How to Discipline a Difficult Teenager | Parenting Teens

Surprisingly few parents ask me how to discipline a teenager.  I get more questions about how to cope with a teenager.  I guess discipline seems unattainable.

Can you discipline a difficult teenager?  Yes, but it’s very different from how you discipline a toddler, child or tween.  

The first step is to check yourself.  Are you acting or reacting?  In other words, when your teen lashes out do you react or just stay calm?  If you’re reacting, you’re diving off the emotional cliff with them.  If you’re acting (staying calm and controlled), you are not elevating the situation.

I admit I’ve never raised a difficult teen as I had that mutual respect cemented early on, but I’ve certainly worked with a lot of very challenging teenagers.  What they all have in common is that they are all Me Me Me.  They don’t stop and think how their words or actions are affecting others as they really don’t care.  They’re totally self-absorbed.

They have tunnel vision which all focuses on what they want.

What you have to do is dive into that tunnel and create a diversion. 

So, you’re now calm and ready to create that diversion?  Let me explain how this is done.

Let’s say you have a 14 year old girl who goes out drinking at parties and comes home wasted, if she comes home at all.  You say,

You’re too young to party all night.  You’re also too young to be drinking, that’s just a fact.  What’s going to happen from now on is that I’m still going to let you party, you’re just going to be calling me every 90 minutes so I know you’re okay.  I’m also going to be picking you up at an arranged time and location.  The pickup spot can be a few houses away from where the party is so as not to embarrass you in front of your friends.  Does that sound fair?

It doesn’t matter how she reacts, you’ve just calmly explained there’s going to be a shift.  The most important thing for you to do is to STAY CALM.  Not just that, but no eye rolls, no frustrated sighs, absolutely nothing that she could interpret as a negative reaction to her.

You are now setting yourself up as a calm, controlled leader.  You’re also showing that you’re fair as you’re still allowing her to party, just on your terms.

It takes time to gain the respect of a teenager, you have to be patient and willing to put in the work.  

When I first started mentoring teenagers I didn’t have a clue what to do.  I’d been through some training but it didn’t suit me so I had to figure out my own way.  One thing I decided right away was to never open up their files.  I didn’t want to get to know them through their past mistakes.

I’d say:

I have 3 rules:

  1.  No swearing in front of me
  2. You have to say thank you at the end of each session
  3. You have to give me a hug at the end of each session

They often broke the first rule but they never broke and second and third ones.  The thank you’s and hugs were often strained but they happened.

I was setting myself up as a calm leader, someone who respected them but still had boundaries.  That’s all you’re doing with this first step.  

I’m here if you need some guidance to get through this, it can be challenging.


How to Transition to the Teen Years … Part 2


After a previous article:  “Parents: How to Transition to the Teen Years”, Mike Henry (children 8 and 10) asked if I’d elaborate on the reasons behind my methods. He’s heading into the teen years with his kids soon and wants to be ready.

If this isn’t for you, here are a couple of recent articles you may enjoy:

I’ll elaborate on the DO’s and DON’Ts from my last newsletter:

DO ListenListen to understand, not to gather information to use for a future lecture. Teens who feel heard and understood just can’t stop talking. They end up telling you everything, even if they don’t mean to. Everything just sort of falls out of their mouths. We’re all naturally drawn to good listeners, especially when we have a problem.

DON’T Lecture – Lecturing is just another word for nagging. Teenagers hate being reminded that you know more than they do. They’re spreading their wings so don’t clip them. If you lecture it’s almost like pushing them to make the wrong decision out of rebellion.

DO Stay Calm – I blabber on about this all time because it’s so important. Let’s say you have a teenager in your face yelling at you. Yelling back is a natural instinct but it’s wrong. It just escalates matters. Do they deserve to be yelled at? Probably, but that’s not the point. Don’t be a right fighter, have self-control and stay calm. It’s very difficult for a snarly teen to keep being abusive to a wall which is what you have to become when they’re out of control.


DON’T Set CurfewsHaving a standard curfew in place for a teenager is a sign that you are out of control and don’t trust them. You negotiate a time for every single time they go out. And be flexible. If they’re having a lousy time and want to be picked up early, then go get them. If they’re having a great time and want to stay later, then let them … within reason. But don’t text with them, have a phone call so you can hear their voice and make sure they’re okay. My teenage son was a night owl and I had him call me every 90 minutes just to check in. I’d let him stay out all night if he was having a great time. But only if it suited me. Sometimes I’d want him home early as I needed a good night’s sleep and he’d come home early. Was mutual respect there.

DO Offer Options (sort of like advice but a bit milder, like a multiple choice) – Your 15 year old daughter wants to stay at a friend’s house overnight as they’re having a party there while the parents are out of town. You could say something like, “I’m not comfortable with that so either I pick you up at midnight or I arrive at the party at midnight and let it continue for another 2 hours, with me there as chaperone.” You didn’t use the word “no” or the phrase “that’s not going to happen”. You offered options. Of course she’s going to pick the one where you pick her up at midnight. You can even negotiate that time a bit but you’ve shifted the discussion from her staying overnight unsupervised to what time you’re picking her up. It’s making her part of the decision making process.

DON’T Look Disappointed in ThemYou can look disappointed in their actions, but not in them. Treat any negative behaviour as if it’s out of character. This is setting them up for success, not failure. This one’s a bit tricky as how do you not look disappointed in them if they’ve done something awful? You separate their actions from their identity. Sure, what they said or did may have been rotten, but if you start to look at them as rotten kids they’ll live up to that image.


DO Negotiate Rules – Ask your teen’s advice on what they think is fair. Have rules for yourself also. If either of you break a rule, you’re punished. Make the punishment fit the crime. If you yell at them, you have to stop talking for an entire day. If they don’t put their dirty laundry in the hamper they have to do the laundry. I’ve gotten the best advice on how to help parents from their kids themselves. Negotiate with them, they’ll be adults soon and you want them to learn how to make their own decisions effectively. Give them chances to fail with the small stuff so they’ll be better prepared for the big stuff. Let them make mistakes and learn from them. That’s what you did so fair is fair.

DON’T Roll Your Eyes – Teenagers often complain that their parents roll their eyes at them which infuriates them. Eye rolling is passive-aggressive. Sure, they may do it to you but they’re still kids, take the high road and refrain.

DO Praise Often This seems obvious but it’s often overlooked. Parents often ask me, “What the heck do I praise? The fact that they keep their rooms like pig sties, treat me like crap, ignore my rules?!” It doesn’t have to be much, can just be about their outfit, their hairstyle, their artistic talent … anything. BUT … make sure it’s something that matters to them, something they’re proud of or that makes them feel good. They’ll start seeing you as a source of good feelings and turn to you more often.

DON’T Expect Too Much From Them – Be realistic with expectations, or even lower than that so that you can be pleasantly surprised rather than constantly disappointed. Teens will naturally go through stages where they are lazy, snotty, slobby, stupid, etc. Everything’s temporary. Be patient and they’ll come around.

DO Forgive Their Mistakes – This one is very important. I’ve worked with some families who just couldn’t forgive past mistakes. Sure, some of those mistakes were pretty bad but if you don’t let go you’ll regret it. The more you remind your teens of their mistakes the more those mistakes will become part of their identity rather than a temporary slip-up. Say things like, “I know you didn’t really mean that. We all make mistakes. I forgive you and just want to move forward.” That doesn’t mean they’re not accountable, just that you forgive them and want to help them make amends and do better in future.

DON’T React to their Outbursts / Don’t Stick Around for a Battle – Don’t let them pull you in when they are angry. They’ll push your buttons to get you involved but just put your hand up and say, “We’ll discuss this later” and calmly walk away. Don’t say, “We’ll discuss this when you’ve calmed down” as that’s passive-aggressive and just going to make matters worse. Pick your words very carefully when they are upset. Avoid anything that is accusatory or even about them.


DO Show Pride in Them – That can be hard to do when they’re snarly and rotten but it’s extremely important to show that you are proud of them. Even if you have to refer to something they did in the past. Maybe they helped you with something without being asked. I’d refer to that as, “I love how thoughtful you can be, remember that time …”. Not, “How thoughtful you used to be”. As above, pick your words very carefully.

How do you handle your teenagers?  Any hints or tips to pass along?

– Lisa Bunnage, Parenting Coach

Parents: How to Transition to the Teen Years … Part 1


The teen years are notoriously the most difficult to parent for good reason, they’re challenging. It’s almost like having a toddler again except they drive cars, party, have sex and rarely listen to anything you say. Okay, so they’re not exactly like toddlers, but they are both challenging age groups as they are both transitional ages:

  • Toddlers are turning from babies to children and finding their voices.
  • Teens are turning from children to teens plus they have that added bonus of raging hormones.

Did I breeze through my kids’ teen years? Pretty much. Had the odd “attitude” issues but they were few and far between. My kids didn’t really have a chance with me though as I’d had so much practice mentoring troubled teens beforehand. Practice doesn’t make perfect but it sure helps.

The parents I talk to who are the most upset are the ones with teenagers. They’re not just disappointed in how their sons and daughters are acting, but they’re scared. They’re scared for their teens’ safety, welfare and scared of losing them forever. They’re also scared that they messed them up.

I’ve coached families through some of the worst problems you could imagine and some who just want help with the basic stuff. The one thing all these parents have in common is their lack of empathy for what their teenagers are going through.They seem completely oblivious to all the changes, social pressures and urges their teens are dealing with which is odd considering they’ve done it themselves.

Basically being a teenager is emotional, painful, fun, confusing, conflicting, frustrating, etc., etc. You’re stuck between 2 worlds: Childhood & Adulthood. You tend to act like an adult when out in the world with strangers yet go home and have a tantrum with your parents because they treat you like a child. So you act like one.

So as a parent it makes sense to shift the way you treat them BEFORE they act out. In other words, hold them to a higher standard of behaviour now that they’re teenagers than you did when they were children.

This teenage transition happens anywhere between 12-14 for girls and 14-16 for boys. That’s a generalization but has been my observation. It happens when the hormones hit.

I’ve studied the effects of hormones on the brain and just found it more confusing than clarifying. But basically hormones are crazy drugs. They cause mood swings, rage, sexual desire, lack of foresight, etc., etc.

Okay, so that’s what’s going on with teenagers but how do you parent them you’re asking? This is where it gets kinda vague and confusing as they’re all so different. You have to know when to go in with advice and when to back off and give them space. That’s why I don’t have a “4 Week Parenting Program” for Teenagers. They’re all so different.

But here are some very basic rules for parenting teenagers. First of all I’ll list what NOT to do:

  • don’t lecture
  • don’t set curfews
  • don’t yell
  • don’t roll your eyes
  • don’t expect too much from them
  • don’t react to their outbursts
  • don’t stick around for a battle
  • don’t tell them what they need, want or should do
  • don’t expect respect unless you give it … and even then … as above, don’t expect too much
  • don’t EVER look disappointed in them … EVER!!!

Here are some do’s:

  • do listen
  • do stay calm
  • do offer options (sort of like advice but a bit milder, like a multiple choice)
  • do negotiate rules
  • do praise often
  • do forgive their mistakes
  • do show your pride in them (find something to be proud of no matter how they’re acting)

I’ve worked with so many families going through horrible stuff and the biggest battle is always convincing the parents to let go of what their teenagers have done wrong. They absolutely have to give their teenagers a fresh start. That doesn’t mean their teens aren’t expected to be accountable and have repercussions for their mistakes. But you have to treat them as if they’re good, kind, wonderful people so they have something positive to live up to. If you treat them as if their rotten troubled teens then that’s what they’ll be. I guarantee you that.

You are so much more important in your teen’s life than you can imagine. That’s great news as it means you have more influence than you realize. Teens who have parents they respect and who respect them don’t go astray.

Be your teen’s safe place to land. If you are calm, strong, loving and always a great listener, I guarantee you will have more influence over your teen’s choices than you ever thought possible.

Forget about give & take, being right, and fairness. Toss out all those expectations and your life with your teenager will be so much easier.

Don’t worry, one day they’ll have self-absorbed teenagers of their own and you can just sit back and watch the show with a smile on your face :).

– Lisa Bunnage

Click here for Part 2

What are your Teenagers posting on Facebook?

We all know that Facebook is where our teens are spending a lot of time.  But have you ever looked at your teen’s Facebook page?  I mean look at it with them from their user perspective, with no blocks or editing.  Don’t give them any warning, just tell them that’s what you want to do and check out all the photos especially.  Don’t worry about all the codes they’re giving and getting from others yet, I’ll maybe cover that in another blog.  In the meantime, just focus on the pictures and you may be surprised by what you see.

Don’t just go into their photos, go into their friends’ photos which may have your teens in there.  You may see all sorts of things that would shock you.

Teens are posting pictures of themselves nude, having sex, smoking pot, cigarettes, drinking alcohol, doing other drugs, etc., etc.  Once you have this information, then what?  Just search Teens or Teenagers in my search area and I have lots of ideas in other blogs.

Lisa Bunnage, Parenting Coach   /   Email:   /   Phone:  604-944-7479

#1 Parenting Skill

I was just in an on-line Forum discussing teens but this skill applies to all ages (0-100):

Teens are my specialty, I find them absolutely fascinating. They’re caught in a Twilight Zone between childhood and adulthood. I sort of guide and support and encourage them to bring out the best but that’s not really the key. The key to helping them is to just listen. No judgment … just listen to understand.

Everyone wants to feel understood and important but imagine what it’s like for teens who don’t even always understand themselves??? Talking things out helps them get clarity and when do you feel most important in life? When someone’s listening intently to what your saying, how you’re feeling and who you are.

Feel like a broken record as am always going on about the importance of listening, but it really is the key to effective communication.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place … George Bernard Shaw

Happy Parenting,


More:  Video on how I reached troubled teens.  Be patient as I was very punchy when I did this video but it outlines exactly how I started getting to know any troubled teen I worked with.  Their response never ceased to amaze me as they all said no adult had every respected them like that before.  Of course that’s part of the reason they were “troubled” in the first place.  Anyway, it’s not rocket science, take a look at it.