The Power of Follow-Through with Teens

Lisa Larsen, LPC
Parenting adolescents and teens can be more than a little challenging. Just as we get comfortable in living with and managing our older elementary kids, the game suddenly changes as our kids make the leap into middle school and what seemed to work no longer does. Although the goal is still around firm and kind positive discipline, the approach shifts as the child shifts. 

For parents of elementary-age children, we have become familiar with the idea of natural consequences and how effective they are in managing and shaping our children's positive behavioral goals. That being said, under the best circumstances, using consequences effectively is a fine art because it is very easy to cross that line between consequences and punishment. Often, punishment is disguised as a consequence, but trust me, our teenagers see right through that. They see it as a way to be controlled and a way to remove their independence and power. What works more effectively with teenagers is follow-through. 

What is follow-through? It is a respectful 4-step approach that teaches life skills, cooperation, and responsibility regardless of normal teen push-back. The key is YOU. You are the only one who does the follow-through. The response is that the teen follows through WITH you. 

Four Steps for Effective Follow-Through

1. Have a friendly conversation (when everyone is calm) WITH your teen to gather information about what is going on regarding a problem. Listen. 

2. Brainstorm solutions WITH your teenager and choose one that both of you agree on. This may take some negotiating but that is OK. 

3. Agree on a deadline (specific date/time).

4. At the deadline date, simply follow-through on the agreement by holding your teen accountable with respect and dignity.

When you change your behavior, your teen will change theirs. When kids (of all ages) have made an agreement in cooperation with you (as opposed to being told what they need to do), they are left with a feeling of fairness and responsibility when they are held accountable and you have held up your end of the agreement and modeled cooperation and respect. They are more likely to buy into the plan when they played an active role in creating it. 

Be wary of a few traps that can defeat the effectiveness of follow-through:

1. Thinking teens think the way you do. 
  • Believing that your way is the only right way will sabotage the process.
  • They may not have the same priorities as you have and you must be willing to listen, negotiate, and choose your battles carefully.
  • Teaching them effective life skills is the goal, not you being "right."
2. Wanting teens to change personalities instead of behaviors.
This means that you are criticizing, judging, or engaging in name calling (you live like a pig!) instead of focusing on the issue at hand, which only creates resentment and more misbehavior.
3. Not maintaining dignity and respect for yourself or your teenager.
This happens when you get side-tracked with threats, warnings, arguments, manipulation, or displays of anger. 

Remember to keep comments simple: "I notice you didn't do your task. Would you please do that now?" In addition, ask the simple question (without a lecture), "What was our agreement?"

In response to further objection from your child, the key is "less is more." The less you say the more effective you will be. It may be one word - "Agreement." The more you say, the more ammunition you give your teen for an argument, which they will win every time. When they do agree to complete the task say "Thank you for keeping our agreement."

The magic key is that it is YOU that must follow-through, not teens. If you are not there and engaged to hold them accountable by expecting them to keep the agreement and respect agreed-upon deadlines, it will not work. When we show up as parents and follow through, the end result is that our child will follow through as well. The more practice you have, the easier this process becomes and you will be amazed at the result!

Information from Positive Discipline for Teenagers by Jane Nelsen, Ed.D.
St. Gabriel's Catholic School is an Independent Catholic school in Austin TX, educating children in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school.