Thankfully, the kids themselves offered a lot of wisdom for this process, starting with the appeal to neither give them all the freedom they want nor clamp down so hard that they're dying to get away.  Instead, they say, we can help them learn to want the right things and to handle their independence responsibly.  Let's look at how we can do exactly that.

1. Get to know your teen.
One of the most common appeals we heard from the teenagers was for parents to see them as individuals and understand how they're wired.  Quite simply, some children can handle more freedom than others.

As we noted in the introduction, we suggest going through the points of this chapter with an eye toward what lessons they hold for your response to your individual child.  But next, consider asking yourself some pointed questions before giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to a request.  Questions like:  How responsible is this child?  Is he cognitively able to process consequences yet, or does he still give in to impulses easily?  Does he choose good friends?  What do other adults think of him?

As we look for evidence of growing maturity, recent events can provide insight.  Does she lose her cell phone weekly?  If your son can't turn in his math homework, is he really responsible enough to be trusted with your car?

One particularly helpful exercise is to determine which of these two actual teen comments sounds more like your child: 

  • "I have to admit that if my parents were more lenient, I'd take advantage of it.
  • "I'd never take advantage of them.  I enjoy their trust and my wide leash."

2. Choose discipline with their key fear-triggers in mind.
The fear of losing freedom often explains why a teenager's reaction seems way out of proportion to a given situation.  And knowing what freedoms are most important to your child will help you avoid unintentionally triggering her fight-or-flight instincts.  For example, one child might view her cell phone as her lifeline to the world and as vital to her identity as a "real person."  For another teen, the use of the car may be a far more critical tool of independence.

Since we usually have multiple discipline options at our disposal for a given infraction, it may be most productive to focus on the option that brings home the consequences without setting off the "loss of freedom" radar.  Sometimes the loss of freedom is itself the appropriate consequence, but we want to exercise it wisely, understanding that for our child it is the "nuclear bomb" of discipline.

For example, after my (Lisa's) daughter's car accident, I realized that the most effective consequence was not taking away her phone.  Instead, we required her—and she preferred!—to pay the eight hundred dollars for repairs on the other driver's headlight.  That meant four months of work with little take-home pay for herself, but she internalized an excellent lesson without the resentment that might have built up from a lengthy grounding or loss of cell phone privileges. 

3. Set specific expectations.
Your kid will tend to feel more settled and secure—and be more honest with you—if he understands exactly what circumstances will result in his losing a particular freedom and what circumstances won't.  For example, if your child feels particularly possessive about his cell phone, establish that it is for your convenience as his parent, and if he doesn't answer your calls or if he abuses his minutes, the phone will be taken away.  But if he sticks to the rules, he can rest assured his cell phone privileges are secure.

Teen expert Vicki Courtney saw the power of establishing clear expectations when her kids started using the Internet.  Setting the ground rules, she told them, "Now that you're going online, it's not a matter of if you'll be made uncomfortable, it's when.  I know you can accidentally stumble onto bad sites, and I know that bad people can contact you.  If a porn ad pops up, or if someone contacts you and makes you feel uncomfortable, let me know so I can figure out how it happened  I promise I will not take your Internet away."