Butting heads with your teen now and then over rules and privileges? Unsure how to set boundaries and stay consistent without always being the bad guy?
Teen therapist Lindsay Smith, LCSW and founder/director of Los Gatos Teen Therapy, shares her tips.
Remind yourself that setting boundaries is important, not mean. Teenagers push the envelope on everything; this is part of the developmental stage of adolescence. They challenge rules and push boundaries as a way to see where the boundaries really are. But if they push against boundaries that you don’t consistently enforce (you ground your teen for a week but two days later drop him off at the movies), they don’t learn the limits of acceptable behavior. Standing firm on reasonable boundaries makes teens feel safe—even if they groan and roll their eyes and plead with you.
Set up boundaries ahead of time—with your teen’s input. Teens need to clearly understand the rules and boundaries. Sit down and draw up a short list of the most important rules (curfew at 11 pm, no boys in her room with the door closed, etc.). Then take them to your teen and ask her what she thinks the consequences should be for each one if she breaks it. She’s likely to come up with something more stringent than you would have. Giving your teen a voice will help to create buy-in to your rules. Write down what you come up with and give your teen a copy, so there’s no confusion later.
Set both consequences and privileges. Consequences are the result of breaking rules (like being grounded after sneaking out at night). Privileges are things your teen works to earn (like the ability to drive the car to the football game—but only if he washes it first). Instead of just giving your teen privileges, allow him to earn the privileges. Both consequences and privileges are important in helping teens learn responsibility as they mature into adults.
Choose privileges and consequences that are simple, clear, and time-limited. If your son is late for curfew on Friday night, for example, a simple, clear, and time-limited consequence would be grounding him for the next Friday night. Or if your daughter wants the privilege of hanging out at a friend’s house on a school night, she can earn that privilege by getting all of her schoolwork done before she goes over. It varies teen by teen, but it’s usually possible to come up with privileges and consequences that are simple and logical.
Get on the same page with your spouse, partner, or ex. Parents need to present a united front to their child—setting and enforcing boundaries consistently—especially if you’re separated or divorced. If you’re having trouble setting boundaries for your teen with your ex, consider co-parenting therapy, which can help you both be consistent about teen’s boundaries. If one parent is the bad guy and one parent is the softie—or both parents are softies at different times or in different situations—it will be easy for your teen to manipulate you into getting what he wants, possibly with huge negative ramifications for both your teen and your marriage.
Stay flexible. It’s okay for boundaries to change over time or for different boundaries to be in place for older and younger siblings. The reason to give teens increasing freedom and responsibility—a car to drive, money to spend, the chance to make their own decisions about where to go or what to eat or who to spend their time with—is to give them a chance to grow and learn before they head out on their own. That means that it’s okay to extend his curfew when he turns 17 even if his 15-year-old sister doesn’t think it’s fair.
Don’t shield your teen from the consequences of her decisions, even if they’re harsh. If your daughter shoplifted and was caught, don’t pull strings to get her off the hook. Have her serve her community service time—all the while assuring her that you love her and support her, and that although she made a bad decision, she’s not a bad person. Allowing your teen to experience natural consequences helps her to learn responsibility.
Model healthy values. If one of your house rules is to treat other people with respect, treat your teen with respect even if he’s not showing you respect at that moment. If your teen is disrespectful to you and you’re disrespectful right back, it shows your teen that respect is not really that important to you. It is absolutely ok to calmly tell him that you need a few minutes to yourself before you continue the discussion. Then you can remove yourself from the situation, manage your own emotions, and return to the conversation with a level head—and a mature demeanor.
Enforcing healthy boundaries consistently isn’t easy, but it’s extremely important in helping your teen develop into a responsible young adult!
Photo: Joris Louwest/Flickr