The Challenging Nature of Discipline

This week begins the first of several posts on discipline. The findings from our reader’s poll indicated that this was an important topic for many Parenthetical parents. Not only is discipline challenging to do, it can be challenging to write about. We encourage you to share your thoughts, frustrations, successes and failures in the comments section following the posts. There is much we can learn together.

How we approach discipline with our teens is influenced by many factors including the way our parents disciplined us, our hopes and fears for our child, the type of day we are having, and the behavior, attitude and reaction of our child. For the most part, parents want to do the right thing. Unfortunately we are too often frustrated or unclear as to what the right thing might be and sometimes our personal frustration and emotions can get in the way. Click here to see how one dad dealt with his anger and hurt over his daughter’s behavior.

While the depth of his feelings are apparent, this dad’s response is a cautionary tale about why discipline and anger do not mix well. Anger often provokes parents to become a little irrational, short-circuiting the more reasonable thought processes necessary for constructive discipline. It is important to recognize the distinction between discipline and punishment and to act accordingly, especially during those moments when you are particularly upset or angry with your teen’s behavior!

Discipline is a teaching process with the objective of fostering a  child’s healthy development and long term well being.  Discipline has three primary purposes:

1.    To keep your teen safe

2.   To ensure that your child interacts with others in thoughtful and socially appropriate ways

3.   To help your teen develop self-reliance, productivity and social responsibility.

Punishment, on the other hand, is a disciplinary tool and not an effective end in and of itself. Punishment, such as loss of privileges, loss of freedoms or grounding, are most effective when used in tandem with other disciplinary techniques. Imagine how differently Facebook Dad’s daughter might feel and what she might learn if, instead of violently destroying her computer in front of the whole world, he had punished her by simply taking away her laptop and privately sharing with his daughter the depth of his anger and hurt.  He then would have had the option of allowing her to earn it back as a reward, after she had the opportunity to demonstrate her growing maturity is some manner.

In the midst of a very frustrating incident with my daughter many years ago I remember actually saying out loud, “I’m getting tired of having to be the grown-up in every situation.” Though it is often be easier to throw a tantrum like a young child, the way that we parents negotiate the relationship between discipline and punishment is what can put us solidly in the grown-up camp and set the groundwork for a solid relationship with our teens.


Article by Becky Mather

Becky is an Outreach Specialist for the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Much of her work centers on parenting education and adolescent development. She and her husband are the parents of two young adults and a pre-adolescent. Becky is a Certified Family Life Educator.