Playing a Winning Hand of Discipline

While it may seem that there are fewer disciplinary alternatives available to parents as children enter their teen years this is not actually the case. A little creative reflection in quiet moments can help parents to realize and feel more confident that they do have options. Think about strategies for disciplining your teen as a hand of cards in a card game.  What you play will depend on the situation and some tools will be more effective than others.

Among the most valuable strategies is the tremendous importance of parents’ approval and disappointment. In many ways this is the “ace” in your deck. Disappointing you is probably inevitable within the trial and error process of growing and developing autonomy, but it is not something that most teens want to do (even if they don’t show it). If you have had a good relationship with your child prior to the teen years, your ability to bestow or temporarily withdraw your approval is a powerful disciplinary tool – though it should be used carefully and sparingly so as not to diminish its impact.

Rewards and opportunities are like kings. They, too, have very high disciplinary value.  The science of psychology tells us that rewards to encourage behavior are much more effective than are punishments that discourage behavior.

One excellent example of a reward system for teenagers is the process of obtaining a driver’s license. A license cannot simply be purchased or given as a present. It must be earned through the accomplishment of a series of tasks culminating in the final driving test. If a teen fails, rather than face punishment, the youngster must simply repeat the test. The test can be retaken indefinitely, but the reward or license is not received until mastery is achieved.

Consequences are like the queens. While they are not always pleasant for the child, they do a lot of the discipline work for the parents. There are two categories of consequences: natural consequences and logical consequences. Natural consequences are those repercussions that result naturally from a particular choice or behavior.

When your son ignores your advice to wear sunscreen to the beach and comes home with a nasty burn in some delicate places, he has experienced a natural consequence.

Logical consequences are a deliberate attempt on the part of the parent to guide their child into facing the results of their behavior. The tricky part is establishing a clear line between the action and the consequence.

When your daughter is texting inappropriate messages to her friends, the logical consequence is that the texting function be removed from her phone for a period of time.

Imposed boundaries, limits and structures are the jacks in your deck. They provide teens with a disciplinary framework, which offers them the safety, support and time to develop adult competencies.  Approaches include family rules, curfews, age restrictions, monitoring your child’s whereabouts and activities, and imposing logical consequences.  Here are four helpful hints about rules:

1. Deep down most kids know that rules are actually a good thing.  Research demonstrates that a lack of limits make children much more miserable that the actual limits do – no matter what your kids tell you at the time. In fact, most kids down deep actually view limits as a sign of your love.

2. Rules are like electronic devices. They only work when they are turned on. You must enforce them consistently.

3. Parenting is about working oneself out of a job. Decrease the limitations you set on your teen as he or she grows older.  This does not mean that your child will no longer need your emotional support and wisdom.  That part you are in on for the long haul.

Punishments are like the lowest cards in the desk, often the easiest strategy to access but the least likely to win you the game in the long run.  They are most effective when used in tandem with other cards.  Some effective punishments for teens include loss of privileges, loss of material possessions, reductions in privacy (a very valuable commodity to teens) and loss of freedoms or grounding. You will have the most effective lesson if these losses occur as a result of a logical consequence and/or can be earned back by demonstrating appropriate behaviors.

If you play your cards right, everyone wins. Your teen develops into a self-reliant, confident young adult, knowing that he or she is cherished and loved. You get the opportunity to enjoy sharing in a relationship with this lovely young adult that you have helped to shape. And that is a reward beyond measure!


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.