Setting Boundaries With Teenagers: Navigate These Turbulent Years With Love & Firmness

Remember when you were a teenager? Every emotion was big, every incident a melodramatic moment with life-altering consequences. Remember when you transitioned out of that phase into adulthood?

We didn’t think so. The teen years feel big and deep and hugely important when you’re in the midst of them. But as we grow up and grow older, those dramatic surges begin to ebb and we deal with life in a much more balanced way.

That doesn’t mean you’re done dealing with them, however, not if you have a child (or children) who are teenagers. As any parent coping with a 13 or 16-year-old will tell you, the teen years can be particularly trying, especially when it comes to setting boundaries for them.

And they are supposed to be trying years. After all, from about ages 12 until 19, children are meant to test limits, test their own abilities and skills, and test their parents’ patience in the process.

But navigating these years can be done with grace and fewer upsets if – and it’s a big if – you, as parents, employ consistency and calm when dealing with them. Here are a few strategies you should remember the next time your teenager has your temperature rising.

1. Pick your battles and stay calm.

If you make an issue out of every pair of jeans left on the bedroom floor, sooner or later your lecture about tidiness falls on deaf ears. Don’t nag – make your point clearly and firmly, then let it go. Let a week pass before raising it again, and only if your teen has completely disregarded your request to clean their room every weekend.

2. Be consistent in your message and ensure there are consequences.

Your teen knows when you’re issuing empty threats or ultimatums, such as: “I’ll take away your cell phone if...” Never level big threats like that unless you truly plan to follow through. And make sure the consequence fits the “crime.”

3. Be an excellent role model.

For example, do you wish your teen would engage more at family functions? Check your own behavior; do you become impatient with an elderly uncle or irked at your own mother over trivial matters? Remember: children model what they see, and not as much as what they’re told. They have been reading your visual cues since birth, so make sure you’re asking them to act in the same way you do.

4. Explain the differences between privileges and rights.

Your teen may think they’d just die without a cell phone, but of course they wouldn’t. Giving them one is a privilege they must not abuse, perhaps by racking up international roaming charges or continually losing them. The same goes for the teen’s driver’s license – letting them use the family car comes with responsibilities (no drinking, home by curfew, etc.) that must be respected.  Their rights include food, shelter, housing – other items, like phones, fancy sneakers and clothes and myriad other small luxuries, are privileges. To keep these things, your teen should obey the rules and boundaries you’ve established. Tell them precisely what will happen if they do not abide by these guidelines, and follow through.

5. Careful with your timing, but act promptly.

It’s easy to lose your temper if it’s two o’clock in the morning, your 17 year old is two hours late and the car has a dent in the front left bumper. When they walk through the door, resist the urge to “pounce.” Explain how worried and disappointed you are, but save the “big talk” until morning, when everyone has had a chance to cool down and get some rest. If your teen has a reason for not contacting you about coming home late (forgot their cell phone, maybe?) listen closely and again, be sure the consequences fit the infraction. If it is a first offence, perhaps a lesser action is appropriate, but it’s important they know what they did was wrong, and that their actions cannot go unanswered.

6. Treat your teenagers equally.

The days of treating boys more indulgent than girls are over; this is the 21st century, and your children must be treated equally.  If you have a 15 year old boy and a 13 year old girl, any differences in how you set boundaries for them must be based on the discrepancy in their ages, not the difference in their genders.

7. Keep communicating and spend time with them.

The boundaries you set register most if you set them when you and your teen are both calm and in a positive frame of mind. That’s why spending time with them, doing an activity you both enjoy, is the perfect opportunity to clarify what you expect of them. Let’s use the example of taking them to their favorite spot for pizza, and asking them questions – about school, about friends, or about who they’re dating. Don’t criticize or blame; simply express interest in what they are doing these days and the people they are spending time with. Don’t set an agenda during this outing – make it solely about keeping current with your teen. You may be surprised at how a teenager opens up when they don’t feel attacked or criticized.

8. Do it all with a lot of love.

No matter how angry you get at certain moments, always make it clear that their boundaries are for their protection, and that you’ve set them out of love and concern. If your teen feels truly loved and respected, they won’t resist the boundaries as much, or feel tempted to cross them.

Navigating the teenage years can be stressful for parents, particularly if your child becomes moody, sullen and even angry at times. But your family will get through these years, providing you behave in the way you’re hoping your teen will – respectfully, responsibly, and always from a place of love and concern. Try to remember that the teen years are a necessary – and temporary – phase of growth and maturation, a phase that can be unpredictable, but one that you and your teen will survive if you’re bonded tightly together.