Digital discipline: How NOT to lose your cool when teens break the rules

It’s not easy being a teenager. You’re treated like a child but expected to act like an adult. Your body is a teeming cauldron of hormones, and your brain is still under construction.

You still need rules and boundaries - in fact, maybe even more than ever - but are practically hard-wired to break those rules and transgress those boundaries. 

Psychologists call this developmental stage “individuation.” Mum and Dad likely call it something less polite. It’s a struggle for all of you! 

They know you crave independence. But they also know you need support. They trust you - but they’re also aware that your judgment can be sorely, and even dangerously, lacking.

And for young people growing up in the Age of the Internet, the challenges loom even larger. Thanks to social media, streaming, and video-chat, there are simply so many new and improved ways for kids to take heedless risks now - and to make themselves vulnerable to the risks taken by others.

Psychologists call this developmental stage “individuation.” Mum and Dad likely call it something less polite.

That’s exactly why responsible parents set screen-time rules, perhaps limiting certain apps or games, blocking inappropriate content, or setting up special routines for study- or bedtime device use.

But even the clearest set of rules is not a perfect solution - because teens, practically by definition, are going to sooner or later transgress. When (not if!) that happens, how should parents respond?


To help parents make sense of it all, we asked child and adolescent psychologist Jordan Foster of ySafe - Australia's leading provider of digital health and safety education and training - for some simple, sensible ways to approach the inevitable problem of digital rule-breaking. 

Consistency is key

When faced with resistance from our kids, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to back down, or become lax about our boundaries. From a child development perspective, this is a significant misstep. The more you relax your boundaries when your children fight against them, the more likely they will be to try to railroad you.

Being “nice” will get you nowhere. Being fair and consistent, on the other hand, is the best way to nudge your kids in the direction of more mature, responsible behaviour.

The strategy or tool is not the problem. The rule-breaking is.

As an example, if your child bypasses or deletes the parental control tools you’ve placed on their device, the absolute worst response you can make is to suspend your rules. Parents who toss the whole issue of online safety into the too-hard bin because “they’ll always find a way to get past the system” miss the point entirely.

The strategy or tool is not the problem. The rule-breaking is. We would never dream of abolishing speed limits just because people didn’t always stick to them. Instead, we set clear consequences for breaking the rules.

The same principle applies to our teens. Research shows us that by reinforcing our rules, setting and communicating consequences and being consistent, young people actually feel more nurtured and protected. The result? Negative behaviour decreases.

When kids ignore our rules, I prescribe a simple formula: “Acknowledge the pause, but stick with the cause.”  

Breakdown to breakthrough in 3 steps 

Young people will test our limits. But instead of seeing misbehaviour as failure - see it as an opportunity for learning. How?

DISCUSS WHAT HAPPENED: Sit down with your child and let them know that you know that they’ve broken your rule (eg., deleted the parental control tool that is fundamental to protecting them online). Give them the opportunity to explain to you why they did it. This shows respect and sets the tone for a mature, two-way dialogue. It may also yield some useful and/or surprising information.

RESTORE THE RULES: Validate their reasons for their actions. Assuming they acted out of frustration, for example, you can convey that you do understand that hard and fast rules can be frustrating at times. It’s vital then that you explain WHY the rule was made in the first place. Be sure your child understands the purpose it serves - even if they don’t agree with it - and why it will continue to apply.

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APPLY CONSEQUENCES:  “By seeking and blundering we learn,” observed Goethe. In other words, kids (and adults too) learn most effectively when they’ve transgressed a boundary and experienced an appropriate consequence.

If you feel the action is a one-time incident, it’s fine to give a warning, explaining there will be consequences for rule-breaking in the future and identifying what these are, if you haven’t already.

Alternatively, you can go straight to behavioural consequences. My advice is to start  with relatively mild consequences. Give your child a chance to do the right thing, but be sure they’re aware that consequences will escalate in severity with further rule-breaking.

You may be tempted to show you’re serious by imposing a harsh consequence at the start - grounding them for a month, for example. But think about it. An extreme reaction will not only create understandable resentment, but you’ll have nowhere to go in the event of a second violation. (What’s next? Solitary confinement?)

Handling serious misbehaviour

OK, but what about really serious rule-breaking - actions that might cause significant harm to your child or someone else, or might even be illegal?

Most experts agree that parents should avoid making on-the-spot decisions about disciplining for serious matters - or even in the immediate aftermath of an incident.

In the wise words of one 17-year-old, “If  your kid does something really wrong, you don’t have to have the ‘big talk’ right away. Wait until the next day when you’re both less upset.”

A good way to start is simply “Tell me what happened.” (Keep in mind that your child will already know what they’ve done wrong, even if they make excuses or act like it’s not a big deal.)

You have a right to express your anger or disappointment. But don’t lose sight of the fact that your feelings about the matter are not the point. What’s really important is holding your child  accountable for their behaviour. They need to be encouraged to see how their actions affect others and to experience empathy for the people who’ve been wronged.

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If there’s an external consequence - a fine, probation, school suspension, or social humiliation - support your child through the process. Equally important, if there’s something that can be done to make things right - whether apology, repair, community service or any other way of making amends - insist that this be done as well.

Healthy parenting is not a democracy

“Healthy parenting is not a democracy,” writes Dr. Kent Hoffman, co-founder of Circle of Security International. “To feel safe and secure, children need to know that someone cares enough to be in charge - even when this includes the discord of making decisions that may be unpopular.”

Never lose sight of why you decided to enforce rules in the first place: namely, to maximise the benefit - and, let’s not forget, the fun - they get from their digital lives, while minimising the harm. In short: to help your child thrive. And that’s a goal worth sticking to.



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Topics: Cyber Bullying, Parental Controls, Screen time, Mobile Apps, Cyber Safety

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