When your teenager is testing the limits of what they’re allowed to do, it can be a difficult process for you as a parent. Suddenly your adolescent daughter has her first boyfriend and now she wants to stay out until midnight. Or, maybe your thirteen year old son has tried pot for the first time. What are you supposed to do?
1. Be collaborative. Teenagers have a mind of their own and it should be considered. While they are not the final word, it’s important to include them in the discussion. What do they think are appropriate boundaries and why? Have your teen submit a draft of a contract to you outlining what they think they should have. It’s tempting to believe they’ll write things like “no curfew” and “unlimited computer and phone time,” but they almost certainly won’t. Usually they will write in things that push the limits of what you have allowed them so far, but won’t push the limits very far.
2. Create a contract. Once you have a proposal from your teenager, go over it with their other parent. If you’re married to their other parent, this is easier of course. If you aren’t married to their other parent, while this is a challenge, ideally the same rules will be enforced equally in both houses. Together with their other parent, create a contract for your teen. It should include boundaries for grades, electronics, socializing, dating, drugs and alcohol, disrespect, chores, and any other things you think are relevant to your child specifically. Each item should have an upper and lower limit. Here’s an example of what that means: You will earn a minimum of a 2.5. If your GPA drops below a 2.5 you will be grounded from social activities until it’s back at a 2.5. If you earn a 3.2 or higher GPA you will have demonstrated to us that you are working hard in school and can handle the responsibility of being social on weeknights as well. In other words, your contract should have both positive and negative consequences for each item.
3. Only set enforceable limits. It doesn’t do any good to make up rules you have no ability to enforce. Don’t tell your teen they cannot have a boyfriend or girlfriend when you can’t control who they talk to at school. This will just cause them to sneak, and you to have to punish when you find out. If you don’t want them dating it’s much better to set a limit in a way that is enforceable, such as “No dating one on one until you’re [insert age].” This is something you can control much more easily than whether they have the title of boyfriend or girlfriend.
4. Enforce your boundaries. This is the most important of all the tips in this blog. Once you set a rule you must enforce it, no matter what. A lot of parents I work with come in complaining their teen doesn’t respect them. When we dig into the reasons why, one thing that happens is they set a rule, but then negotiate with their child when it’s time to enforce the rule. If you’ve told your teen that texting after 11pm results in their loss of the phone for 24 hours, then you need to take the phone for 24 hours. This needs to be unemotional, no discussion, and quickly executed. Excuses and tears cannot change how you approach boundary enforcement. Also, your consequences should be very well known to your teen ahead of time because they will have signed the contract that says what you’re going to do.
Boundary setting sounds overwhelming with teens. However, it’s actually quite simple if it’s done clearly and consistently. They appreciate having a contract if they’re allowed to contribute to what’s in it. If you randomly set rules, randomly enforce them and don’t let your teen have a say then they’ll hate it. That’s when they’ll fight you on it and feel frustrated. Having well set boundaries with your teenager leaves room for a fantastic relationship with them.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT