Lifting up our teens with affirmation, blameless love, and connectedness is critical for their health. But like a table, a fourth leg is needed to keep things on an equilibrium -- the leg of parental guidance and enforced boundaries. If teens are to stay safe and healthy, your love must be balanced by and actively demonstrated through appropriate, loving discipline.

The term discipline has several meanings, and the nuances are worth examining. The dictionary's first definition of the noun discipline is "training that develops self-control, character, or orderliness and efficiency." Yet when most parents hear the word discipline, they equate it with "punishment," which is the fourth meaning given by the dictionary.

Just because your teens are nearing full physical maturation doesn't mean your days of parental discipline are over. Just the contrary. Teens still disobey, still act untrustworthy, and still display woeful attitudes around the house on occasion. Obviously, the old methods of discipline no longer work. You can't ask Johnny to stand in a corner or turn a rebellious teen over your knee for an old-fashioned spanking. Those days are long gone, but good discipline is absolutely necessary and helps teens learn to function in a highly healthy fashion.

Maintaining discipline will require occasional instances of punishment -- and the more creative, the better. Telling your teen he can't see his friends ever again is over the top, but a Friday night without TV or videos or computer games will capture his attention. Extra chores around the house can send a message. And don't forget that teens who drive hate to lose the keys to the family car. Right discipline defines protective boundaries and reminds your teen that there will invariably be consequences for breaching those boundaries.
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Discipline your children while you still have the chance; indulging them destroys them.

Wise discipline imparts wisdom; spoiled adolescents embarrass their parents.
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King Solomon in Proverbs 19:18; 29:15 (The Message)
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Six Keys to Protecting Teens through Discipline

Long before I left my medical practice to work for Focus on the Family, I had read every Dr. Dobson book on how to raise children and be a good parent. Dr. Dobson articulated his classic principles so well I don't think you have to go anywhere else. Barb and I felt as though we were sitting at his feet whenever we read -- and reread -- a chapter from Dare to Discipline or The Strong-Willed Child. From Dr. Dobson's writings, we found six key principles, which I outlined in God's Design for the Highly Healthy Child and apply here to teens:

1. Define the boundaries before they are enforced. Teens have the right to know what is and what is not acceptable behavior before they are held responsible for breaking the rules. You can't say, "You have to be in by 11:00p.pm." and not tell your teens what the consequences are for being fifteen minutes late, thirty minutes late, or one hour late. If you're going to enforce curfew by the minute, then say so. If you're going to have a fifteen-minute grace period before they're officially late, then say so. Either way, let them know in advance what the consequences are for breaking curfew.

2. Avoid making impossible demands. Sure all parents would love their kids to take AP courses, get high SAT scores, and have 4.0 report cards. But few teens are capable of being whizzes in the classroom. Even in this era of grade inflation, a straight-A report card is still a rare event in school these days. By the same token, some dads want to relive their glory days on the gridiron, so they place subtle pressure on their sons to be All-League football players when in actuality they contribute to the team in a backup role. Parents should set the bar, but it takes a thoughtful parent to place the bar just high enough to push his or her teen to greater heights without deflating the ego. Is your teen performing at a level that makes sense for his or her gifts and abilities? If so, you've set the bar at the right height.

3. Distinguish between irresponsibility and willful defiance. Teens can act goofy sometimes or like little Machiavellians. There's a difference between irresponsibility, such as leaving the car windows down overnight when a thunderstorm hits, and willful defiance, such as coming in after midnight when he knew full well he should have been home an hour earlier. This is an area where you can show grace -- God's grace -- as you effectively discern what your teen's motives were for his or her acts of negligence or defiance.

4. When defiantly challenged, respond with confident decisiveness. Intuitively you know the difference between irresponsibility and willful defiance, and when your teen has thrown down the gauntlet, you must respond in kind. Dr. Dobson suggests that when children "make it clear that they're looking for a fight, you would be wise not to disappoint them!" When nose-to-nose confrontations happen, it's extremely important to know ahead of time what you will do -- and then to respond confidently.

5. Reassure and teach after the confrontation is over. Remember how you hugged your toddler after a spanking to let him know that everything was going to be all right? You don't spank teens, of course, but they still need to hear your reassurance that you love them.  You may need to remind them of the ways they can avoid correction or punishment in the future. Teens never outgrow their need for reassurance after times of discipline.

6. Let love be your guide! It doesn't do any good to get into a shouting match. Sure, your teens will do things to make you angry, but you must keep your cool. During these few remaining years they live under your roof, you have a powerful opportunity to model adult ways of handling conflict, which will help them in the workplace and in their relationships in the future.


Dr. Walt Larimore has been a family physician since 1981 and a medical journalist since 1995. He has appeared on NBC's The Today Show, CBS's Good Morning, CNN Headline News, and several Fox News programs. He practiced family medicine for over twenty years, served as a volunteer physician for the U.S. Olympic Committee, and has been named in Distinguished Physicians of America, Best Doctors in America, and Who's Who in Healthcare and Medicine. He has written or cowritten a dozen books, including God's Design for the Highly Healthy Person, God's Design for the Highly Healthy Child, and Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook. He and his wife, Barb, live in Colorado Springs, Colorado.