How do you discipline teenagers?

Tips to help deal with difficult behaviour

Estimated read: 6 minutes 

As your child grows into a teenager, setting boundaries may need to adjust to make them more meaningful and relatable. Many parents find that the kind of discipline used when they were younger might not work as well now they are older. 

Key points: 

  • Rules can help you keep your child safe, but as they get older you will need to negotiate and let them take more responsibility for their own safety
  • Talk to your teen and let them know what is important to you and why. Give them a chance to respond, and make sure you really listen
  • Work out what is really important to you and what you could let go. Too many boundaries can cause resentment and be impossible to maintain, so strike a balance and be prepared to re-negotiate
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It's often tempting to try and be their friend but they still need you to be the parent and let them know what the rules and boundaries are. But it is essential for your teenager to be able to work out what being a young adult means for them so this may lead to some clashes with you. 

One of the tasks of adolescence is to take over that job - to decide what is right and wrong. One of the first things your teenager may realise is that the sanctions you can impose are not that powerful. They may be almost your size, or bigger. What keeps them in their room when sent there, or in the house when told they're grounded, is mutual consent and mutual respect alone. The only thing that makes them do what you say is the thought of what it may do to your relationship afterwards if they defy you. But if the relationship is already going downhill, if their sense of rebellion and defiance is greater than their need for your approval, this control has a limited life.  

Teen development

The changes that happen to your teenager - the physical, mental, emotional and social changes  - can have a profound effect on the whole family. As the parent, it can seem important to keep things the same, such as you being the person giving the orders. But at a time when teenagers are developing and looking to new ways and a new self, having you give the orders and trying to put the brakes on the change can provoke even more defiance than they might have shown anyway.  

So when your teenager defies you, you might reach for a way of exerting discipline. Discipline is something we do to help young people learn - the original meaning of the word is 'to teach'. The best way to get teenagers to behave in ways which please us is to help them understand what they actually want and need, and to see how they can get those needs met in ways which don't upset other people.  

It's not discipline in the form of punishment or control that your teenager needs when struggling with their conflicting emotions. It is usually hiding their need for attention, acceptance, independence and appreciation. When teenagers act up, they are often fighting to get these. You can help them by giving them plenty of time and attention, talking openly about the changes they are going through, helping them express their feelings, giving them love, reassurance and support. You can also tell them it's okay to feel bad, but not to behave badly, and share your own feelings with them using 'I' language, such as 'I feel' and 'I need'. 

When a child is small, we often use boundaries to protect them and keep them away from harm or danger. As they grow older and become teenagers, these boundaries naturally shift and change, but it’s still important to maintain your boundaries so that your teen knows what kind of behaviour is acceptable, and feels safe knowing that you care. As all parents know, children like to test the limits of their boundaries and teenagers are no exception. In fact, they can be particularly adept at digging their heels in when orders are given. One way to stop this happening is to let them know why something is important.

Setting boundaries 

While rules and boundaries are important, it's often more effective to enforce them by considering the various needs being expressed when you clash. This can mean swallowing your pride, and your need to be in control. Children need your approval; good behaviour tends to follow when they strive to win it, and so do the things you have made it clear you like. Teenagers want your approval too, but also your respect.  

Boundaries work far better if they are made and agreed together with teenagers. When teenagers understand the reasons behind your decision, and see that you've taken their opinions into account, they may be more motivated to co-operate. 

Rules can help you keep your child safe, but as they get older you will need to negotiate and let them take more responsibility for their own safety. As they grow older, there may be times when your values conflict with the values that your children are learning from other people and the media. This may be when you find yourself negotiating.

Talk to your teen and let them know what is important to you and why. Give them a chance to respond, and make sure you really listen. When you are genuinely willing to compromise, you may find that the conversation is much more effective, as your teen gains a sense of responsibility. Work out what is really important to you and what you could let go. Too many boundaries can cause resentment and be impossible to maintain, so strike a balance and be prepared to re-negotiate. 

Further resources 

It may help to chat to other parents on our forums to find out how they are dealing with this issue within their family life. You can also talk to us online via our live chat service, email us at askus@familylives.org.uk or call us on our helpline on 0808 800 2222 to speak to trained family support worker.  

Watch our video for top tips on dealing with difficult behaviour from your teenager 

This page was updated on October 2021

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