Over the years we’ve found that parents and teens clash about rules and discipline more than any other issue. To get a handle on this, we think it’s helpful to look at how teens develop. Some people have compared teenagers to toddlers. Toddlers are finding out the limits of their space and their power. They’re getting ready to become children instead of babies, with bodies they now have much more control over than before. A teenager is in a similar position, going from being a child to an adult. Their bodies are much bigger and stronger than before. They’re more mentally and emotionally mature, so they can handle more complicated situations than they could before. If they can drive or take public transportation, they are now much more in charge of where they are, just like a toddler learning to walk.

Some of the questions teens need to figure out are basically the same issues of independence and control-it’s just that the stakes are a lot higher. If I can go to a supervised party, can I go to an unsupervised one? Can my parents still make me do stuff if I’m bigger than they are?

Rules should allow teens to try out their new skills but keep them safe

The rules for a teenager need to let them explore, without giving them more room than they can handle, just like a toddler crawling up the stairs. Parents need to say that some stairs are safe to explore on your own, but some are not.

Teens, even though they would usually pick death by torture rather than admit this, often feel really unsure about what they’re ready to handle. Teens still look at their parents or the caring adults around them to see if they can, in fact, handle things; if they should be worried or not. Teens also need to feel that someone is watching and paying attention, ready to say “Hey! Not those stairs, not yet.” Sometimes teens will behave badly, taking more and more risks, to try to get some adult to do just that.

New freedoms should mean new responsibility

Teens need to know that doing more things with friends means letting adults know where you are. Getting to put up your own things in your room means keeping it reasonably clean (no health inspectors!). Getting a job means taking responsibility for getting yourself there and back, or letting adults know in advance what transportation help is needed. As teens get older, they usually get better at putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. They should be able to understand, for example, that someone will worry if they are not home on time. They’ll probably still need reminders, though!

New responsibilities should mean new freedom

When teens show parents that they can handle a new level of responsibility, more freedom should follow. “Since you called me every day this month when you got home from school, I feel better about letting you go to a friend’s house instead of coming straight home.” When anyone learns a new skill, there are slip-ups at first. Parents should talk with their teen about expecting mistakes. “If you forget to call me, I will worry. I will call all your friends to figure out where you are. Then we’ll need to talk about helping you remember better.” Talking about this ahead of time will cut down on the teen feeling she failed, or the parent feeling she made a mistake in giving the teen a new privilege.

However, lots of mistakes may mean the teen isn’t really ready for the new freedom.
Teens need to understand that if they consistently stop showing this new level of responsibility, the new freedom will be taken back until they are ready to try again.

Out and About

Until teens are ready for adult independence, parents or guardians need to know where teens are, what they’re doing, with whom, how to reach them, and when to expect them back. If they can’t give this basic information, they shouldn’t be allowed to go. Asking these questions, meeting friends, friends’ parents and checking up means more work for the parent in the short-term, but a more responsible-and safer-teen in the long run.

Rules At Home

Being an adolescent often means feeling two ways about growing up. Teens love to remind adults that they are not babies anymore-until it comes to household responsibilities! Then many teens wish (who wouldn’t?) that the grown-ups around them will keep on doing all or most of the cooking, cleaning, pet care, etc. like when the teen was little. This does not mean they’re lazy, just that they’re human. It’s OK for parents to allow a little babying after a particularly rough time, but not to routinely give into it. Teens need to get the message that they are expected to contribute and help out at home. Parents need to remind teens that freedom and responsibility go together.

Rules Should be Consistent

Teens need to know what you expect of them, and it helps if they don’t have to guess. No one is totally consistent all the time, but teens should have a basic, day-to-day understanding of what you want them to do and not to do. Discussing rules, leaving notes around the house or a message on a cell phone can remind your teen of what you expect without feeling quite so much like nagging. You might have to do some nagging too! Remember to talk about family rules. Listening and sometimes compromising about a rule can make a big difference in how your teen feels about following it.

Teens really need to know that you appreciate their efforts. Let them know when they’ve made a good decision, won your trust or done something right. It matters!