Family rules and boundaries can provide a sense of stability to teens who are struggling to decipher relationships, roles, and even their own personalities. Although they may protest loudly against being required to live up to certain standards, when they have a hand in crafting those standards, and when those standards are demanding but fair, teenagers will flourish. Having something steady, firm, and predictable in a head spinning world is like being handed a map, with NORTH plainly marked. Clear boundaries and standards are the gauge by which all other information is measured.
Disciplining teenagers is difficult, but it is critical if teens are to learn that their behavior has consequences.
Some of the odiousness of enforcing rules can be eliminated by engaging children in the process of setting the rules and assigning consequences before the rules are broken.
When parents include teenagers in establishing clear rules about appropriate behavior and consequences, the arguments over rules and punishment end. Children can no longer claim that punishments or expectations are unfair, and parents can take on the role of calmly enforcing the pre-arranged consequences instead of having to impress upon the child the seriousness of the problem and scramble to find an appropriate punishment.
The temptation to react emotionally when children break rules is alleviated because a breach of the rules is no longer perceived as an assault on parental authority, since it is by the authority of the family, not the authority of the parents, that the rules were established. Helping to set the rules may not dissuade teenagers from breaking them sometimes, but it can help parents to avoid a power struggle with their teenagers.
Another big trap in parent-teen relationships is the confusion of psychological control (the opposite of psychological autonomy) with discipline. Demanding a certain level of behavior of children does not exclude allowing, or even encouraging them to think and express opinions different than one's own.
Too many parents get caught up in focusing on controlling their child, believing that controlling the way their child thinks will translate into controlling what their child does. By using guilt, withdrawing love, or invalidating feelings or beliefs, the parent hopes to make the child see things the parent's way, ensuring compliance with parental expectations.
There is a fine line here; one of the roles of parents is to help children make sense of the world by offering explanations or interpretations of events. It is when these parental offerings take on the tone of exclusiveness -- when parents cannot respectfully consider and discuss a teenager's interpretation of his or her own experience -- that psychological control has taken over.
Parents should also be aware that it is the teenager's perspective on the forcefulness of the suggestion which counts. Psychological control is damaging if it is perceived by the teenager, regardless of parental intention. While a parent may feel that a discussion has taken on the tone of a healthy debate, to a teenager the same interchange can feel absolutely crushing.
Interestingly, boys are more likely to report that their parents squelch their psychological autonomy than are girls. Whether this is a difference in the way parents actually relate to teenage boys versus teenage girls, or whether it is a difference in perception of boys versus girls is unclear.
When discipline becomes a matter of calmly enforcing family rules about behavior, many of the problems associated with psychological control are alleviated.
When children have a problem with delinquency, parents generally tend to respond to it with less behavioral control, and more psychological control as time goes by. This appears to set up a vicious cycle, as teenagers respond to both lack of monitoring and the presence of psychological control by acting out, or becoming more delinquent.
If parents can break this cycle by treating delinquent behavior with increased monitoring rather than attempting to control it by inducing guilt, withdrawing love, or other means of psychological control, teenagers are more likely to respond with better behavior.
In short, parents who concentrate on trying to control their child's behavior rather than trying to control their child are going to have much more success and a lot less grief.