Parenting coach Meghan Leahy talked about effective discipline for teens and tweens

Oct 03, 2013

Meghan Leahy, a parenting coach in Washington, D.C., took questions about how to effectively discipline your teen or tween, and how to keep your cool when your child pushes your buttons.

Hi, and thanks so much for joining us today. Meghan Leahy, a parenting coach in the District (and a mother of three girls), is here to take your questions about how to effectively discipline your children, particularly teens and tweens. If time permits, she might be able to tackle other parenting issues as well. Here is a link to today's Local Living cover story on how parents can discipline their kids without yelling or using corporal punishment, both of which can be damaging to children, according to research. Welcome, Meghan. Let's get started!

We are having some technical difficulties. Bear with us and hopefully Meghan will be online soon!

How do I respond appropriately to a 14 year old boy's fresh mouth without overreacting and having things end in an argument?

Talking back, bad language and disobidience....tough.  They are buttons for almost every parent.

Look for a pattern.  Does he need more responsibility and power?  Is the sassiness a cry for respect?

Know that when we pay attention to the rudeness, we get MORE of it!

My daughter is 11 (will be 12 in Jan). The one thing she does that drives me crazy is not complying when I ask her to do something. If I tell her to hang up her clothes, I hear "I know" but then she doesn't do it and I ended up having to tell her again and again. Another example - one afternoon, she was about to get some crackers and I told her that first she needed to get her backpack from my car. She said, "I will do it once I get a snack." I replied, "No, do what I ask now." I basically had to stand there and repeat the same request over and over, and stare her down before she finally stomped out to the car. I know she is trying to test me, but it is really getting old. How do I communicate with her that she needs to comply the FIRST time I ask without it developing into me having to lose my temper with her.

Ah yes.  Power struggles over chores.  Rough.  I have it here, too.

Call a meeting and decide what needs to be done.

Allow your daughter to decide when and how it will be done, and make her accountable.

Everyone signs the contract, and she can decide the consequence of not having it done.

This will require consistency, faith, and positivity from you, as well as HOLDING THE BOUNDARY when she doesn't do it.

Keep the mojo positive and good, though.  Drop your expectations of perfection and take progress.

Avoid the "It needs to get done NOW" fights.  It hurts everyone.

Any ideas on getting a twelve year old to keep her room clean? Her cell phone/Nook privileges are contingent on her room staying clean, but that doesn't seem to be working. She's a good kid who does well in school. This is our main battle these days.

Everyone battles technology.  Everyone.

Hmmm.  Look into separating these two issues.

So, you have tech rules and cleaning rules and they don't mix.

For instance, she needs to clean her room once or twice a week.  Done.  Allow her to create a consequence based on that work.  You both need to agree on it.

With the technology, say, maybe, "That ends at 6 PM, no questions asked."  

I am trying not to have too many rules and consequences, which leads to more fights and power struggles....

What do you do with a young teen when threats, or consequences, don't work? When the possibility of something he likes doing or having, like playing games, or having a cell phone taken away, isn't a motivating factor for cooperating?

This says to me that you need to rebuild your relationship.

Let go of the rules and the threats and all that.

Find a way back into his life.  You have to aggressively love him, collect him, rejoin him. A teen will take the bullet before he takes the knee, so you have to be the loving force.  Start spending time with him that shows you LOVE him and that he is THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON TO YOU.  Laugh.  Have joy.  HUG HUG, SMILE SMILE SMILE.

This will be WORK, but then it will get easier.

With your kids, what are the most effective consequences?

My best consequences are NONE.  Meaning, I do the best when I use proactive measures to create cooperation, love, and compassion.

Consequences are ususally code for PUNISHMENT, and that creates separation and anger.

Whenever possible, I use Special Time, Family Meetings, Family Meals, SNUGGLING, long walks, listening, HUGGING HUGGING HUGGING, and note-writing to find a way into my child's heart.  This almost always works.

When a consequence is needed, they create it, I okay it, and I uphold it.

I have one child with special needs and one who is typically developing. The typical child is younger. Obviously, we use different strategies and have different expectations for our child with special needs. That's just how it goes. But the younger child notices. How can we explain this to her? Or even better, is there a way to make our strategies more uniform?

Great question.

You already are doing what you need to be confident.

EVERY single child needs something different, SN or not.  That is your family ethos.

"Mom and Dad do what is best for YOU." is all you really have to say.

If they want to have a longer conversation about it, maybe...but life is not fair.  You don't have to make it fair for your kids.  It is good for them to learn this now.

We were all spanked growing up. Or at least, most of us were. If it's so awful, how come we're all okay? Why doesn't it work? Sometimes, I think my kid NEEDS a good dose of (healthy) fear.

Hmmm, good question.

I might argue we are not all okay, but that is another day and time.  :)

Spankings are a form of shame.  Shame says, "I am a bad person."

Shame is a powerful force in shaping behaviors, there is just a HUGE cost when you use it.

There are ways to connect to our kids that does not trade on physical violence and shame.

It is not a modern hurts.

Do you see schools as enablers of bad behavior (mainly out of fear of lawsuits)? Is their inability to enforce effective discipline undermining modern parenting?

No...they are not enablers.

Schools are comprised of humans, doing the best they can.

AND, yes, sometimes schools are not always using the most effective techniques.

But, that is okay.  My kids receive all kinds of rewards for good behaviors at school, and that is nice, but they KNOW (at the end of the day) that those rewards are fairly meaningless.

Doing and being good, for the sake of it, is what my family strives for, and ulimtately, your kids will get that if that is your strong family message.

Our culture has all kinds of craziness, but the family message is what gets into your child's heart.

My son and I were on the city bus on our way to school this morning when he had small, but attention-drawing tantrum and then defiantly put his feet up on the seat (which he has been told not to do many times before). When we got off the bus, I sat him down outside of his school, looked into his eyes, told him calmly that his behavior was embarrassing and unacceptable and that there are consequences to that kind of behavior. I asked him what he thought would be an appropriate consequence (which has been a successful tactic in the past) and he didn't have an answer. So I told him there would be no TV this afternoon. Now, he wouldn't normally have time for TV this afternoon anyway so he wasn't anticipating TV time, but I told him I had been planning on letting him watch and now he could not. He immediately burst into tears. He was still noticeably upset walking into school and into his classroom. I hated leaving him to start his school day that way, but I didn't want to not mete out the consequence right then and there. I hated that I came up with a consequence in the heat of the moment that felt just plain mean, but I couldn't think of anything that would matter to him. I think I could have instead told him we would discuss it after school and let it go for the time being. Would it be counterproductive to discuss the situation with him after school and come up with a different consequence together?

"Would it be counterproductive to discuss the situation with him after school and come up with a different consequence together?"


I give you permission to let this go.  GO into the past and let it be there.

Instead, reread what you wrote to me and make a plan for what you will do in the future.

#1 Nothing has to be decided in the present moment. (unless there is going to bodily harm)

#2 Sometimes, as the saying goes, Stuff Happens.  It is parenting life.  

#3 If it is happening all of time, what can happen that is DIFFERENT?

Does this make sense?

Is it counterproductive to let your child earn privileges back with good behavior after issuing a consequence (so then the consequence goes away)?

It all sounds complicated, doesn't it?

I like EASY.  EASY. EASY.  So do kids.  So do parents.

Clean slate it.

Call a meeting, clean slate it, start with a POSITIVE PLAN.

Earning things back and losing is exhausting...right?

We have a procrastinator. Everything that could be done earlier gets done at the last minute. Homework, practicing instruments, room cleaning. The tension this creates is incredibly frustrating. Any tips?



Two thoughts:  Is he a procrastinator b/c he has parents who remind, save, cajole, bribe, threaten, punish?  So, it is easy to let stuff slide if you know mom or dad is going to save you.

Or has he truly experienced natural consequences and cannot get his act together?  You could be looking at executive functioning issues.  This would mean that all of the regular ways of managing time and places and things don't work for his brain, and he needs a little extra help.


Start with these two questions....

My daughter is a good kid but like the earlier parents shared I'm getting a lot of failure to comply, listen, and yet she expects all the "cool" stuff other middle schoolers are getting. What gets me most riled up is the backtalk. I know to some extent the whining and tone is hormonal. She never used to be this way. I think her forgetfulness when asked to do something is also hormonal. But how do I make her more accountable and respectful? She has middle school pressures now - I get it but she also cannot expect to get everything everyone else gets (she never has before) at the same time her behavior has taken a big nose dive.

No one makes someone else be accountable and respectful.  

You cannot do it.

Yes, she is in hormonal nuttiness, so she needs STRONG COMPASSIONATE LOVE.  LOTS OF HUGGING.  LOTS OF LISTENING and cups of tea.  Lots of you sitting there, listening, and being quiet.

And then she needs STRONG BOUNDARIES in the shape of FAMILY VALUES.  No, you cannot spend your life looking at your iphone b/c we don't do that.  NO, you cannot go out with kids we don't know b/c we don't do that.  

Don't fight her, allow her to hate you and have her big feelings without being worn down.

This is a time where YOU need to see friends, get some massages and LOVE.  You need a break from a hormonal teen so that you can be the buoy, strong in the these choppy seas.

It will strong and STRONGLY LOVING.

Tweens and teens want to be on Facebook, Instagram, etc. What are your thoughts on limiting a tween or teens use of technology and/or appropriate ages to let a tween to teen have access to a smart phone and these apps?

Oh my.  Okay, after this chat, READ THIS.

Alright, listen.  I know our culture is FULL of tech and smart phones, but I come down pretty clearly into the camp of STRONG TIGHT BOUNDARIES on this stuff.

NO FACEBOOK 13 and under.

NO INSTAGRAM 13 and under.

They are SO impressionable...these ages are ripe for being so injured by friends...and when they open themselves up to teh WORLD....oh my.  A world of hurt can come in.

I also see these devices REPLACING parents.  They become the dominant voice over your values, simply by crowding it out.  Face it, you are not as sexy as Instragram.

So, you are not stupid, you know your child will be on all of this eventually, but you have the parenting AUTHORITY AND RIGHT to say NO.  NOT NOW.

14 or 15 feels better to me.  I know, it is late, but the child's sense of self is further along and more immune (a little) to the harsh arrows of life,.

All the modern parenting advice says, rather than engaging in a power struggle over a child's refusal to do something, the parent should ignore the bad behavior. But the same advice says not to "give in" to the child. I'm having trouble seeing the difference -- e.g., if the child refuses to get ready for bed, am I supposed to walk away? When there is a natural consquence to the child's action that is negative for the child (e.g., if you don't get ready for bed more quickly, we won't have time for stories), that's easier. But what about when the only natural negative consequence flows to the parent, or a sibling ? Is there an option other than threats -- e.g., saying "If you don't stop doing X, no dessert tonight!" Help!

Any time spent in developing, honing, and enacting consequences takes you away from cultivating a better relationship with your child.

I want my child to read and snuggle with me, not be rushing around in fear of losing it, get the difference?  

Concentrate on really emphasizing how much you LOVE snuggling, eating with, reading with, etc. the child and see what happens....



This morning we were in a rush to get ready for school/work, my son was slow getting ready, I had to keep reminding him to get dress, to get those shoes on, etc.. Once we were in the car I told him I loved him and he said he loved me back. I want him to feel loved and happy in school. I try not to sweat the small stuff with him.

Yes.  Great!

While they may feel the same, I think we're trying to change the reasoning behind how we discipline a child. The idea of a punishment is - you did, something wrong so you have to pay. That's not so in vogue now. We're trying to teach children to make the link as why the thing they're doing is not a good idea and then being able to self regulate. For example - Child in park runs away from you when called to come to you. You explain to Child that when mummy calls Child has to come because otherwise it's dangerous. So you tell Child that if Child doesn't come when, you won't be able to go to the park because it's just too dangerous. A consequence is designed to address the reason the child shouldn't be doing something. To me that's an important thing.

I agree!

Less talk, more action.  Love it!


Hey Meghan - Congrats on the great article. Can I ask about consequences for a 5 year old?



What actual consequences work for you? Examples, please.

Having the child create their own consequences works best.

Not becoming too involved in consequences....positive PROACTIVE strategies always work best....especially in the long run.

I never use a consequences that sends to the child is very painful for the child and makes everything worse.  I can quietly walk away...but that is about it.

Thanks for all the great questions. We're out of time, but join us Oct. 24 for our monthly parenting advice chat with Family Almanac columnist Marguerite Kelly.

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Meghan Leahy
Meghan Leahy is a D.C.-based parent coach.
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