As parents, disciplining teenagers can feel like a constant struggle. However, I believe most of the issue lies in how we identify the problems we often perceive as harmful in our teenagers. There are three major factors to consider.
When children enter their teenage-years, their developmental stage shifts toward separation and individuation. As our teens grow closer to adulthood, they will try to establish themselves as independent of their parents, and, in some cases, society in general. Parents often label this behavior as rebellion when it’s simply a teen attempting to do what is necessary for his or her psychological development. If this is the case, relax. It won’t last forever.
Every generation has their way of separating from the status quo. When I was young, boys had long hair and girls wore mini skirts. In my son’s generation, it was body piercing; he came home from college with his tongue and nipples pierced. Guess what? He outgrew that by the time he was twenty-two, and now there are no signs of the piercing phase.
Second, there is an issue I call problem definition. Sometimes teens develop behaviors parents know are not in their best interest, e.g. isolating in their room, not cleaning their room, not working up to potential, or any other number of things. This typically causes parents to become quite upset because they believe, unless they can get their children to see the errors of their ways and change their behavior, they are not doing a good job of parenting.
Who do you think is most upset by these situations, you or your child? It is almost unequivocally YOU! If you are most upset by the problem, then guess what? You own it. It is your problem, not your child’s. Yes, your child may be making some short-term decisions that could affect his or her life later, but you need to accept he is perfectly content with those decisions. As a parent, all you need to do is inform your child about your concerns. Let your child know what you are worried about, and then stop talking. Allow your child to make his or her own decisions. At age eighteen, our children become legal adults, capable of making all decisions without your permission. Give your child some practice now and don’t get in the way of the consequences.
If your child’s behavior results in an F on the report card or worse, a failed grade, so be it. Teens need to learn how their choices determine what happens to them in a way that teaches personal responsibility and self-discipline, skills they’ll need for when you’re not around.
Third, is another aspect of problem definition. When parents see behaviors in their teens they don’t like, they look at the behavior as the problem, when, in actuality, it is only a symptom of an underlying unmet need in your child. If all you do is punish the behavior without addressing the unmet need, then your child will either continue the behavior or find new, and quite possibly worse, methods in their attempts to meet that need.
What parents need to do in this situation is use the great relationship they have with their child to talk about what may be bothering him or her. The behavior itself is not a problem to be extinguished. The behavior is actually a signal, your clue, that your child needs something he or she can’t figure out how to get any other way. Take the time to find out what your child needs so you can help him or her figure out a better way to get it. Remember, the Latin root of discipline means to teach, not to punish.