Parenting: Discipline When Your Child is 20

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Your child is not, technically, a child any more; he or she is 20, over age in a couple of states; past the age of consent in others. But he needs discipline; boy, does he. What do you do? There are two answers to this. One is: You better do it; it's never too late. And the other is that you actually have a few things going for you that you didn't earlier.

So if the first answer is that you better do it, the real question is how?

You certainly can't yell, fight, threaten, or "lose it" or you may as well throw in the towel.

How to do it? -- With the least display of emotion, the most neutral tone, you take away what you can, such as the car keys and money. You don't do his laundry any more or cook his meals. No explanation, no discussion, no threats, nothing. Now pay attention to the strategy here: If you don't go lecturing and threatening, you just take it away, then he'll have to come after you asking what's going on. See? And your reply? -- Very cool. Something like, "I'm really sorry. You know I wanted to lend you the car. I got a tickle out of thinking how you'd matured and you were responsible and all. And then you went out with that Rob, after you assured me you wouldn't, and, I just don't feel secure and safe lending you the car. Believe me, I'm more disappointed than you are." When you don't deliver the message with anger, he has nothing to fight about. When you want to be on his side, he really has nothing to fight about. Strategy. See? Here are the things that you have on your side: 1. The child is no longer a child so he or she has to be responsible, to some extent for food, clothing, and shelter and you can, indeed, use these as bargaining chips.

2. The child is now capable of logic, depth, and philosophy which you can emplopy to help him or her see the prospects for the future of various paths. It's no longer just about holding disciplinary measures over his head as I discussed in The Leniency-Criticism Syndrome, Good Parenting Equals Good Discipline, and Good Parenting Requires Skill at Creating Consequences. Now, you can have a nice, friendly, logical discussion about Life and this could be a very powerful tool when used in a spirit of kindly sharing rather than finger-wagging.

3. The child is an adult, already participating in the real world, yet, if you have a good connection, a bond with each other, you can use that bond to draw him or her in. That is, your blessing, when gently and respectfully given if deserving, and when politely and with sensitivity, withheld if not, is also very powerful. The operative word here is tact. If you handle it well, you can get that child back on the right side.

The story that prompted these thoughts on my part is very sad. Years ago, a couple brought me a son of 20 who admitted to me serious drug abuse. This young man deeply loved his parents and they could have used that love to their advantage, but they didn't take advantage of this powerful tool. They also enabled him like crazy, slipping him money, catching him when he would fall, like bailing him out of his suspension from college for not showing up, and so on. So they didn't make him pay and they enabled him. What they did do, or at least one of them did, was to yell when the heat got turned up too high. What do you think that would provoke a substance abuser to do? You got it! (In case you didn't know, the answer was "use.") Well, one day, he was driving DUI, and let's just say he didn't make it home. Parents, don't say to me, "It's hard to discipline my adult child." I know it is. It would have been a piece of cake if you'd disciplined him when he was little. But don't tell me it's hard. It's too bad. Do it anyway. You might be saving his life.

Perhaps some concrete examples will help. Point #1, above, is what they teach in Tough Love, but be careful. Some of the stories I've heard don't make sense. For example, no, you don't throw a kid out on the street because he is using or abusing substances. Sure, you don't want him or her stealing from you and bringing bad companions into the house, but you don't teach him anything by having him out on the street. You notice the guys with the signs on street corners? That could be your son. Or she could be murdered while turning tricks. That is NOT where you want to go. Look into substance abuse treatment programs, juvenile work camps, court diversion programs, or, if need be, jail. Anything where he has some kind of a prayer of structure, discipline, and responsibility being taught. Obviously, you're taking a chance. He could become influenced for the worse in jail; it's a matter of luck what that experience will be like and I'd do some heavy praying on the side. But jail, where the odds are maybe 50/50 that he will learn from the criminals is still better than the street where he will definitly, 100% learn more crime.

Point #2 refers to everything that was discussed at length in the article How to Talk to a Child. How do you invite a real conversation when you've been tongue-tied for your whole life? Just do it. I promise it's not that hard and the rewards are not measurable. The key to success is to be understated, gentle, not a hack-man. If you're having big trouble with this, go to a football game; go have fun with your kids first. Let the conversation come later.

Finally, regarding Point #3, I want you to count the number of nice things you say to your adult child. Now is certainly the time if you never did it before. I promise it is never too late to create a relationship.


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