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Discipline Differences: Drawing the Line Without Battles

Eye-rolling. Arms crossing in a huff. Foot tapping. Impatient words such as, “You never listen to me/you don’t understand me!” If you have a teenager, chances are you’ve experienced one of these reactions as you tried to correct a behavior or reinforce a rule. Not fun. Not productive.

Parents need to draw the line and insist on respectful responses. Unfortunately, our two natural responses, asking, “Why did you do that?” or giving a lecture, almost guarantee a negative response from teens.

Remember, by definition, teens aren’t mature. They’re still developing synapses in the frontal lobes of the brain where reasoning and planning reside. When you ask, “Why did you do that?” and they respond, “Idunno,” they probably really don’t know!

My colleague Elizabeth Murphy in her delightful book The Developing Child (now out of print but snatch a used copy if you can find one online) provides two sound strategies for drawing the line while avoiding battles:

  • Is that what you meant to say? If your teen makes a disrespectful comment, ask, “Is that what you meant to say?” Here are three reasons to try this.
    • It works. Teachers who employ it find that around 80-90% of the time, the teen says, “Oh, sorry.” Their mouths got ahead of their brains.
    • It provides a way to back down. Sometimes all a teen needs to access those reasoning centers of the brain is a second to think it through.
    • It keeps you in control without inviting a battle. “Don’t talk to me that way” escalates; “Is that what you meant to say?” deescalates.
  • An “I know the point” signal. We adults tend to deliver the same lecture more than once, which can send know-it-all teens over the edge of impatience or even contempt at certain points in their relationships with parents. Mutually agree on a signal your teen can use if he or she knows what you’re going to say. Try turning both hands palm-up in a friendly way. It’s hard to do with a disrespectful jerk and also suggests a request. Then, have your teen summarize your point. Respectfully of course. This works because
    • While teens don’t always act on what they know, chances are they do know how you stand. If you repeat it, their natural impatience kicks in. if you make them repeat it, you avoid all the foot-tapping and eye-rolling.
    • When they need to paraphrase what you would say, that information is more likely to be remembered.

Try these. You might just get your point across without a battle.

Jane is an educational consultant, specializing in teambuilding, coaching, and school staff development. She is also the coauthor of more than 20 books. Jane’s website  is