By Catherine H. Knott, Ph.D.

When Easter arrives, many children amass a large stock of candy. Does one of your children routinely eat every piece as soon as possible, treating any stomachaches as an inevitable part of the ritual? Does another of your children hoard the candy for months, bringing it out piece by piece until Halloween, using the opportunity to tantalize his or her siblings? Both situations demonstrate an extreme on the continuum of self-discipline and illustrate behavior that could benefit from a healthy dose of moderation.

Moments like these, though humorous and transitory, can give us insights into our children’s behavior. Drug use, alcohol consumption, sexual activity, and eating patterns can become matters of deep concern for parents of teenagers, yet we feel frustrated trying to help them when their self-discipline is utterly lacking or misplaced. Outlined below are three types of teen problems with self-discipline and ways to address them, followed by a simple five-step technique designed to help all teenagers acquire healthy patterns of self-discipline.

Teens Who Lack Self-Discipline

We are all familiar with the exuberant personalities of those co-workers, often charming and extroverted, who seem to talk their way through life and out of work assignments, who buy more than they can afford, party hard, and procrastinate way past deadlines, all the while seeming cheerfully oblivious to the crises they create. It is alarming to see these characteristics in our teenagers, yet most of the time these behaviors are amenable to change and do not develop into permanent character traits, unless we do nothing.

Teenagers and even young adults are in the throes of growth, hormonal changes, and re-orientation to the world as responsible individuals. Hormonal and brain changes mean they may be more oriented to today than tomorrow. Social pressures may cause them to redirect their energies from homework and family chores to responding to the requests of friends, even when they know that is not the best choice. Peer relationships may seem to dominate their lives, overshadowing the healthy patterns of self-discipline we thought we had helped them establish in childhood. What can we do?

  1. First, we must determine whether our teenagers truly lack the training in self-discipline that would enable them to make better choices. Look at their preferred activities and how they conduct themselves during these activities to see if they have self-discipline or not. Does your son practice drawing cartoons or skateboarding every day? Does your daughter always leave herself half an hour to apply makeup before the school bus arrives? These teens show that they have self-discipline, but could be choosing not to use their self-discipline skills in areas that are high on parental priority lists. Other teenagers, less organized and seemingly at a loss to achieve even the goals they set for themselves, may truly lack skills in self-discipline. These teens need training and counseling.
  2. Next, we have to find ways to communicate with our teenagers about self-discipline in positive, non-punitive ways that let them view self-discipline as a tool they can use to achieve their own ends, at a pace that is right for them.
  3. We also must find ways to lift the curtain that hides the activities or choices they don’t want parents to know about. The best way is through open communication that is both respectful of their privacy and a persistent expression of parental concerns for their health and safety. If we can open the conversation about risky or unsafe behaviors gradually, through more general discussion about how to set goals and achieve them through self-discipline and determination, we might find they are more willing to reveal their own concerns.

Teens Who Inconsistently Apply Self-Discipline

These behaviors are perhaps the least worrisome, but the most annoying for parents because teenage behavioral inconsistency means we never know what to expect, which makes our lives inconsistent. Don makes excellent grades in all but one or two classes, but then makes terrible choices about partying on the weekend, passing out drunk on more than one occasion. Sarah practices for hours on her cello, but forgets to turn in math homework and leaves her gym clothes at home at least once a month. Peter does all his chores at home without being reminded, but his English teacher has just called you for the third time to tell you about all the homework he is turning in late. You know it has been sitting crumpled up in the bottom of his backpack for days.

These teens may just be naïve or absent-minded, but more likely they lack the ability to speak up for themselves and tell you what they need to change in their lives. It turns out that Don is extremely shy and alcohol relieves his social anxiety without having to talk about it. Sarah hates her math class and is anxious about gym because she just started having her period. Peter has mild dyslexia and is afraid of getting bad grades on his papers. These teenagers need reassurance, someone who will listen, and a plan to make the changes they need.

First, demonstrate verbally and physically to these teens that you value them and their opinions. Family meetings where you ask their views on critical decisions offer a great opportunity for you to demonstrate their importance in the family, as well as to validate their ability to assess situations.

    First, demonstrate verbally and physically to these teens that you value them and their opinions. Family meetings where you ask their views on critical decisions offer a great opportunity for you to demonstrate their importance in the family, as well as to validate their ability to assess situations.

  1. Second, find time to talk with them in a relaxed way about different aspects of their lives at least once a week. If there is too much tension between you, a common occurrence in parent-teen relationships, enlist the help of a relative, the parent of one of their friends, or any other adult with whom they have a relaxed, friendly relationship. Afterschool snacks or weekly pizza nights with this person can give your teenager the opportunity he needs to talk openly.
  2. Once you find the source of discomfort or avoidance, help your teenager make some self-affirming choices that will solve the problem. In the situations above, Don would probably benefit from some counseling, as well as some help setting boundaries when he socializes. Sarah may need to change her math class and may need you to let her gym teacher know she won’t be in class on certain days. Peter needs evaluation and assistance for dyslexia.

Teens With Rigid Self-Discipline Habits

Sometimes these teens have inherent personality traits that lend themselves to monk-like behavior, or a driven sense of mission and self-sacrifice. But when these behaviors accelerate from simple, occasional self-deprivation to full-blown cases of anorexia nervosa, obsessive-compulsive disorders, anxiety attacks, or rigid control over themselves and others, the problems lie deeper than patterns of self-discipline and high ideals. It can be hard to tell the difference between a clinical and non-clinical situation, but parents can do three helpful things for these teenagers, starting right now.

  1. The first is to make sure these teenagers know that you and others love them for who they are now. Give hugs and attention. Do not neglect silent cries for physical affection, such as hanging around the parents at bedtime. Give gifts of your time and also unexpected small gifts of things that you know they like.
  2. Make time immediately to have a discussion about the self-discipline habits that seem rigid to you. Open the discussion with more general observations about self-discipline and practicing moderation in all things to increase physical and mental health and the chance for success in reaching personal goals.
  3. If these tactics do not have an effect in reducing extremely rigid or self-depriving behaviors within a week or two, schedule a visit with a counselor to determine if your teenager needs help with modifying these behavior patterns.

Introducing Patterns of Healthy Self-Discipline in Five Easy Steps

Step 1: In an open discussion with your teenager, help him identify a short list of specific behaviors or habits that could benefit from a healthier pattern of self-discipline. Help him write down the list, along with a sentence describing a desired change or goal for each behavior or habit.

Step 2: Have your teenager rank the behaviors in order of importance to her (not in order of importance to you!). Then together rank them in order of difficulty to change. For example, you might both agree that getting up an hour earlier would be really hard, but remembering to set out clothes to wear the night before would not.

Step 3: Pick the easiest behavior to change that is neither the least important nor the most important in your teenager’s ranked list. (Remember, the goal is successful change.)

Step 4: Help your teenager choose an increment of change that seems manageable to him. For Instance, getting to hockey practice on time three out of five days each week for the first two weeks, and then setting a new goal, might seem reasonable. Determine materials needed to help implement the change (a watch, a reminder call for the first week, a note on the door, etc.).

Step 5: Together, choose a reward that your teenager will give herself (perhaps with your help) each time she successfully achieves the new behavior. This reward should be small but significant and enjoyable, such as playing a favorite computer game for an extra fifteen minutes or calling an old friend long-distance (with you covering the charge).

Once your teenager realizes that changing a behavior and achieving healthy self-discipline results in more productivity and greater self-esteem, she will be able to take giant steps on the journey toward a better life.


“Understanding Girls with AD/HD” Nadeau, Kathleen G., Ellen B. Littman, and Patricia O. Quinn. Washington, D.C.: Advantage Books, 2006.

“If Your Adolescent has an Anxiety Disorder” Foa, Edna B., and Linda Wasmer Andrews. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.