How to Effectively Discipline Kids and Teenagers

Kids aren’t born with emotional maturity or impulse control. It takes experience—and time—to get there. In fact, research has shown that the part of the brain that helps a person make good decisions isn’t fully developed until age 25 or so. Teens even think with a different part of their brain than adults, using emotion rather than reason.

Add rapid hormonal changes to the mix, and one thing is certain: “Kids are going to mess up,” says licensed therapist Erin Harlow-Parker, APRN. “They’re going to test the boundaries. They’re going to make poor decisions.”

Here are some time-tested, evidence-based discipline tips for kids, whether they are 7 or 17.

Common disciplinary mistakes

It’s not easy to keep your cool when dealing with a cranky child or a hormonal teenager. No parent is perfect (and your own parents might have used a different approach), but in general you should avoid these discipline mistakes:

  • Yelling. Losing your temper isn’t good for anyone. It sets a poor example for how your child should handle conflicts—and have you ever noticed how tired you are after?
  • Spanking or hitting. Spanking can have lasting negative effects. Research indicates that kids who are spanked are more likely to be aggressive later in life.
  • Over-punishing. To make sure the punishment fits the crime, it helps to look for logical reasons behind a consequence. For example, if she rode her bike in the street after you told her not to, take away her bike for the rest of the afternoon.
  • Piling it on. There may be times when you set a consequence and your child repeats the behavior before the first consequence has even played out. When that happens, it’s better to stick with the initial consequence and resist the urge of adding on additional consequences; otherwise, the child will think, ‘I’m going to be grounded until I leave for college, so what’s the point?’” advises Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life therapist Jody Baumstein, LCSW.

If you make one of these mistakes (and you probably will at some point), own it. For example: “I totally lost my cool just now, and I should not have yelled at you. I am sorry for that.”

Effective ways to discipline

Here are some effective discipline tips for teens and kids:

  • Let consequences do the talking. Kids learn from both “natural” consequences (basic cause and effect—if I don’t study, I won’t do well on the test) and “logical” consequences enforced by the parent (if I don’t do my chores, I can’t go out with my friends). Neither form of consequence is emotional; it’s directly tied to an action.
  • Deliver consequences calmly, compassionately and promptly. You can be firm and still show empathy (the ability to understand or feel what another person is experiencing). Help kids connect the cause-and-effect dots by responding right away.
  • Don’t be afraid to set limits. Is your child not doing her homework? Then her phone—which is a privilege, not a right—gets taken away. Once she begins to show she can be responsible again, she earns her phone back.
  • Choose your battles. Don’t bend on safety issues but consider letting other things (your teen’s new bold fashion sense, for example) slide. “There are parents who feel like part of discipline is to be on kids about every little thing, and that puts the child on the defensive,” says Harlow-Parker.
  • Praise good behavior. Noticing when kids do the right thing (“I saw you made your bed without being asked. I really appreciated that.”) will inspire them to do it again.

The importance of being a role model

Your kids are always watching, and the best way to encourage good behavior is to show them how it’s done. In fact, the really big lessons—things like kindness and telling the truth—are almost impossible to teach with words and punishments.

So throw out the old saying “do as I say, not as I do,” because it’s not going to happen. Actions speak louder than words. And when you make a mistake (because we’re all human, even with a fully developed brain), admit it and use it as a teaching moment. Seeing that parents make mistakes—and then seeing how they fix them—can be really powerful for a child to witness.