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Discipline for Teens During a Pandemic

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Teen discipline is meant to teach life lessons; after all, soon, they will be on their own in the real world. But with everyone cooped up under one roof during quarantine, routines are being disrupted, nerves are being tested, and even the most well-behaved kids can start acting up.

Ideally, we wouldn’t all be together 24 hours, seven days a week. So does that mean parents should be more lenient when kids act out or be more strict in an attempt to set boundaries and maintain limits? How parents discipline teens during a pandemic can be complicated.

First, let’s understand why your teen might be acting out. Teens are old enough to know what is going on around them. They watch the news. They see people dying and others losing their job. They can even see how this is affecting the economy. Maybe they are fearful of missing out on important milestones like graduation or going to college. It’s important to talk with your teen and acknowledge their fears. Taking the time to hear them, validate their concerns, and show empathy will help to keep the conversation going.

Try Not to Lash Out— Truly effective discipline is meant to help educate the teenagers and help them understand expectations to manage themselves in the near term through this pandemic, and longer-term into adulthood.

With teenagers, our goal is to promote self-governance, so any and all forms of discipline is meant to help your teen better understand your family’s and society’s expectations.

Discipline is Not Punishment— Discipline should not be confused with punishment. It is an effective method of balancing clear boundaries and rules while encouraging your child to learn from his or her mistakes and to become a more self-sufficient problem-solving adult.

Problem Solve and Collaborate— As a parent, you can benefit from having collaborative discussions with your teen. Truly hear your teenager’s perspective, gain insight into their motivation, and collaboratively problem-solve. It helps to get their buy-in as you both can shape rules, schedules, and routines. For example, ask your child what four words would he prefer that you not use. Then let him know you will not use those words if he no longer says, “I can’t.” When you collaborate, don’t confront your child when he is angry, lonely, or frustrated. A calm conversation will offer more progress than one where someone storms off frustrated.

Trade “Tell-Tell-Tell” For “Listen and Learn”—“How many times have I told you…?” Sound familiar? Shift from the “tell-tell-tell” mindset to the more effective “listen and learn.” Change out your wording from “try harder” to “what’s getting in the way?” Or, “get your work done,” to “how many assignments do you have, and what can you do to organize them to meet the deadlines?”

Work on Your Relationship— You are your child’s first teacher. Good communication is critical. Being aware of your communication style and how it is received can go a long way to identifying ways to improve collaboration and ultimately partnering with your child to improve communication. Take turns paraphrasing what you or your child says. Listen, and then repeat the statement back to him – “What I hear you saying is that you feel that I don’t trust you.” This method of communication allows you both to clarify what is being said and will lead to more sharing and overall empathy.

Knock Before Entering— Teenagers often become upset by how you enter their room, ask about homework, check in on the quality of their work, or try to give them feedback. They see you as barging in with an endless stream of questioning, putting them instantly on the defensive. Start with a knock and ask when is a good time to talk?

Set Clear Expectations— Disciplining during a pandemic is new to all of us. This generation has never had to go through what we are facing right now. So when things feel turned upside down, one of the most important keys to discipline to set clear expectations. Parents need to share with teenagers what behavior they want to see, and which behaviors are not acceptable. What does putting the garbage out look like? Give your teen examples of what’s expected. “I’d like the trash taken out today by 3 p.m.” Or, “Let’s talk about what day you will be mowing the lawn.” When setting expectations, be sure to clearly identify, where, when, and what time will this will happen. Negotiate and collaborate on the timing, activities, schoolwork, and chores that parents expect to see.

Be Sure Your Teenager Knows Why— Talking openly about your expectations for scheduled exercise, completion of schoolwork, and chores let your teen understand why you value that as a parent. Explanation of intrinsic value is a far better motivator than an arbitrarily challenge, schedule, or rules that they must comply with regardless of buy-in or meaning.

The Goal of Discipline— The more parents are clear with what they want to see, and the teen is able to express his perspective and help to mold the expectations realistically, the more the teenager will buy into the plan.

Setting up Consequences— Consequences are meant to be instructive and to help modify behavior. Logical consequences that relate to the situation are most effective. For instance, if your son damages the car while getting groceries for the whole family, the consequences should be less severe than if he took the car without permission during the hours you have made clear are not for personal use.

Natural Consequences— Natural consequences occur as a result of one’s actions and are not manufactured. They are not imposed by a parent; rather, they are the consequences that occur organically as a result of the child’s choices or actions. These consequences are self-imposed, and often the best learning tools. For example, your teen decided it would be a good idea to polish off the entire bag of chocolates only to have a huge stomachache the next morning.

Too Much Time in Their Bedroom— Teens need their time alone to decompress. They are tired of online classes, stuck in the house without their friends, forced to eat dinners and interact as a family, and confused about what this pandemic even means. Snarky comments, sassy attitudes, and overreactions can stem from the teenager’s frustration with this situation. Let them have a healthy amount of alone time to rejuvenate.

Give Them Your Attention— One of the most powerful tools for effective discipline is attention. When parents are home trying to work or caring for an elderly parent, there’s a high level of stress. As hard as it can be at times, remember not to lash out and try to keep the lines of communication open. Talk with your teen. You don’t have to take the abuse, but when the dust has settled, calmly engage in a discussion. Explain her role as part of the family system and the need for her to be a cooperative member of the family. Explain how his tone makes you feel on edge, and then give her time to express her frustrations.

Don’t Forget the Fun— When you can, have fun! Put the music on, play a game, make a TikTok video with your kids. Play can relieve stress while helping you to connect with your teen.

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