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Make and Enforce Clear Rules For Your Kids

Make Clear Rules and Enforce Them

Make Clear Rules and Enforce Them With Consistency and Appropriate Consequences

Would it surprise you to learn that parents permissiveness is a bigger factor in teenage drug use than is peer pressure? If you let your child know up front that you don't approve of using tobacco or illegal drugs, or underage drinking, your child is less likely to use those substances.

Making rules, explaining the need for them, and enforcing them consistently are important. Parents need to establish regularly enforced rules to guide their children in developing daily habits of self-discipline. Research shows that parents who have either very harsh rules or no rules at all are more likely to have children who are at greater risk for drug-taking behavior. Parents who have a warm relationship with their children, while maintaining rules for behavior, can teach children self-discipline.

Action Steps To Make Clear Rules and Enforce Them With Consistency and Appropriate


  1. Discuss your rules and expectations in advance. Let your child know the consequences of broken rules or unmet expectations. These rules can apply to schoolwork, chores, behavior at home, and behavior outside of home.

  2. Follow through with the consequences you have established. If your child breaks the rules, it's important to follow through with the consequences you discussed. If you don't follow through, you send the message that your rules are not really important and that it's okay to break them. Children really do want you to show you care enough to set limits and enforce them.

  3. Acknowledge when they follow the rules. Catch your child "being good" and praise him for it. Take every opportunity to support your child's decision to follow a rule or to meet or exceed your expectations. Positive reinforcement helps your child develop self-confidence and trust in his own judgment while seeing the benefit of following your rules.

  4. Discuss why using tobacco and illegal drugs and underage drinking are not acceptable. Let your child know why you don't want her to use drugs: you love her too much to ever want her to get hurt or get into trouble. Talk together about your family values. Remember, when a child decides whether or not to use alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs, a crucial consideration is, "What will my parents think?"

What Is an "Appropriate Consequence"?

Appropriate consequences will vary based on the age of your child, the seriousness of the situation, and your child's personality. Here are a few examples that may help you establish your own guidelines.

Possible rewards for good behavior might be:

  • Extra time on the computer
  • Extra phone privileges
  • One-half hour later bedtime (assuming it doesn't interfere with needed sleep)
  • Having a friend over for dinner on a week night
  • Having a friend stay overnight on a weekend
  • Tickets to a concert or sports event
  • More television viewing time

The opposites could be viewed as appropriate consequences for breaking rules:

  • Less time on the computer
  • Phone privileges taken away
  • No later bedtime/earlier bedtime
  • No friends over during the week
  • No friends over during the weekend
  • Tickets to a concert or sports event taken away
  • Less time to watch television

When possible, try to relate the consequence you impose to the behavior they exhibit. For example, if you have established the rule that homework needs to be done before going out to play, a logical consequence of breaking the rule might be no outside play until the homework is finished.

Teaching Self-Discipline

Children who learn rules and consequences early in their lives begin to impose their own rules, modeled on yours, on themselves. Teach the child "When-then." "When you set the table, then we eat." "When you finish your homework, then you can watch TV." "When you save $15, then you can get a new video game."

Keith and Seth's Story

Keith loves being a dad but hates being a disciplinarian. He would much rather spend Saturday morning playing catch with his 12-year-old son Seth than monitoring his progress cleaning the basement - a consequence handed out for not getting home on time. On the other hand, Keith knows firsthand what it's like to grow up without limits.

"I was wild. I did just about everything a kid shouldn"t do. Smoked, drank, cut school, was disrespectful. I never got called on any of it until I got arrested, and then it was like, "Whoa. What do you mean, I'm going to jail?" I finally got the message that for every action there's a reaction. I think a lot of why I was so wild is that I was starved for discipline. I wanted some order in my life, some security. Those were lonely times. I don't want Seth to ever think I don't care about him or how he acts. That's why I sit down with him and share my experiences and tell him why I have these rules, why I don't want him to do certain things. He knows that if he makes a bad choice, he needs to be prepared for the consequences."

Rules and Consequences for Breaking Them Are Important Because...

Some Kids Use Drugs To Take Risks and Rebel

Taking risks is part of growing up. Children may take an emotional risk by letting someone know that they don't like what they are doing. They may take a physical risk by testing their balance climbing up a tree. They may take a social risk by introducing themselves to someone they don't know.

To grow, a child must learn skills that, as adults, we may take for granted. For example, we may forget how hard it was to go to our first dance. We had to risk that no one would ask us to dance, that we would not be able to dance very well, or that someone would make fun of us. For a child, these are big risks.

As children approach the teen years, almost everything holds some risk because everything 29 feels so new and unexplored. As risks are overcome, most young people continue to look for other new, challenging opportunities.

Parents can help children take healthy risks. These risks may include trying out for a play, joining a community youth group, or going on a survival skills training course. It's important to do so because youth who don't grow and learn with positive challenging opportunities may look for other risks to take. However, they will be unclear about boundaries and unsure of rules and expectations. So, if they are not clearly guided into making smart and healthy decisions about these risks, they may think it's okay to include using alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs as part of that risk taking they are trying on.

Some youth may think that using these substances will help them prove that "I'm cool. I can handle anything." This desire to feel grown up, combined with media images of people drinking, smoking, and taking drugs, send a message to some young people that it's ok to take this risk.

By stating and enforcing clear rules and expectations about the use of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs, you can help ensure that your child is less likely to view using drugs or alcohol as an acceptable risk.