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Discipline and Guidance: Early to Middle Adolescence

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

In general, the type and degree of discipline will vary as youth move through early, then middle, and then late adolescence. In early and middle adolescence (roughly ages 12-18), parents are legally bound to care for their children, and this includes providing appropriate direction and guidance. During early and middle adolescence teens will require more direct discipline and guidance than they will in late adolescence. This is because younger adolescents are more impulsive and may not consider the long-term consequences of their actions. During early and middle adolescence teens need to have the house rules and family expectations clearly defined. Furthermore youth should have an understanding of what privileges are available to them for following the rules and meeting expectations, and what consequences will occur when they fail to follow the rules, or make poor choices.

angry mom and sonWhile it is important for teens to have a clear understanding of the rules and expectations, privileges and consequences, they cannot benefit from this clarity unless parents remain consistent. Consistency is a fundamental principle of successful parenting and this is particularly true during adolescence. Parents need to consistently enforce the rules, consistently and fairly award privileges, and consistently follow through with consequences for failing to follow the rules, or failing to meet minimum expectations. This type of consistency enables youth make the connection between their decisions, choices, and behavior, and the resulting outcomes. Furthermore, consistency helps youth to feel in control of their lives. When families lack consistency and irregularly enforce rules, and haphazardly award privileges, youth begin to feel helpless and unable to control or influence what happens to them. When this type of helplessness occurs repeatedly over time, a person develops a model of the world in which they have no ability to influence what happens to them. In a sense, they begin to feel they are no longer the actor in their own lives, but instead view themselves as helpless victims without the ability to control or change their circumstances. This learned helplessness and perceived lack of control are associated with several psychiatric disorders such as depressive disorders and anxiety disorders.

Consistency also helps youth to trust their parents: Their parents say what they mean, and mean what they say. Youth may not always like what parents have to say, but it is important that they experience their parents as trustworthy. This also builds resiliency as youth learn that they will make mistakes at times, but these mistakes are opportunities for learning and growth, not signs of failure.

Basic Rules and Expectations for Adolescents (Teens 12-18 Years Old):

Every family will have their own cultural and religious values about what is permissible, and what is not. Nonetheless, during early to middle adolescence (roughly ages 12-18), parents and other caregivers will want to clarify their rules and expectations regarding: 1) school attendance and homework, 2) family commitments, 3) time management, 4) socializing and dating, 5) driving privileges, and 6) experimentation with alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Furthermore, when two or more caregivers are responsible for raising a child, is it helpful if they first discuss these rules and expectations privately in order to reach some sort of agreement. Different caregivers may have widely varying ideas about what is acceptable and what is not, and different views about the appropriate consequences and privileges. As mentioned in the prior section, consistency is a fundamental principle of successful parenting. Therefore, consistency between caregivers is essential.

School Attendance and Homework

School attendance and timely homework completion should be non-negotiable items. In order to ensure they are non-negotiable (not open to discussion or debate) parents should clarify any exceptions to these rules in advance. For instance, under what conditions is it acceptable to miss school (e.g., attending a family funeral, illness, etc.)? Are there any circumstances when untimely homework completion might be excused (e.g., attending a sibling's graduation from college)? Next, parents and caregivers should clearly establish the consequences for failing to attend school and/or missing, incomplete, or late homework submissions.


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