Teens and discipline: Too old for time-out

Mother disciplines teen boy on couch

When we think of discipline, we tend to think of young children. We tend to think about tantrums, about teaching them to be polite and tell the truth and not fight with their siblings and other children. We don’t think as much about teens.

But teens need discipline too, just as much. In some ways, they need it more: not only do they need to learn how to behave responsibly as adults, but the stakes are higher. It’s one thing when you fall off a jungle gym, and quite another when you drink and drive.

The kind of discipline teens need is similar to the discipline you’ve (hopefully) used since they were small, but needs to take into account that they are on the cusp of independence. Here are four tips for disciplining teens:

Have house rules 

Whether we like it or not, life has rules — not just laws, but workplace, community and social rules. There can be some flexibility, some room to be unconventional, but teens to learn to follow rules not only for their safety, but also for their future success as they navigate the broader world.

Even if you already have house rules (hopefully you do), here are some things to consider when it comes to teens:

  • Involve them in making the rules, so that you can decide together what’s reasonable.
  • Pick your battles: safety is more important than a clean room, for example.
  • Think about life skills and needs: prioritize not just being safe, but also doing their best at school, having a job, doing chores or otherwise contributing to the family or community.
  • Have expectations around respect, kindness and truthfulness. These, too, are important for future life success (and happiness).
  • Have rules and expectations around substance use; obeying the law always makes sense. Turning a blind eye, or saying, “Kids will be kids,” can have tragic consequences.

Some teens have particular challenges, such as mental health problems, that make house rules more complicated. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have house rules or hold your child accountable, you just may need to be more thoughtful in how you choose and define rules. Ask your child’s doctor or mental health provider for advice.

Actions should have consequences 

Once a rule is set, it needs to be consistently enforced — or it’s not actually a rule. The punishment should fit the crime (as opposed to your mood or how much cajoling your teen does) and be appropriate for your child’s developmental stage and situation. Involving your teen in deciding consequences can be useful — but ultimately, you are in charge.

Common “consequences” for teens include grounding, losing privileges (including car privileges if they drive), having to do extra chores, and giving up phones and other electronic devices when not absolutely needed. If someone has been wronged, restitution is always a good idea.

Sometimes natural consequences are enough. Don’t always race in and rescue a teen from something like a bad grade or a social media disaster that has its own punishment built in. It’s a good life lesson.

Many parents of teens want to be the “fun” and friendly kind of parent. While it’s never fun to have your kid be upset with you, and nice when you can be friends, your teen needs you to be a parent first and foremost. Discipline does not make you popular with your teen — but it’s important for their well-being. There will be time for being friends later.

Set a good example 

As when they were little, our children pay more attention to what we do than what we say. Be willing to take a long hard look at how you live your life: is it how you want your teen to live theirs? Don’t break house rules yourself. Be the person you want your teen to be.

Show that you care — and that you believe in them

Spend time with your teen — doing things they want to do. Show up for games and other events. Listen — especially to their side of the story (be sure you are being fair). Give praise and encouragement for not just achievements but also honest effort — and acts of kindness.

As they grow, let them earn privileges and independence. The earning part is important; you need to be sure they can responsibly do things like go out with friends, stay out later or drive. While you can reserve the right to rescind privileges if they act irresponsibly, letting them do more shows that you believe in them — and lets them practice being adults.

Because that’s the point of discipline: to help them grow up into healthy, happy, successful adults.


About the blogger: Dr. Claire McCarthy is a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, a senior editor for Harvard Health Publications and an official spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.