Options for Disciplining Teenagers

Disciplining children is never easy, and many parents find that it is particularly challenging to discipline a teenager. According to well-known child development psychologist Erik Erikson, teens undergo an identity crisis in which they struggle to define themselves. Their critical task in this stage is to develop an independent adult identity. Harsh discipline often interferes with this process, causing teens either to become dependent or throw themselves into difficult circumstances to escape. But teens are not yet adults, and parental guidance and support are crucial at this stage.


According to behavioral theory, reinforcement increases the likelihood that a particular behavior will be repeated. Positive reinforcement involves giving a reward when the behavior occurs. For example, if your teenager completes his homework, you might allow him to play video games. Negative reinforcement involves removing something that your teen doesn't like. For example, if your teenager brings home a good report card, he might be relieved of babysitting duties or a particular household chore.


Punishment is the opposite of reinforcement. The goal of punishment is to prevent a particular behavior from occurring. Positive punishment happens when you apply a consequence that your teen doesn't like. For example, when your child fails a test, you might make him clean the garage. Negative punishment occurs when you take away something that your teen enjoys. For example, a teen who misses curfew might not be allowed to date for two weeks.

Beyond Behaviorism

While it is true that reinforcement tends to increase specific behaviors and punishment tends to decrease them, it is equally true that behaviorism ignores the very real cognitive and emotional processes that guide many human behaviors. As teens struggle to form their own moral compasses, it is critical for them to learn how to make good choices in their lives. Open communication, the honest sharing of ideas and experiences, and an explanation of your own moral choices help teens understand the implications of their own decisions.

Putting It All Together

Set reasonable boundaries for your teenager and allow her to operate autonomously within those parameters. Create clear guidelines for often-contested issues such as grades, curfews and dating activities. Enlist your teen’s help in developing fair, appropriate consequences for breaking those guidelines. When discipline is warranted, impose the agreed-upon consequence without arguing or yelling. Maintain open communication and encourage your teen to discuss tough issues and choices. Help him learn to function independently, rather than simply following a list of rules.