When you develop this "Belief System" for your home, I encourage you to insure that everything is age-appropriate (boundaries for younger kids are usually not the same for older kids), clearly understood, and mutually supported by the parents and everyone else involved, including your teenager.  Let your children help you make up the Belief System and even the consequences.  This will give them "ownership" for it.  You'll find them to be harder on themselves and suggest harsher consequences than you might have, so you'll have to moderate those. Then, when they break the rules, you as a parent aren't the heavy.  They chose in advance to accept the consequences since they also knew in advance what consequences they would have to face.  

I've found that it works well to graph out what you want in spreadsheet form, so that each belief has a rule and each rule has consequences that can be clearly seen.  Here's how one of your beliefs in the Belief System spreadsheet could look for a 13-year-old.

Belief - At age thirteen, we believe nothing good can happen after 11:00 pm, and that on weekdays kids should be home earlier to encourage a good night's rest for school.

Rule - Curfew is 9:00 pm weekdays and 11:00 pm weekends.

Consequence -

1st Time: Curfew will be turned back an hour for a week
2nd Time: You're grounded Friday and Saturday night for two weeks
3rd Time: Curfew will be 8:00 pm every night for a month.

Do you think that knowing (and perhaps experiencing) the consequences will "push" your child to either accept responsibility or develop some new habits?  When they learn that you are serious about enforcing the consequences, they'll become serious about maturing.  After all, what is maturity?  It is simply knowing how to live successfully within the boundaries we all have in life.

Once your Belief System is set, don't undermine it by making exceptions.  Nothing can be more damaging to your ability to enforce rules than to cave in and arbitrarily reduce or waive the consequences.  In fact, tell your kids in advance that there will be no leniency, since they now know exactly what consequences are in store.  It is your duty to enforce consequences without wavering, but it is also important to express your sadness when your teen experiences consequences.  Help them know you are on their side and rooting for them.  In other words, don't rub their noses in it.

Will teenagers like consequences?  No.  Who does?  Remember, you've got to let them experience the pain of their choices so that they learn "to not go there again."  It's okay to let them "sit in it."  But don't pull back your relationship when they suffer consequences. In fact, move toward them.

Just like a Policy Manual dictates conduct within a company, this Belief System will determine the way everyone in your home will live together, because the decisions have already been made and everyone has signed off on it.  Your beliefs won't change, but your kids will mature over time, so be sure to review your rules about every six months (again, doing so with the whole family) to determine if they are still age-appropriate.

Discipline is hard work.  It is strategic work.  It takes a lot of work to formulate, communicate, and implement a plan to help a child get to where he wants to be and to keep him from going to a place where he doesn't want to be.  But that work is worth it!  Teens have a hard time seeing the "big picture" and thinking about long-term implications.  Putting boundaries and rules in place with consequences that they have agreed to will help keep them on track.  And they'll help you maintain discipline without destroying your relationship.

January 7, 2011

Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential program for struggling adolescents located in East Texas.