SETTING LIMITS: Discipline Kids & Make It Stick

Family Circle Column, ‘The Teen Years’
Featured article, March 13, 1990

“You’re late!”

“After the dance, we went over to the diner for a snack. We were having a good time.”

Setting Limits With Your Teenager

“Melanie,* I told you what time to be home,” Mrs. Slater said, her voice rising. “Midnight is late enough—even for Saturday night.. It’s 1:30 now. I was worried sick. You’re grounded for a month!”

I’m 17 years old!” cried Melanie. “I’m going to college next year. I’m old enough to make my own decisions. You can’t keep treating me like a child! Nobody else is going to be grounded. Karen and Lila are still there!”

“You’re not in college!” Mrs. Slater was yelling now. “You’re in my house and you follow my rules. You’re grounded!” Melanie flew past her mother shouting, “I hate this house—I hate you!” She went upstairs and slammed her door.

Mrs. Slater was furious, but she also felt guilty for having been so quick to punish. Still she worried about her child breaking the few rules she and her husband had set. What else was Melanie doing behind their backs? Actually, Russell and Brenda Slater had been worried about Melanie for some time. Soon after her 15th birthday, their daughter changed. She became less compliant and more rebellious. She’d “forget” to perform her household chores, long a part of her routine. She frequently objected to helping her younger sister with homework. She had a boyfriend but refused to discuss sex or birth control.

Russell Slater made it clear it would be a mistake for her to have sex. “I think it’s idiotic for someone your age to become physical with a boy,” he said to her recently. “It’s none of your business!” she shot back. “You can’t even say the word sex so why should I listen to you?

* All names and characters are fictitious

Brenda usually took a gentler approach. She tried to talk to her daughter about contraception and even about how she had felt about sex when she was a teenager. “I was your age once, Melanie. I know what it feels like. But I waited until your Dad and I got married. And I’m glad.”

“That’s just great, Mom,” said Melanie. “But that’s your life and this is mine. Things are different today. And I don’t want to talk about it.” Melanie no longer confided in her parents. She argued with them about one thing or another. She demanded more “freedom,” complaining they were unduly strict.

They worried about drugs. Melanie denied she had tried them. But could any parent be sure? She had become so secretive, so uncommunicative lately. The Slaters are grappling with a problem common to many family with teenagers: how to set limits on their child’s moves toward independence. Melanie seems to be doing reasonably well, but she has become so closed off and stubborn at times that they feel powerless, angry and frightened. What is going on?

The answer is that Melanie is acting quite normally. In mid-adolescence, she is at a developmental stage somewhere between being an obedient child and an independent, self-reliant adult. And the primary way teenagers try out their feelings of independence is by challenging longstanding parental authority.

Melanie, for example, knew her parents wanted her home at night at a certain time. She expected there would surely be an argument if she stayed out late. Nevertheless, she decided to risk a fight because she was having a good time. She felt entitled, the way she assumed any adult would.

When they finally had a talk about the month’s grounding, Mrs. Slater was frank. “Melanie, I was furious with you all weekend. This time you pushed me too far. You know that your Dad and I have given you a lot of privileges in the last few years. We want to trust your and see you turn into a responsible young adult. We’ve certainly been proud of you.”

“I know, Mom.”

“But we have some rules that have to be followed as long as you live with us. And we have the right to make some of them non negotiable. I really don’t care what other kids are doing—or getting away with. You have to be home by midnight. Last Saturday I lost my temper and grounded you for a month, and that’s excessive. So you’re grounded you for a week, and you won’t use your phone for three days. That’s all I have to say. It won’t happen again Okay?”

“Okay, Mom.”

How do our set limits and discipline a teenager? First of all, parents need to establish rules from the time their children are very young. All youngsters need structure; most of the want it because it shows them that their parents really care. The parent’s responsibility toward the teenager ought to be the continuation of an ongoing process. Even if parents have been “permissive,” it is still possible to set limits on their teenagers.

Recognize the problem and talk with other parents of teens. Decide which of your children’s behavior patterns need changing. You can even be frank with your kids and say, “Look, for years you’ve been allowed to get away with a lot in this house. You’re older now—and so are we—and it’s time you started acting with more maturity. There are going to be new rules to go with the freedom you enjoy.” It is especially important for you to follow through on the rule-making and also to set appropriate punishments.

Children of all ages are powerfully influenced by observing their parents, so you should demonstrate self-discipline and solid values. Finally, you should clearly spell out what you expect of your adolescent. You can set rules that are absolute and other that are open to negotiation. For instance, some parents make definite, unmodifiable rules about adhering to curfew, as the Slaters did, or attend unchaperoned parties. Other rules may be discussed.

Some parents prepare written contracts, which everyone signs, spelling out exactly what is expected. But though many families find this strategy effective, one 18-year-old patient didn’t: “Unexpected things can come up.

What if I have to be home by 1 A.M. or lose my driving privileges, but I really think I should go out of my way and take home a friend who’s had a couple of beers? Kids and parents should be flexible and should respect each other. The important thing is for them to talk.”

Good advice! Keep the lines of communication open. Even if your teen seems reluctant to talk, let her know you are available. And when rules are broken, make sure that the punishment is fair and reasonable and fits the infraction. A child who violates curfew might have time deducted from future nights out. If violations continue, the child might lose privileges for longer time. Vary the punishment. A child who is always grounded will come to treat it—and your handling of the problem—as a joke.

Discipline should not be meant to humiliate but rather to communicate your parental concern and your values. A limited but firm restriction in activities sends a message that you care about your child as well as your rules. If you are furious, wait and cool down a bit before you discipline. You may need a few minutes, an hour or part of the day. You can be honest with your child: “I’m just too angry and disappointed right now. Let’s both think about what happened and talk later.” With time, you’ll be calmer and better able to decide what needs to be done.

Warning Signs

All teens do not battle with their parents, so if you have a child about to enter adolescence, don’t assume that trench warfare is about to begin!

But most teens do rebel to some extent. You should be especially concerned, however, if your child begins to violate school rules, becomes verbally abusive to your or a teacher, or gets into even minor trouble with the law. These behaviors could be symptoms of serious problems, so don’t ignore them.

First, find out exactly what happened. Talk to your child and to others who might be involved. Consider that a teenager in trouble may lie. Try to explore the meaning behind his behavior. Be sure to take disciplinary action when you judge it can help.


If your child repeatedly engages in self-destructive behavior, engages in antisocial behavior with peers and adults, and does not respect nor respond to your discipline, seek professional help. The offending behavior may be part of a more serious problem.

Setting limits on teenagers requires perseverance and creativity. The rewards may not be immediate. But you will be helping your child to take his place as a socialized human being in a complicated, demanding society.