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Conference Report:
Discipline—Teens Are Worth It

Susan Switzer
Atlanta GA USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 38 No. 1, February-March 2002, p. 18.

Shortly after I took my seat in the front row at Barbara Coloroso’s Sunday afternoon session “Discipline: Teens Are Worth It” at the 2001 LLL International Conference in Chicago, Illinois, USA, I knew I’d come to the right place. Barbara let us know early on that she fully understood the joys and challenges inherent in parenting teen and young adult children when she shared that her arrival at the Conference had been delayed by a middle of the night phone call from the police involving her son, her son’s friends, and her “borrowed” car. With great humor and wisdom she walked us through her response to the situation and went on to spend the session giving us tips on how to handle all sorts of youthful misbehavior—leaving me reassured, fortified, and often chuckling in amused recognition of life at my house.

Barbara began by explaining that the consequences of behavior needed to resemble an “RSVP”—they need to be “Reasonable, Simple, Valuable and Practical” and they need to invite a response from the child. Rather than simply being imposed from without, they must require something of the child in creating a solution. In teaching them ways to know their goodness we can help them heal.

Barbara divided misbehavior into three levels: “Mistakes, Mischief, and Mayhem” with somewhat different responses to each. At the “Mistake” level she suggested that we confront them with it at our convenience and put it back on them to solve it. For example, if we know they have violated our trust we might confront them with a simple statement of “I know you’ve …we’ll talk about it at 5 pm” and then at the appointed time “I want to be able to trust you again—how can we do that?”

For “Mischief” she suggested we employ the four discipline tools: (1) Show them what they did wrong; (2) Give them some ways to make restitution; (3) Make them take responsibility; (4) Help them save face and solve the problem with their dignity intact.

According to Barbara, “Mayhem” requires adding to the four discipline tools the “Three R’s: Restitution, Resolution and Reconciliation.” In other words, make them fix it, prevent it from happening again, and heal with the people they’ve harmed beyond simple restitution.

She was careful to point out that the unintended consequences don’t necessarily follow the level of misbehavior. A simple mistake can have very serious consequences and need to be healed at the level of Mayhem. For example, making a mistake in judgment while driving resulting in killing or injuring someone.

Barbara reminded us that we only control 50 percent of any relationship but that we can influence 100 percent by how we act. To illustrate this she used the example of the “lippy” teen. Instead of flying off the handle and reprimanding him angrily, which would just escalate the conflict, she suggested we take a deep breath and breathe out before responding. Using the word “whoa” forces us to do this and forces us to calm down. She suggested saying something like “Whoa, it’s all right to be angry but it does not serve you well to roll your eyes and use four letter words. My job as a parent is to teach you to express your anger in a way that will serve you well.” Then later, after allowing the teen to calm down, we might invite him to talk to us about what made him angry. She stressed the value of teaching our children how to take time out to calm down.

Another reminder Barbara offered was that “no” is a complete sentence. It does not require justification. In addition, she offered three alternatives to “no”:

1. “Yes” with conditions­as in “yes you may have ice cream later after dinner.”

2. “Give me a minute”­to think about it before saying yes or no.

3. “Convince me”­best used with adolescents. We can keep responding with “I’m not convinced” until either we are and we say yes or the teen has run out of arguments.

Barbara suggested saving “no” for the big issues—sex, jail, drugs, personal safety—and telling them why, as in responding to the ever popular “You don’t trust me” with “Yes I do. After midnight there is not much else to do and I don’t want to put you in a difficult position.” Another suggestion was to never lie for our child. For example, when the phone is for her and she is begging us to say she isn’t home, we can demonstrate that we aren’t willing to lie but we are willing to say, “She can’t come to the phone.”

Some other helpful parenting advice was to let children make most of their own decisions before puberty as long as they don’t involve anything life-threatening, morally threatening, or unhealthy and to match their level of excitement rather than trying to create it. When they have success, as well as when they have a problem, we can respond with “Tell me about it” and gauge our level of emotion to theirs instead of cheerleading or becoming overly concerned.

Throughout the session, Barbara’s understanding and compassion for young people was evident. All of her suggestions were clearly offered from love. She demonstrated her own maxim that “backbone connects head and heart through intuition” as well as the quote from the Little Prince that she shared: “It is only with the heart that one can see right.” I left her session with gratitude, confidence, and renewed enthusiasm for parenting my own teen and young adults.

Susan Switzer lives in Atlanta, Georgia, USA with her husband, Hugh, and their four children, Abby, 27; Ashley, 23; Britten, 23; and Scott, 16. She has been a Leader for 25 years, leading Groups in Connecticut for 10 years before moving to Georgia. Barbara Coloroso is an internationally recognized speaker and author in the areas of parenting, teaching, school discipline, non-violent conflict resolution, and reconciliatory justice. She is the author of Parenting Through Crisis, available from LLLI.

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