How Do You Discipline a Teen?

8 ways to give love and limits during these tension-filled years.

Husband and wife David and Heather Kopp write regularly--sometimes individually, sometimes jointly--on spiritual parenting. This column is by Heather.

The plan Dave and I had for discipline during the teen years was fairly simple: Stick around your child as much as you can. And make sure the consequences for doing the wrong thing are so bad that it just isn't worth it.

What we didn't count on was the difficulty of "baby-sitting" a child who's bigger than you and as secretive as the Pentagon, or imposing consequences on someone operating under the slippery logic of this age group. Teens are so convinced that they won't ever get caught, so sure of their skill at sneaking--be it skipping school or drinking or worse--that consequences never enter their mind.

And should they get caught, they figure they'll get smarter next time. After all, what are the chances of getting caught yet again?

No wonder some parents give up, look the other way, hope for the best. But rarely does "the best" follow. And so most of us are reaching instead for advice, for help, for some definitive answers to the impossible question of how to discipline a child who is too old for a time-out and way too confident to be cowed by our disapproval.

Over the years, Dave and I have stumbled upon a few strategies that work at our house and may work at yours.

Accept your new role. By definition, your role as a parent of a teen invites a great amount of tension. We are called on to walk that line of granting greater adult privileges while at the same time watching our child display the dumbest (and possibly most dangerous) behavior imaginable. It's easy to panic and trade in our parent role for the role of either "best friend" or oppressive tyrant.


But we've discovered that neither of these extremes really work. They might relieve the tension we feel, but in the end the lack of balance tips the boat. The teen takes advantage of the "friend," or rebels with a vengeance against the tyrant. We've learned that it's better to cling tenaciously to our tension-filled parent role and face the inevitable storms head on. We can catch up on our sleep when they're grown.

Fight for the relationship. You can always get the car fixed if your kid wrecks it, but qualities like trust, openness, acceptance, loyalty, and respect are hard to replace once they're gone. Work hard to create other conversations and relationship points that have nothing to do with the behavior problem. For example, even if your 14-year-old son is grounded for "borrowing the car" (and crashing it), continue to treat him as someone you like to spend time with.

Try to see down the road. As much as you don't want to contemplate trouble before it slimes your life, we've seen big payoffs from talking about acceptable behavior in advance of any transgressions. Don't be put off by your child's protestations of "This is so dumb," or "I might as well live up to your expectations." You need to shed your innocence. Write down your terms, and post them. For example:

  • "If you are caught drinking alcohol or taking drugs, you will be off the basketball team and you will lose car privileges for a month."
  • "If you receive an F on a report card, you will be grounded from all social activities until it's raised to a C."

    Setting up these kinds of expectations and consequences puts you in a much stronger position when troubles hit.
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