Picture of Catharine Hannay, MA

Catharine Hannay, MA

Catharine Hannay is the founder of MindfulTeachers.org and the author of Being You: A Girl’s Guide to Mindfulness, a workbook for teen girls on mindfulness, compassion, and self-acceptance.

3 Tips for Setting Limits with Teens

Here are three tips from parenting experts on how to discipline teens in ways that 1) can help them behave more responsibly; and 2) can help strengthen rather than damage your relationship.

Tip #1: Lower the Volume

In her book The Teen Interpreter, Terri Apter explains why parents’ attempts at disciplining teens often don’t work and can even make the situation worse.

First of all, physical punishment makes teens feel angry and humiliated. “Instead of ‘bringing them to heel,’ it is likely to harden their resistance.”

Also, “When teens hear a parent yelling, they can focus only on the anger. The message contained in the heated words (‘That’s not safe’ or ‘That’s not acceptable’) doesn’t register.” (p. 51)


“He yells a lot, doesn’t he? And when people yell a lot, they often don’t get listened to.”

Angie Sage, Midnight Train, p. 66


Tip # 2: Choose Your Words Carefully

As Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn explain, “Teenagers, like younger children, need us to provide periodic reality checks for them. They need us to be […] clear about what we perceive as the dangers to their well-being.” A too harsh response, however, can damage the relationship. 


“When we feel we have to say ‘No’ to things they want from us, if we are not mindful, that ‘No’ may carry other implicit messages such as ‘We don’t trust you,’ ‘You’re bad,’ ‘ You have no judgment.’” 


They give the example of parents who tell their teenage daughter she can’t be alone with a boy in his house. 

The girl asks, “Don’t you trust me?” 

They suggest responding, “I don’t trust the situation. It’s too easy to feel pressured into doing things that may be harmful or that you may feel badly about afterwards.”


“This response has at least the possibility of being seen, not as an arbitrary exercise of power but as a respectful and non-naïve assessment of the situation, one that does not impugn the integrity of the child.”

(Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, p. 325-326)


Tip #3: Focus on What They Can Gain, Not on What They Can Lose

Terri Apter says that “Teens are less concerned than either children or adults by the prospect of loss, but are more excited by rewards.” 

In other words, it can be more effective to increase privileges than to threaten to take something away. For example, rather than focusing on not getting bad grades in order to not lose phone privileges, you can encourage them to study harder in order to earn a phone upgrade. Or, you could promise them a later curfew or other type of increased freedom if they demonstrate responsibility, rather than threatening to take away privileges if they don’t act responsibly.


“When punishment does seem necessary—when a teen damages a car or is careless with important or costly things, or when carelessness leads to financial costs—the punishment should relate to the consequences of the teen’s action and should offer the opportunity for the teen to demonstrate that he or she is learning to do better.”

(The Teen Interpreter: A Guide to the Challenges and Joys of Raising Adolescents, p. 51-52)



In order to effectively discipline teens, it’s important to keep the focus on learning the consequences of their actions rather than on avoiding parental anger or bristling at what appears to be an arbitrary exercise of power. After all, the goal isn’t just to control their current behavior but to help them grow into responsible adults.

If you’re located in California and need help determining if your child and/or family need professional help, contact Family Spring by submitting an inquiry at this link.

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