door and leave him alone.

Be sure your motive or reason for this rule is a good one.

Generally speaking, your goal in devising rules and enforcing consequences is to make it “ouch” a bit when your teenager makes foolish choices. There’s no point in trying to “control” him.

Realize that some rules will morph into advice as your teenager gets older.

Rules change as kids mature. This is a natural part of the process of growing up. Wherever and whenever possible, look for opportunities to downgrade rules to advice or suggestions. It’s to your advantage to be a mentor, teacher, and encourager rather than a “policeman” or “bad guy.”

Remember that rules need to be reviewed, updated, and sometimes even dumped.

Keep your rules clear and current. If there are any that can be removed from the books, then by all means get rid of them. For example, “No feeding oatmeal into the VCR” isn’t particularly relevant when your former toddler is a high school senior. This will make life simpler and easier for everyone in the family.

If you think it might be helpful to discuss these ideas and suggestions at greater length, call us for a free consultation. Our staff counselors would consider it a privilege to speak with you over the phone. They can also provide you with a list of referrals to trained therapists practicing in your area.


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