How to Discipline a 12-Year-Old

Parenting a 12-year-old poses some interesting challenges.
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Raising a 12-year-old in today’s world is much different from just a decade ago. From smartphones and computer games to bullying and peer pressure, there are many new parenting challenges during the tween years.

The lure to be like a teenager, yet the desire to still be a kid, can lead to a variety of behavior problems in 12-year-olds. Many parents often struggle to find the best discipline strategies for this in-between age.

About 12-Year-Olds

It’s common for 12-year-olds to become irritable and short-tempered at times, especially with their parents. A budding shift in independence and hormonal changes are often behind the problem.

Your child may want to spend more time in her room by herself. She may also be less interested in participating in an as many family activities.

Many 12-year-olds struggle to find exactly where they fit in. So don’t be surprised if your tween starts to experiment with different personas. She may want to dress a certain way one week and then, insist on something completely different the next.

It’s also common for 12-year-olds to experience highs and lows in their self-esteem. Your child may declare he’s awesome one day and call himself a loser the next.

Behavior Problems

At one point or another, your 12-year-old is likely to declare she no longer needs rules or guidance anymore. Despite her claims of being self-sufficient, however, she'll likely overestimate her ability to make good choices.

So when you set limits, be prepared to hear, “You don’t understand!” or “That’s not fair.” Your 12-year-old may insist that you’re being unreasonable and overprotective.

During this time period, some parents take a big step back and others have trouble letting go. So don’t be surprised if some of your child’s friends seem to have few rules while others seem to be treated like young children.

Consequently, your child is likely to compare herself to her friends. You’ll probably hear, “But all of my friends get to stay out late! Why can’t I?” or, “I’ll be the only kid in the whole school who doesn’t get to go to the dance!”

Your 12-year-old may develop sneakier ways to get around your rules too. She may lie about what she’s doing or who she is talking to. Or, she may conveniently forget to tell you her friend's parents won't be home when she's visiting.

Your 12-year-old may also try to do things that she’s not old enough to do—like open a Facebook account. Without appropriate intervention, she may take on more than she can handle.

Discipline Strategies

It's normal for 12-year-olds to break the rules sometimes. But, it's important that your discipline strategies teach him to make better choices in the future.

Your goal should be to help him learn how to behave like a responsible person, even when you're not around. Here are the most effective ways to discipline a 12-year-old:

  • Praise good behaviorAlthough your 12-year-old may act like she’s grown-up sometimes, she’ll still respond well to praise. Point out her good behavior when you see it. Just make sure you use to praise to build your child's character, rather than her ego.
  • Take away privilegesWhen your 12-year-old breaks the rules, he’s showing he’s having trouble handling his responsibilities. Taking away a privilege for a specified period of time can teach him to be more responsible next time. Consider taking away his electronics for 24 hours or don’t allow him to visit with friends.
  • Use restitutionTaking away a privilege isn’t always enough. If your child does something that hurts someone else, restitution may be in order. Work with your child to identify a suitable way to make amends, such as doing an extra chore for calling his brother a name or loaning his video game to his sister after he borrowed her phone without asking.
  • Apply Grandma’s Rule of DisciplineShow your child that she has some control over when she earns privileges. Avoid power struggles by saying, “You can play basketball as soon as you clean your room.” Then, leave it up to her to decide when to start cleaning.
  • Create a token economy systemEstablish a reward system that allows her to earn tokens for good behavior. Then, let her cash in her tokens for small privileges, such as time on her electronics and big rewards, like eating out at her favorite restaurant.
  • Allow for natural consequencesYour 12-year-old should be able to clearly identify the link between behavior and consequences. So sometimes, the best teaching tool might be to step aside and allow him to face natural consequences. If he’s careless with his own property, he might break it. Or, if he forgets his basketball sneakers, he might not be allowed to participate in practice.

Prevent Behavior Problems

A few simple strategies may go a long way to preventing behavior problems before they start. Here's how you can encourage good behavior from your 12-year-old:

  • Avoid labeling your child. Referring to your child as, “the athletic one,” or, “my little artist,” isn’t a good idea. Even labels that are meant to be positive can be harmful. As kids grow and mature, their interests and abilities are likely to shift. Labels could cause your 12-year-old to feel pressured to live up to the labels you placed on him when he was younger.
  • Explain your expectations ahead of time. Many behavior problems can be prevented by explaining your expectations up front. So before your child goes to a movie with a friend or before you drop him off at the town pool, explain your rules ahead of time. Make it clear what you want to see from him and what you expect him to do if he encounters any trouble.
  • Tell your child about the underlying reasons for your rules. Make sure your child knows why you establish your rules. You don’t want him to think, “I have to go to bed early because my mom’s mean.” Instead, teach him he needs to get sleep because it’s good for his brain and his body. When he understands the reasons behind your rules, he’ll be more likely to make good choices when you aren’t there to enforce them.
  • Monitor your child’s day-to-day activities. Although your 12-year-old will likely want a lot of freedom, he won’t yet have the decision-making skills to navigate all of life's challenges. So it’s important to keep an eye on his activities. Know who he spends time with, where he is going, and what he’s doing online.
  • Give your child some freedom. On the other hand, avoid being overprotective. Kids need a little freedom to make mistakes and solve problems independently. Giving your child choices now can prevent bigger acts of rebellion later.
  • Teach anger management skills. Many behavior problems stem from anger management issues. Proactively teach your child how to deal with day-to-day frustrations, such as an unfair call in the soccer game or a last minute change in plans.

Problem-Solve Together

Whether your child is falling behind in math class or she’s struggling to resolve a disagreement with a friend, it might be tempting at times to solve your child’s problems for her. But rescuing her from pain or preventing her from solving her own problems could do more harm than good.

By age 12, it’s important for your child to be able to tackle many of her problems with guidance, rather than assistance. So instead of telling her what to do, or resolving issues for her, sit down and problem-solve together.

Ask questions like, “What do you think you could do about that?” Then, brainstorm a variety of solutions together.

Help your child evaluate the pros and cons of each choice. Offer feedback and guidance about which steps she can take.

Encourage her to advocate for herself as well. If she doesn’t understand her homework, don’t call the teacher on her behalf at the first sign of trouble. Instead, encourage her to ask for help.

If your 12-year-old is really struggling or she’s dealing with serious problems—like bullying—it’s important to provide more support. And you may need to intervene on her behalf if she’s not able to resolve the issue on her own.

Review Rules Periodically

Your 12-year-old may be outgrowing some of the rules you’ve followed for a while. It’s a good idea to periodically review rules, such as bedtime or how much freedom you allow.

Explain that rules are based on your child’s ability to show you he can handle more responsibility. So if he gets his homework done and does his chores without a reminder, you may be able to trust him to be more independent.

Invite your child’s input on the rules once in a while too. Use it as an opportunity for her to practice expressing her thoughts and ideas in a socially appropriate manner. Just make it clear that the ultimate decision is up to you and you won’t cave to whining, complaining, or disrespectful behavior.