Discipline That Works

All parents wonder about effective discipline for their children regardless of age. However, disciplining older children and teens can be challenging if for no other reason than they have so much more freedom and independence from us. Dr. Mike Axelrod sat down with Cole to discuss effective discipline for older children and teens. He brings with him 20 years of experience as a licensed psychologist, a nationally certified school psychologist, and Director of Human Development at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire. His strategy offers room for flexibility and makes a little intention and planning go a long way.

Discipline Consists Of…

First, Dr. Axelrod notes a commonly forgotten piece of discipline is “acknowledging behaviors we want to see more of – the good stuff kids do”.  He gives examples like returning home to find our son has cleaned his room or a child starting homework on their own. These things are worthy of praise.

But what about behaviors that are unacceptable or inappropriate? Dr. Axelrod points to two must-haves in discipline: 1) a mildly unpleasant experience and 2) an opportunity for learning. Of course, there are varying degrees of misbehavior, which is why Dr. Axelrod shares with us his strategies for both more traditional type grounding as well as modified task-based grounding. If grounding brings to mind being corralled to our room for the summer, Dr. Axelrod recommends rethinking the whole process.

Discipline Gone Wrong

Grounding gone wrong might look something like this: “Suzy, you are grounded to your room for the month.” Then Suzy is out with her friends two days later. Dr. Axelrod notes that long-term groundings are challenging for two reasons. First, the parent is also grounded because they must monitor the terms of the grounding. Second, there is very little motivation for a child or teen to remain civil during this time and so there may actually be a deterioration in behavior. Finally, Dr. Axelrod notes, “when does the learning occur in these situations?”

Tips to Make Discipline Successful

When there is a need for discipline, first consider the degree to which the behavior is a problem. Some behaviors require more significant consequences – especially behavior that puts the teen at risk, makes them unsafe, or if they exhibit poor behavior related to school. For example, a teen breaking curfew, not doing well (to their ability) in school, or skipping school are behaviors Dr. Axelrod describes as “felony” behaviors, and in this setting, a more traditional grounding model is appropriate. However, Dr. Axelrod recommends a few important points to make the consequence successful:

  • Be flexible. Instead of grounding a kid to their room, consider grounding them to the house or common family living space (like the kitchen table). They could be grounded from things – devices or using the car. Be flexible so that the consequence fits the behavior.
  • Limit timing to no more than 3-4 days. Again, there is room for flexibility – a teen could be grounded for the day or a few hours.
  • Learning. There is a huge opportunity to teach life lessons when we make mistakes. A chance to learn that if a mess was made, we have to clean it up. So if a child is doing poorly in school, within the grounding they would also be required to make up missed work. If something was broken and needs fixing, during the grounding the teen can do work around the house to earn money or volunteer to repair what was broken.

Dr. Axelrod also recommends flexibility in allowing a child or teen to earn out of grounding. Again, this is a learning opportunity for a child to handle adversity (the grounding is unpleasant and they choose how to respond to that condition). So if a child or teen is civil and goes above and beyond during the grounding, they can earn out of a portion of it. For example, if a teen is grounded for the weekend for missed schoolwork, but then they appropriately and somewhat pleasantly complete the academic assignments, they may be allowed to go out with friends on Saturday. Or if a child starts out grounded to the kitchen table and can do so pleasantly, they can then just be grounded to the house.

What About Everyday Slip-Ups?

While more traditional grounding is appropriate for “felony” like behavior, what about smaller everyday slip-ups or “misdemeanor” behavior? These might be behaviors such as not carrying through with expected tasks or being disrespectful. In these cases, Dr. Axelrod recommends a modified grounding – task-based grounding. These are quick consequences that still provide a mildly unpleasant experience to fit the behavior. It looks like this:

  1. Determine 8-12 household chores/tasks the go beyond everyday tasks and take about 5-10 minutes. You may even consider collaborating with kids/teen to determine the jobs.
    • Organize pantry
    • Wipe out the refrigerator
    • Clean bathroom
    • Clean high traffic areas
    • Sort recycling
    • Sweep outside areas
  2. Put job with description on an index card. Some kids will need very specific guidelines. Each job is given a number.
  3. Then slips of paper are put in a jar or small bowl that correspond to numbers on the index cards. Put in a few zeros – we all love a chance to get lucky from time to time.
  4. When there is need for a consequence, the child or teen picks a number from the jar and performs that job.
  5. Job is performed appropriately (not perfectly) and grounding is over.
Real Life Example

In real life, Dr. Axelrod gives the following example:

Tommy walks in and drops his backpack and coat right in the middle of the family room. Upon being asked to pick up the items, Tommy responds with silence, “hold on”, “give me a break”, or “I’m having a snack”. Parent states calmly, “I asked you to move your things and you did not follow my instructions. Please pick a job from the jar.” Dr. Axelrod recommends giving no warning as this teaches kids they do not need to follow instructions the first time. In ideal conditions, Tommy goes and picks a job from the jar. He picks number six which corresponds to sorting the recycling. He then goes to the recycling and sorts the items and then checks in with his parents. The parent ensures the job was done appropriately (not perfectly), then says, “Thank you. Now please go pick up your backpack and coat and hang them up.”

Now, believe it or not, teens might not always listen the first time. If that is the case, now they take a second job. Dr. Axelrod recommends not going beyond three jobs. If they have taken three jobs and are still not completing the tasks, then the teen is grounded. But the grounding does look a little different. Instead of the list of what a child or teen can’t do during this grounding, Dr. Axelrod offers a list of what they can do:

  • Go to school
  • Do homework
  • Eat
  • Sleep
  • Do three jobs
    Once the three jobs are complete, grounding is over.
Putting the System in Play Helps Everyone

The beauty of these systems for both more traditional grounding and the modified or task-based grounding is that they set up expectations for the family. The family can sit down with a little intention, plan the jobs, discuss how these systems will work, and then everyone goes in with the same expectations. It removes the drama – no yelling, no arguing. As Dr. Axelrod notes, when teens do start to act out, discipline can become dominant in the relationship which tends to set the family up for more discord and further deterioration of the child or teen’s behavior. With intentional, flexible, and practical solutions in place, the whole family can focus more on positive time together.

Picture of Dr. Mike Axelrod

Dr. Mike Axelrod

Dr. Michael Axelrod is Director of the Human Development Center and a Professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire. A licensed psychologist and a Nationally Certified School Psychologist, Dr. Axelrod has been working with children, adolescents, and families for over 20 years. He has also written numerous articles, book chapters, and books on topics involving clinical, pediatric, and school psychology. Dr. Axelrod’s primary clinical and research interests include helping parents and teachers solve problems involving academic, behavioral, and social/emotional functioning.