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Discipline for Preteens & Tweens?

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Dr. Laura-
What kind of discipline works for ten year olds? What I was doing before (consequences) certainly doesn't work any more. It seems to make him more defiant and rude, and we all end up yelling. He doesn't do his homework. All he wants to do is be with his friends or play computer." -- Sarah


Dear Sarah -- The preteen transition is a tough one for most parents. Kids start to be heavily influenced by their desire to be respected by their peer group and that often conflicts with the standards we set at home.

Meanwhile, we lose their automatic respect and we have to start earning it. Parents who rely on punishment to control their kids (including timeouts and consequences) realize in the preteen years that it no longer works. In fact, we learn that it is impossible to control them. Our only hope to retain some influence is to earn it.

Unfortunately, if we've relied on punishment, we've neglected to lay the groundwork that will insure that a preteen "acts right." That groundwork includes a strong parent-child relationship so the child really does not want to disappoint the parent, as well as a child who has developed internal discipline because he has never been punished. It isn't too late, but there's a lot of catching up to do.

It works a lot better to just begin with respectful, positive guidance right from the beginning. That raises preteens who are respectful, considerate, responsible, self-disciplined and delightful, right through the teen years.

But if you've been using punishment (such as consequences) and your son is now ten and acting disrespectful, what can you do?

Start by committing to a respectful tone, so that rule is enforced for everyone in the household.

2. Focus on strengthening the relationship so that when you set a limit
(homework before screen time) or express an expectation ("we speak civilly in this house") your child wants to please you. Make sure you have one-on-one time with each child every day, in which you mostly listen. You can't hope to have any influence if your kid doesn't enjoy being with you.

3. Stop punishing. Instead, be sure your child knows the non-negotiable family rules. There shouldn't be many of them, stick to the important stuff. Then, sit down with your family to negotiate anything else. One of the keys in getting preteens to cooperate is letting them have some say in their lives.

Finally, assume your child will test you to see if you're serious. Stay cheerful while you keep enforcing the limits. For instance, be there during homework time and be sure your child stays on track with it instead of spending the time connecting with friends or playing computer. Because you have relied on punishment rather than helping your son develop inner discipline, this could take some time (weeks or even months). But after awhile your rule will become a habit, your child will reap the benefits of it, and he will begin to do it on his own.

That's the second reason kids do what parents want as they get older: they find it works for them. (The first reason, of course, is that they don't want to disappoint us because they love us.)

For more ideas, please check out the discipline section of this website, and also the section on preteens. It's terrific that you're intervening now, rather than waiting until the teen years. Good luck navigating this big transition! -- Dr. Laura

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Dr. Laura Markham is the author of three best-selling books

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