How To Discipline

Older Children & Teens

Many parents lose control with teenagers.  Old methods of discipline no longer work, and a power struggle develops.

Let’s take a fresh look at the problem and consider a different approach to discipline.

Clarifying the Issues

The problem

When children are small, we command: go to your room; pick up your toys; go to bed. We expect to be obeyed, although even small children tend not to obey.

Generally, physical force is used to enforce the commands.  After all, the parent is bigger, stronger, faster, and more mobile than the small child.  Moreover, the parent has the power to either inflict pain or to give pleasure.

Many parents reduce discipline to giving commands and punishing for disobedience.  The focus becomes causing pain by whippings, withdrawal of privileges, or creating guilt.  The only purpose of discipline is to produce obedience to the parental command.

All this works with varying degrees of success, depending on the child.  Of course children need to learn to respect authority and to obey, but children also need to be taught.  Most parents, we hope, do some teaching rather than merely issuing commands from afar and expecting unthinking obedience.

Let’s deal with basics

One thing is certain: every year a child becomes bigger, faster, smarter, and more mobile. Physical force has limits.  The older child may be bigger and stronger than you are. Whereas you can force a five year old to sit in the corner, a defiant fifteen-year-old is more difficult to handle.  Whereas you may know the location of your five year old, you lose touch with your teenager the moment she backs the car out of the driveway.

A different approach to discipline is needed for the older child and the teenager.  Because many things cannot be explained to a younger child, we are justified in expecting unthinking obedience.  “Don’t go in the street” must simply be accepted and obeyed when the child is three years of age.  We assume that understanding will develop.  At fifteen a child who blindly refuses to go into the street has a serious problem.  The method of discipline must move beyond mere commands and unthinking obedience to include developing understanding and judgment.

The difference in power and authority

Many parents do not distinguish between power and authority, and they assume that they have absolute power.  In parenting, you have authority from God and from the state, but you never have absolute power.  If your whole approach to discipline is based on physical force, you may find yourself dismayed with a defiant teenager.

You do not have absolute power over the life of a teen teenager.  If she decides to defy you, what are you willing to do?  Lock her in the closet?  Many extreme actions will land you in trouble for child abuse.  Are you willing to call the police?  Would throwing him in jail solve anything even if you could make some charge stick?  You never want to reach the point where you are in a power struggle.

If the teenager ever decides you are the enemy, control evaporates.  Once you become the enemy, you are the problem in the mind of the teenager.  You may be hounding your teen because you care, but the teen only perceives that mother is on my back constantly.  Thus, the real issue disappears as the teenager concentrates on winning through defiance, lying, or evasiveness.

The value of natural consequences

You can avoid the power struggle by using natural consequences as a teaching method. The younger the child, the more you intervene; the older the child, the more you allow the natural consequences to occur.  Of course you use common sense.  Allowing a child to fail in school would be a drastic measure, used only as a last resort.  Hopefully, we can avoid such drastic action.  Daily life gives many opportunities for natural consequences to prove that you are not the enemy and that your instructions are for her good.

However, far too many parents will not allow the child to learn through natural consequences.  Ironically, parents intervene and preempt natural consequences to avoid their own discomfort.  For example, we don’t want our child to fail because it will inconvenience us, cost us money, or embarrass us.  Children sense and resent such hypocrisy, for they grasp intuitively that our rantings are really about us rather than a sincere concern for their well-being.

Sadly, parents often teach the falsehood that natural consequences do not exist.  I shoplifted, but my parents intervened and got me off.  I lied to my teacher, but my parents intervened and told another lie to cover me.  I spent money recklessly, but my parents intervened and paid my debts.  I didn’t do my homework, but my parents intervened and I passed anyway.  Thus the child concludes that actions do not bear consequences, a tragic lesson.  Later, we cannot understand why the older child or teen acts so irrationally.  However, the child is logically applying the carefully taught falsehood that actions bear no consequences.

Sooner or later the parent will not be in a position to intervene.  The man who does not produce at work will be fired.  The woman who overspends will find herself hopelessly in debt.  For the child’s sake, it is better to allow natural consequences to occur at an early age.  A fifth grader who fails may be sad, but a senior in high school has more to lose.  A high school student who is allowed to face the consequences of a rebellious attitude is better off than a man who learns the consequences of a rebellious attitude by losing his job.

The prediction trap

All too often by the time a child reaches the teen years, we have taught him not to listen. Many of us predict consequences that never occur because we are worriers.  We predict disaster after disaster, and the child ignores us after a while.  After all, the sky never falls.

Some of us are carefully trying to teach, but we continue to fall into the prediction trap. For example, we want our child to realize that homework is important, so we predict failure.  The teacher, however, decides not to take up the homework, gives extra credit, gives the test over until everyone passes, or even blatantly adds points to the final grade.  Again, the sky didn’t fall.

Avoid the prediction trap.  If you predict consequences, you are setting yourself up to be ignored.  While you may be right in principle, predicting the outcome of a specific situation is a gamble not worth taking.  Consequences occur, but rarely on our schedule and in the form we predict.

Be clear about the issues

Another way we teach our children not to listen is to confuse the issues.  Once my son owned two expensive tennis rackets because he played in tournaments.  If the strings broke in one, he had another identical racket with which to continue the match.  In a local tournament, he broke a string in the first game.  His mom then discovered that he had loaned his second racket to a friend.  She drove home and scrambled to find a racket while he continued the match with a beat-up racket borrowed from a bystander.  By the time she returned, he had won the match.

Of course our instincts were to jump on him about loaning out his racket, remind him the second racket was quite an investment for our family, and point out he was lucky to win. However, from his point of view, we would have been be making much ado about nothing.  After all, he won, didn’t he?  He would have concluded that he had uptight parents, and he would have listened to our ranting in a polite but deaf silence.

In our family, the real issue was the expense of the racket he loaned out.  By waiting a few days to discuss it, we were able to clarify that it was not a good idea to loan out his expensive racket.  He had already figured that out.  He realized he was lucky to win, and he knew the second racket was quite an investment.  By waiting until we all calmed down, we dealt with the real issue rather than becoming sidetracked on the irrelevant fact that he was lucky to win.

The real issue in discipline

In much the same way, we must deal with the real issue in discipline.  The real issue in discipline is teaching the child to deal with Reality.  If the stove is hot, then the stove is a danger to the small child.  The parent must intervene to keep the inexperienced small child from being burned.  To use the same approach with a teenager is nonsense.  We assume that a teenager has knowledge and experience enough to deal with a hot stove, but we cannot assume that knowledge and experience occur automatically.  We must teach a method for discovering the truth.  Is the stove hot?

A Method of Discipline for Older Children and Youth

Discipline as personal growth

In order to deal with your older child and teen, you must take a parental position that does not change.  If  you bounce around all over the landscape, you only confuse your child. She needs you to be a fixed point of reference.

However, care must be exercised in outlining a position, for the older child is aware that you are imperfect.  He sees your inconsistencies, your bad habits, and your failures. Older children tend to become critical of parents and second-guess decisions.  As their world expands, they know other parents who are different, have different rules, and teach different values. However, you can take a position that maintains your authority, admits that you are imperfect, and allows for your decreasing power as the child grows older.  Here is your position.

A parental position that works

I’m not God, and I’m not perfect, but I’m stuck with the job of being father/mother.  There is nowhere for me to go and resign.  I have to answer to God for what I do and that bothers me more than your being upset with me.  So, I may not always do it right, but I’m stuck with the job, and I’m going to do it every day whether you like it or not.

Moreover, I know you are growing up, and I want you to grow up.  Every year you will be given more freedom and more control over your life.  More freedom each year only makes sense, for you will be leaving home someday and will be completely on your own. However, by making good choices and being responsible, you give me confidence in you, and you speed along the process of gaining more freedom and control.

Some important things are established

Several important things happen when you take this position.  For one thing, you are not asking your teenager to agree with you or to always believe you are right.  Yet, you maintain your authority.

Another important thing is that you teach your teenager that you also live under authority.  More is involved than your whims, for you must answer to God.  Just as you expect your teen to accept your authority as a parent, you accept God’s authority.  You are not asking your teen to do anything you aren’t doing.  After all, accepting authority is not merely a teenage issue.  We must accept the authority of God and the state. We must relate to authority figures such as judges, policemen, and bosses.

By admitting freely that you expect to give your child more freedom each year, you express confidence in him as well as give him hope.  The issue is how well he deals with reality and handles immediate situations.

Teaching the essential survival skill

Is the stove hot?  The issue isn’t what Mom/Dad says about the stove.  The issue is the truth about the stove.  Discipline with an older child and teenager involves seeking the truth together.  Learning to assess and deal with reality is the skill you must teach if your child is to survive in today’s world.

The popular story (I don’t know the origin) about the woman who cut the ends off a roast before cooking it makes the point.  As the story goes, she couldn’t explain to her husband why she cut the ends off.  Her mother taught her to cook a roast, and her mother taught her that the first step was to cut each end off the roast.  The husband traced the recipe back to the grandmother who cheerfully admitted that she never owned a pan large enough for a roast.

Many teachings from our past made perfect sense three generations ago, but they are irrelevant today.  In disciplining a teenager, never give up your authority, but be willing to think things through. Ask questions together in the spirit of finding the truth.  Is the stove hot?  How can we find out without being burned?  You can always fall back on “Because I said so.”

A possible dialogue

Suppose a boy of thirteen asks his father’s permission to camp out with some friends. Suppose the father happens to know that several of the boys have been experimenting with pot.  Furthermore, the father knows the boys and their parents (who would not approve of their boys smoking pot).  The father delays his immediate tendency to say no in order to protect his child.  He knows that drugs are out there, and he knows that his son must learn to deal with situations involving drugs.

A possible dialogue between the father and son might run like this as they seek the truth together.

“Dad, can I go to Blanks house tonight to camp out?  Some of the guys are going to camp out behind his house,”

“Who’s going to be there? 

He names several friends.

“Are they going to be smoking pot?”

(Surprise)  “They told me they weren’t.”

“What are you going to do if they are?”

“I’ll just go up to Blanks house and phone you to come get me.  We’re just going to be right behind his house.”

“Won’t that put you in bad with your friends?”


“Your just leaving like that, calling your dad to come get you.”

“They’re not my friends if they’re going to do that.”

(Pause while the dad thinks it through.)  “Do you really believe you can handle this?”

“I really do, Dad.”

“Well, OK, if you think you can handle it.  But remember, you have to know when to get out of a group.  Sometimes when a bunch of guys get together a group personality takes over.  They will do things that none of them will do alone.  Especially if alcohol or drugs are involved, they may break something, or steal something, and you will be in trouble because you are there.”

“I think I can handle it, Dad.”

“OK.  Blame it on me if you need to, but you will call me to come to get you if alcohol or drugs get involved.”

The benefits of seeking the truth together

Quite a bit goes on in that dialogue.  When you seek the truth together by throwing out questions, you are teaching your child to think.  Year by year, more and more situations will confront your child when you are not present.  The ability to assess situations, visualize consequences, and make a workable plan of action is essential.  In the dialogue above, the dad and the teen thought the situation through together and worked out a plan of action.  Dad also planted a few ideas to help the teen know the importance of getting out of a group when a situation turns sour.

When you seek the truth together by throwing out questions, you are also teaching that the truth (or reality) is important.  In the above dialogue, the issue was not Dad’s whims. We are assuming in the brief illustration that a discussion about drugs had already occurred.  The teen already knew how Dad felt about drugs.  The immediate issue was whether or not to camp out with these friends.  The dad was wise not to attack the friends, and he focused on making a good decision.

When you seek the truth together by throwing out questions, you use the method necessary for applying eternal principles.  Much wisdom is contained in the sayings and precepts parents teach.  Some are passed down from generation to generation within a family system.  Many of us believe that the Bible contains eternal principles to guide us. However, even eternal principles must be applied to concrete situations.  Asking the right question is more important than finding the right answer, for today’s answer only leads to tomorrow’s question.  Indeed, we live by faith.

Remember you aren’t God

Your teenager will catch on fast, and she will use questions against you.  As you think things through with her by taking her questions seriously, you may occasionally find that she has a point.  Remember the roast story when you become self-righteous.  You will find that some teachings from your past will need updating.  By respecting your teen as you listen to her attempts to sort out the truth, you will encourage her personal growth, and you will reinforce the idea that the truth is the issue.  After all, you are not the enemy.  Your teen will imitate your behavior and will be freed from the curse of needing to win in every discussion.

Also, it’s OK to admit that you don’t know something.  After all, in the real world, who knows everything?  Knowledge is too vast today for anyone to know everything about everything.  When you admit you don’t know something, you help your teen develop thinking and learning skills.  Where can we find the information we need?  Is this true?  How do we evaluate this?

Besides, many teens are dying for time and attention from a parent.  They live in a complex world where they are bombarded by commercials and misinformation.  The alcohol industry implies that no one can have a good time without dulled senses.  The entertainment industry fixates on sex and violence  Illegal drugs are everywhere.  The truth is parents can’t keep up with the latest destructive fad or designer drug.  Spending time with your teen in which you seek the truth together shatters his aloneness.

Many parents are cowards

Sadly, many parents aren’t willing to enter the teenage world and think through complex issues.  Such discussions make them feel uncomfortable.  Many parents resort to yelling instructions, shouting blame, and leaving for the golf course.  Thus, they abandon their teens alone to live in a world they won’t even visit intellectually.

Remember, you can always fall back on “because I said so.”  Never give up your authority.  No one is asking you to become your teen’s best friend.  However, I am asking you to be human.  Valuable learning takes place without a word being spoken when you allow your teen into your existence.

Your teen needs to know you have to search for information, that you have trouble deciding complex issues, that you feel lonely, and that you become discouraged.  When you allow him into your existence, he learns about the reality of being an adult rather than some idealized existence of complete freedom.  Your teen is dying to know the real you.  Allow her to discover you are human.  She already knows you aren’t perfect.

Your job as parent

Once, when working with the parents of a teenager who was out of control, the mother suddenly asked, “Well, am I just to allow her to do as she pleases?”

I had to explain again that she had already used her command/punishment approach to no avail.  She knew that she did not have the power to make the teenager obey.  She should face the reality that her power was limited.  The girl was a senior in high school and would be leaving home for college within a matter of months.

However, she could do certain essential things.  She could clearly draw the line between right and wrong, and she could be explicit about the behavior she expected.  Moreover, she could tell the teenager plainly that the current risky behavior could foul up her life. Reality is no game.  Mom is not the enemy.  No longer will Mom participate in a game of  “catch me if you can.”  In other words, they could put the ball squarely in the girl’s court.

When the mother and father took this approach, their daughter didn’t like it.  She wanted them to give in and approve of her behavior.  They simply explained that they could not. They believed she was headed for serious trouble, and they would not give her their blessing.

Within a matter of hours, she started talking to her mother.  Suddenly, they were seeking the truth together.  Now that Mom wasn’t the enemy, the teen had to decide about reality and the possible consequences of her behavior.

A final word

If your teenager wants to do something, invite him to think it through with you.  If  he refuses to seek the truth with you by throwing out questions, then tell him the answer is “no.”  He will come around.

Remember, children will become bigger, faster, smarter, and more mobile.  While you should never give up your authority, and while you can always fall back on “because I said so,” teaching is the wise approach.  To the extent you teach your child how to find the truth, you teach the essential skill.

Actually, it is easier to yell, threaten, punish, or ignore than it is to teach.  You may refuse to use this method because it assumes you are present and are willing to be involved. Being a parent will interfere with your schedule, your play time, and possibly your career choices.  The ball is in your court.

November 2, 2000
(C) 2000, Don Mize

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