So you want to talk to your teen …

Communicating with and disciplining preteens and early teenagers

As the preteen years sneak up on me with my 11-year-old son, I’m always seeking new ways to effectively communicate with him and turn discipline into a learning opportunity. It is hard work!

So around the water cooler the other day I asked a few veteran moms for their approach, and I got some great feedback that I’ll share.

Mary Lou, mother to Sid, 13, and Ruby, 14, shared with me that when her kids were younger, different consequences worked better for each child. For example, Sid may have lost TV privileges and Ruby may have lost her phone.

“It was and still is important to treat them as individuals and not assume the same punishment will work for both,” she said. “And I think because we always followed through on punishments when they were younger that we rarely get to the point of punishments now at ages 13 and 14. The kids know the boundaries.”

Perhaps instead of ending up in a situation that calls for discipline, start with good communication. Mary Lou provides a great example of how she communicated with her kids before going somewhere:

“Even when the children were young, we would tell them what we expected of them when we were going somewhere, such as ‘Say please’; ‘Don’t leave the yard without asking’; and so forth. Even now that our kids are in their early teens, we tell them what they should expect when we are going somewhere, including whether or not to eat before we go; how long we will be there; if it will be fun or if it is an obligation. I think as parents we assume kids know what we want them to do or not do, but in their defense they just don’t. They are new to all of it and need guidance. They like to know what is happening just as the adults do.”

But let’s face it, there are times when punishment is appropriate. So I reached out to another co-worker to find out how she approaches discipline. Laura, a single mom to an 18-year-old, remembers a time when her son “miraculously” had no homework.

“This was the start of middle school and he kept reassuring me he didn’t have any homework,” she said. “I quickly found out that wasn’t the case and his grades were dropping. So in this situation, I took away TV and video games until his grades improved. First offense, TV was gone for a week. Second offense, that was it for the school year!”

Laura points out that she gave her son plenty of advance warning and that the punishment or consequence for not improving his grades was impactful.

“He’s graduating from high school now and still remembers how effective it was,” she said. “I’ve had no reason to punish him since then, and he has even told me that he’s grateful for the lesson he learned.”

Laura admitted it was a tough punishment to follow through with. But she stuck to her word and put the consequences in place.

All the parents I spoke with agree that lying or the intent to deceive is the most “punishable crime” their children can commit. As a working mother of eight (ranging in age from 6 to 25), Tricia, an educator for women and children, explains that this act strikes at the heart of the relationship and destroys trust.

“Although there is always a consequence for lying, what’s more important is getting to the heart of why they lied in the first place,” she said. “Typically there is an underlying reason to this action and, as parents, we have to uncover the source.”

Mary Lou agrees, saying that trust is No. 1 in her home. But lying does happen.

“Sid lied to me once and for that he had to read a book and write a book report,” she said. “For him, that was the worst punishment imaginable!”

Mary Lynn Bundy, M.D., pediatrician with Norton Children’s Hospital Medical Associates – Jeffersonville, endorses several of the suggestions made by these moms and reiterates that solid communication is the foundation when it comes to our children.

“Talking with your children, communicating your expectations, sets the stage for a positive experience and can often prevent the need for punishment.” Dr. Bundy said. “Avoid insulting your child when problems arise; if criticism is indicated, criticize the behavior, not the child. Remember, children are wired to test their parents. They feel more secure and confident when their parents are calm, consistent and fair in setting and enforcing limits.


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