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Discipline and Teenagers

A few years ago my mother said, “You know, you boys weren’t disciplined a whole lot growing up.”  I looked at my brother and he looked at me.  For a brief moment we wondered if Alzheimer’s was setting in.  That’s sure not the way we remember it!

Now I’m not saying we didn’t deserve it…in fact we probably deserved more than we got. But while there was indeed discipline, the style of discipline that we received from our father made it less effective than it could have been. His style was to simply whack us when we got out of line. Along with it came a lot of anger and yelling, and the whole family got upset.

As was common when I was growing up, Dad approached discipline like he was taught in the military. His militaristic approach was not just with discipline but with parenting in general. He didn’t dare talk back to his drill sergeant, nor should we dare to talk back to him — or say anything.  His drill sergeant hadn’t been concerned about his feelings, so why should he consider ours? He was a good man who worked hard to provide for his family. But his military training also shaped his style of parenting and discipline.

Today, parents are much more relational, and that’s mostly a good thing; however, when it comes to discipline, relational parenting can pose some obstacles if discipline is set aside. It’s hard to discipline someone who looks at you through tear-filled eyes and says, “I love you. How could you do this to me?” But for kids, if breaking a rule doesn’t have consequences that hurt worse than the pleasure they gained from it, they’ll likely continue that behavior.

Teens today both need and actually desire discipline (although most of them would rather die than admit it). Hebrews 12:11 says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time but painful; later on however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” In other words, your kids will someday appreciate that you held the line, and more so if you did it in a way that maintained your relationship. And they’ll end up passing down to their kids (your grandkids) the right way to discipline. So, let me answer some basic questions about discipline and hopefully give you a better grasp on it, particularly when it comes to disciplining teens.

What is the purpose of discipline?

Discipline is helping your child get to a place where they want to be and keeping them from a place where they don’t want to end up. Sometimes we struggle with discipline because we lose sight of that underlying purpose. If your child understands that you are disciplining them for their own good, they will ultimately understand. They won’t like the consequences, and may get upset with you temporarily, but they will come to realize that they are bringing the consequences upon themselves, and that’s when their behavior changes.

I’m very upfront with the young people I work with at Heartlight about our rules and how things are going to be done. I know going in that most of these teens are not happy to be living with us in our residential program. So, from the very first day I strive to build a relationship—to let them know that everything that happens is for them, not for me. If I can convince them that the rules and punishments are in their best interests and for their own good, we’re a long way down the road to success. And to offset any thought that discipline is a quick and easy solution for us, our policy is that if the teen has to do extra chores or is grounded to the house, the staff are there right with them, shoulder to shoulder. It is as inconvenient and painful for us as it is for them. We use it as a time to build relationship, and we find that the kids often open up and deal with some issues in their life even as they are being disciplined.

Why do some parents punish in anger?

Kids want most of all to have a good relationship with their parents, so parents can get the wrong idea to use that as a means of punishment, but it is never advised. I’ve seen it firsthand when I was growing up. My father would correct us boys by blowing his top. Again, Dad was a good man, but his discipline in many ways was selfish. He felt better after exploding because he had a chance to get over his frustration, but because it was done in anger, it didn’t serve the purpose of helping me get to where I needed to go. It just taught me to avoid him and never get caught.

It is never effective to use negative emotions, to make idle threats, or to hold your relationship hostage as a means of changing your child’s behavior. I’ve learned it works best to try to do just the opposite with the teens I work with. I make light of their error and I use it as an opportunity to talk. It breaks the tension and they learn that their error doesn’t affect our relationship; but they also learn pretty quickly that I never back down on the consequences, no matter how much they bargain, shift blame or plead.

So, keep the anger out of your discipline. If you are harried or upset and cannot deal with a problem without anger at the moment, ask your spouse to deal with it; or tell your teen that you will talk about the consequences for their behavior at a later appointed time (then don’t forget to keep that appointment).

What do I do if I’m afraid to discipline my child?

This is really two different questions. First, if you’re afraid to discipline because you’re afraid of losing your relationship, let me encourage you—you won’t. Proper discipline won’t destroy a relationship, it will strengthen it. Here’s a piece of counsel I often give to parents: “They’ll get over it.” I’m not saying they will like the discipline process (nor should they), but they will not be driven away by it as long as it is fair, reasonable and expected.

On the other hand if you’re afraid to discipline because you’re afraid of your child or what they may do, I suggest you get outside help immediately. Do not allow your child to physically or emotionally intimidate or abuse you…ever. Backing down due to a teenager’s intimidation is teaching the exact wrong lesson, and it sets them up for failure in life and other relationships. If things get physical or threatening, something is seriously wrong. Sometimes it can be a sign that either drugs or alcohol is involved. If the threats take the form of a child claiming they’ll commit suicide, take it seriously and get them admitted to the hospital. If they threaten to run away, there’s ultimately not much you can do about that, so backing down will only cause them to use that as their intimidation again and again. A child should never be allowed to intimidate or threaten a parent.

How should I view pain in the context of discipline?

Pain is very difficult to experience, and it is also very difficult to impose on someone else. But pain plays a vital role in forcing someone to re-evaluate their conduct. As I’ve said, “Your child will continue on the path of inappropriate behavior until the pain of those actions is greater than the pain they get from them.” You have to attach consequences to that behavior so that they realize it isn’t the path to where they want to go. Of course I’m not talking about physical pain (not for teenagers), but there needs to be painful consequences tied to wrongful conduct, such as losing freedoms or privileges for a specified time, and adding chores.

What would other parents tell you about discipline, if they could do their parenting over?

Probably the number one error I hear from parents of teens who are spinning out of control is simply this: “I failed to follow through.” If you threaten consequences but don’t deliver, not only are you effectively lying to your child, but you are giving them the worst of both worlds. You may think you are building a relationship that way—to let them off the hook—but in reality you are tearing it down. They will lose respect for you, and they’ll fail to learn a critical lesson as well. In a world that has fewer borders than ever before, teens long for the stability and structure that enforced rules provide for their lives.

God has called us as parents to play a crucial role in the lives of our children. There are many wonderful and happy times in that process, and some difficult ones as well. If I could leave you with one last word of advice, I’d encourage you to view the discipline process as a vital investment rather than an unpleasant event to be avoided if possible. If done right and without anger, it can build relationship, not tear it down. Develop and communicate your rules and consequences so your teen knows what to expect, and then make them stick, without wavering. You—and your child—will be eternally glad you did.

We talked about this issue in-depth on our radio program last week called “Teens and Discipline.” To listen online, look for the program dated June 4, 2011 at

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a therapeutic boarding school located in East Texas. Call 903-668-2173. Visit, or to read other articles by Mark, visit

Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.