Tackling misbehavior in older kids and teens

Aug 13, 20217 minutes read time

Key points:

  • Teenagers can act up because of increased emotional sensitivity or a desire for independence.

Parenting is a lifetime gig. Once you’re through the sleep deprived younger years, it’s time to tackle the highs and lows older kids and teens can bring. Little people, little problems. Bigger people, bigger problems. To help you out, we’ve checked in with the parenting pros on how to navigate this tricky time in your kid’s life.

Family Man is expert-backed and 100% free.

What works when older kids misbehave

Some of the strategies covered in Family Man, such as giving stop-start instructions, are applicable for older children. However, others such as time-out, aren’t appropriate for older children or teens.

The steps for older children are:

  1. Get your child’s attention. Keep your voice calm and your focus fixed.
  2. Repeat stop/start instruction. If they haven’t followed your first request, it’s time to repeat in a calm and neutral way.
  3. Provide a consequence. If they haven’t followed two requests it’s time for a meaningful consequence.

Effective discipline for misbehavior

Logical consequences

These consequences are linked to the problem behavior.

  • If your child breaks something, the natural consequence would be that they help to fix it, where possible.
  • If they play on an electronic device for longer than the agreed time, then they would get less time the next time they use it.
  • If they use more credit on a mobile phone than what was agreed, the credit is reduced for the next month.

Logical consequences work best when they are brief and reasonable, and there is opportunity for the child to show the correct behavior.

It is not always possible to find a consequence that fits the misbehavior. You might need to take away privileges instead.

Taking privileges away

You might have already tried this one. Have you ever removed privileges, such as the use of the phone, or television or another electronic device, as a consequence for misbehavior?

This approach can be effective, but works best when it is a ‘task specific’ consequence.

What do we mean exactly? A task specific consequence is when your child needs to achieve or practice a targeted behavior in order to earn back their privileges.

Let’s use an example. Say your child doesn’t make their bed, and it’s a household rule to have a clean room. Your child is allowed to play on the Xbox for 30 minutes a day, so as part of the consequence, you decide to reduce their Xbox privileges to 15 minutes a day until they are able to show that they can make their bed for 3 days in a row, after which you will increase their time back to 30 minutes. If they continue not making their bed, you may take the Xbox privileges away completely, until they are able to demonstrate 3 days in which they consistently make their bed.

Like logical consequences, taking away privileges works best when they are brief and reasonable. If the privilege removal is too harsh (e.g., loss of Xbox for a week) then it tends to not work so well, as there is no incentive for your child to show the correct behavior.

Make a behavior contract with your kids

Here’s another idea to try. Behavior contracts are designed to motivate positive behavior. They are a good strategy for persistent or ongoing misbehavior. These are clear contracts in which goal behaviors, motivators for good behavior, and consequences for misbehavior are clearly outlined. Behavior contracts work best when developed together with your child or teen, and should be frequently reviewed.

How to develop a parent-child behavior agreement

Think your child or teen is too young to be dealing with contracts already? Think again.

You’ll want to get them involved in the process though. This ensures they fully understand the rewards and consequences for following or not following the contract. They should also be involved in deciding on these. This gives them ownership of the document.

Make sure to write the behavior contract down – this will make it easier to follow and enforce. Below are some steps to follow, and an example of what a behavior contract might look like.

  1. Identify a behavior (or behaviors) that need to be improved.
  2. Outline the expectation for each behavior. Be clear and specific about what positive behavior looks like, and how you expect your child to behave.
  3. Outline the rewards and consequences. Discuss with your child/teen and decide on what will happen when your child does the right behavior, and what will happen when they misbehave.
  4. Set a date that the contract may be revised or negotiated. Negotiation should be based on the amount of progress made, and reviews should occur often.
  5. Both parent and child/teen sign the contract.

Example of a behavior contract

My contract

These are my goals:

  1. To speak nicely
  2. To stay calm

These are my consequences if I don’t meet my goals:

  • Losing Xbox time (15 minute time slots). If I don’t speak nicely my usual 30 minutes of Xbox time will decrease to 15 minutes a day. If this continues, I will have no time on the Xbox each day.
  • Losing TV time (15 minute time slots). If I don’t stay calm my usual 90 minutes of TV time will decrease to 30 minutes a day. If this continues, I will have no TV time each day.

These are my motivators/rewards if I do meet my goals:

  • Extra Xbox time. If I speak nicely and stay calm for 7 days in a row, I will receive an extra 15 minutes of Xbox time each day for the next week.
  • If I can meet my goals for a week, I can take a friend to the movies on the weekend.

My contract will be reviewed on:


Signed by:



Parent talking to a misbehaving teenager

Dealing with misbehaving teens

Having hormonal teens in the house is no walk in the park. As children move into adolescence, there are unique physical changes occurring. These changes create an increased desire for independence. They also result in increased emotional sensitivity. In other words, it is likely that there will be times when adolescents push boundaries and have what seem like ‘over the top’ emotional reactions. Both of which may lead to increased conflict and tension within the home. Fun times.

It’s common for parents to worry about responding to misbehavior when their children reach this stage. Some adjustments are needed when it comes to discipline approaches.

The strategies above for older children can also be applied to teens.

Here are some things to try.

  1. Develop a set of shared family rules. Establishing a clear set of family rules is important. Family rules work best when there are a small number that are easy to follow, and that are easily enforced and positive. A good set of family rules will also be realistic for your older child/teen and should be applied to the whole family.
  2. Strengthen your relationship. The better the relationship with your teen, the less tension and resistance is encountered when limit-setting is needed. Find ways to connect and enjoy each other’s company. Quality time with older children and teens should still involve your attention and participation. Similar to quality time with younger children, it’s important to find activities that you both enjoy together.

Examples of activities for this age group might include going for walks, visiting a museum or gallery, watching a movie together and discussing it afterwards, taking an art class, baking a new recipe, visiting a dog park together, or working in the garden.

Mom and dad disciplining an older child

When problems occur, follow these steps with your teen:

  1. Brainstorm the possible solutions to the problem together. Once you both agree on what the problem is, the next step is to come up with possible solutions. Try to get creative and come up with as many ideas as you can.
  2. Discuss each solution together. Weigh up how likely it is that each solution will work, whether it’s an appropriate strategy to use and any problems that might arise.
  3. Choose the best solution together.
  4. Plan a strategy. The next step is come up with a plan of action. This means you’ll both know what to do if/when the problem does occur.
  5. Review how the solution to the problem went. This provides another opportunity to show you care, and to strengthen your relationship.

When to seek professional help

If you’re worried about your teenager’s misbehavior or it’s having an impact on the family, it might be time to consider professional help. If you are worried about alcohol or drug use, or escalating behaviors at school, try contacting the school counselor in the first instance. They might provide some additional strategies and suggestions for managing the situation.

Ride the waves

Whether you’re dealing with a tween or a teen, it’s about learning to ride the highs and lows that come with this stage of your child’s life. As your kids get older your relationship with them shifts and changes. The activities you can do together grows as well. This can mean fun times and also some challenges ahead. Try the expert-backed tips above and hold on tight and enjoy the ride.

Want to nail child discipline? The best go to strategies are covered in Family Man.

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