3 Ways To Discipline The Emotional Teenager

3 Ways to Discipline the Emotional Teenager

A Peaceful Parenting Approach To Teen Discipline By Guest Author & Blogger Sarah R. Moore

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The teenage years are right up there with the toddler years in the (imaginary) Parenting Handbook of Most Fearsome Stages.

Add in our innate anxiety about the teen years to all the incredible changes that are happening in the teenage brain, and we ask ourselves: is this a recipe for disaster? 

Even parents with the most experience with and practice in conscious parenting methods can wonder if the teenage years are going to get extra tricky when it comes to discipline.

The most important starting point with teens (or any age), of course, is to remember that to discipline means to teach, not to punish

So, how can we teach our teens without punishing them? 

For starters, let’s get curious about a few of the stereotypes related to teens, and go from there.

Stereotype #1: Teens are naturally too strong-willed and difficult.

We may worry that teens are naturally strong-willed and that we’re about to engage in years of ongoing battle, largely due to their newfound (or perhaps even long-standing) desire to assert themselves.

Many parents are surprised to learn, however, that strong-willed teens are often greatly misunderstood.

Counterintuitive as it may sound, strong-willed teens often need more connection, more compassion, and more emotional safety–rather than less of these things.

We know this about the strong-willed child (of all ages) from Peaceful Discipline: Story Teaching, Brain Science, and Better Behavior:

“Interestingly, with strong-willed children, many adults respond by digging in their heels and attempting to make their children less strong-willed. From the child’s perspective, however, the grown-up is just as strong-willed as they are.

That’s the classic recipe for power struggles.

The remedy is not to be stronger than the child in an eternal tug-of-war until the parent wins, but rather to teach in ways that have only positive consequences.

Oftentimes, if a child is strong-willed, the solution is to find a new way to communicate with that child. Logical and natural consequences can be particularly effective teachers for these kids. And bonus: they’re often much less work for the grown-up!

Example: Sometimes grown-ups get stuck in a suboptimal discipline pattern, such as yelling. If yelling isn’t working, the strong-willed child doesn’t need the grown-up to yell even louder. Volume isn’t the issue. Perhaps slowing down and peacefully getting on the child’s level would get the child’s attention better. If a solution isn’t working, it’s not the right solution.”

Why would a strong-willed or stubborn adolescent need more connection and empathy rather than harsher discipline?

It’s because teens are on the cusp of being young adults, often about to “leave the nest” for the very first time. It can feel terrifying to them. Rather than asking for more hugs (which may leave them feeling extra vulnerable and potentially incapable of caring for themselves), they may subconsciously push us away…because it feels emotionally safer than asking for support. 

They’re not being difficult. We’ve heard that “all behavior is communication,” and often, a teen’s tricky behavior is merely asking whether our connection is still strong even if they’re more independent than they used to be. 

How to discipline the strong-willed teenager:

Our job is to lean in and provide that connection, while balancing it with offering the independence that they deserve at this age. Now is the perfect time to let them practice their independence while still having a “soft place to land” with us. 

In short, we let them be “big” and “little” at the same time.

Stereotype #2: Teens are moody.

Indeed, teens are often known for being moody. Although 10 – 20% of teens (and all humans) are highly sensitive, which may occasionally present as big feelings, odds are good that your teen may be feeling tired, overwhelmed, and pressured.

Once again, connection is going to be the key here. 

How to discipline the seemingly moody teenager:

Rest, compassion, and emotional support are the keys here. Our goal is to learn to hold space for their big feelings while giving them ample time to rest. 

With all of today’s pressures, physical and emotional rest are more important than ever.

Stereotype #3: Teens are argumentative, and their backtalk is a problem that needs harsh discipline.

Talking back is actually a healthy skill for kids to learn. It’s how they’ll learn to stand up for themselves against anyone who may be inclined to mistreat them in their current or future relationships. 

We are their “safe place” to practice talking back. If we punish them for “disrespecting” us, they lose the opportunity to practice. 

Here’s what else we know about backtalk:

We’ve heard from experts like Dr. Ross Greene that all behavior is communication. The same goes for talking back. Think of talking back as communicating something deeper that the child doesn’t yet know how to peacefully articulate.

Talking back is neither “good behavior” or “bad behavior” — it’s simply an attempt to get their needs met.

Although it’s downright hard for parents to take this perspective (parenting can be challenging!), what happens when you ask, “What kind of pain is my child in that they’re acting this way?”

Children who feel good, connected, and peaceful generally exhibit what we perceive as respectful behavior. (source)

How to discipline a teen who talks back:

Again–no surprise–the answer is that we must provide them with emotional safety. The more we model what respectful communication and emotional maturity sound and feel like to them, the more they’ll learn how to express themselves in this same way. 

Parenting will get easier (again)

As with everything in parenting, it will get easier again. You will never regret investing in a loving, connection-based relationship with your child. As the expression goes, the days are long but the years are short. They truly are.

Suggestions adapted from Peaceful Discipline: Story Teaching, Brain Science, and Better Behavior and this blog post.


Sarah R. Moore is the author of  Peaceful Discipline: Story Teaching, Brain Science & Better Behavior and founder of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting. As a Master Trainer in conscious parenting and Board Member for the American Society for the Positive Care of Children, she’s also a public speaker, armchair neuroscientist, and most importantly, a Mama. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, & Twitter.

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