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Setting & Keeping Boundaries for Teens

Updated 26 April 2017 Written by Deborah QuinnClinically Reviewed by Sarah Fletcher, LPC, LAC

Parents have a beautifully complex emotional connection with their teenager so sometimes it can be hard to know where to draw the line. What is the line between helping them too much or not enough? What is the line between being too harsh or too nice? What’s okay to let slide and when do you need to step in? The answer to all of these questions is that it depends. With practice, you can learn how to set clear and compassionate boundaries for yourself and your teenager. It is important to establish boundaries with your teen and to make those boundaries to be clear and consistent.

Staying within Your Boundaries

Your own boundaries are based on your values as a parent. These are lines you don’t want other people crossing, like your personal space. These are also lines you draw for yourself, like getting exercise 3 times a week.

One of the hardest boundaries to determine is when to rescue your teen. Most people would agree that they have learned the most from their mistakes and struggles in life, but when it comes to your kids, it can be hard to watch them make decisions that will cause pain. While it is a parent’s role protect their children from harm, there is a line that many parents overstep to minimize pain to their teenage son or daughter. Unfortunately, by reducing our teen’s pain, we are also limiting their learning. Here are some signs that you are overstepping your boundary:

  • Your child is upset, and you get even more upset.
  • You find yourself doing things for your child that they can do themselves.
  • You are emotionally dependent on your child for support and over-share about your life.
  • You are not saying “NO!” for fear of upsetting your child.
  • You are over-involved in their life and invade their privacy.

It may be hard to know where to draw the line between over, and under-involvement. Your role as a parent is to give your child the tools they need to manage their life. A way to check yourself is to ask before intervening on your child’s behalf: Am I doing this for them or am I doing this to manage my discomfort. Your child’s role is to figure out how to live their life, and part of that is testing the boundaries. If you have been diligent at staying within your boundaries as a parent, they will have a strong example to follow as they learn where their boundaries are (see the post on Parent as a Role ModelParent as a Role Model).

Building a Container for Your Child

Teens are wired to push boundaries. Despite their claims that they despise any rules, adolescents are much more at ease when they know what the rules are and what happens when they cross the line. Imagine if you were in a room and you didn’t know if the walls were stable. It would be hard to settle in; you wouldn’t feel comfortable leaning against the walls or attaching any shelving. That uneasiness is what a teen without a clear container of boundaries feels. Help your teen relax by building them a stable container to lean up against. Chances are you have already built them a container, and it can use a remodel. Here are some steps to follow in strengthening this container:

  • Establish expectations: Whether this is chores, school work, or even some core values that you want to see in the house, state what you expect. You can even have a household code of conduct hanging in the kitchen.
  • Define the boundaries and consequences: Communicate clearly what specific consequences will happen when they fail to do something. Establish consequences ahead of time for the most common issues and tasks. The consequences can be positive as well, like working towards a reward for doing household chores without needing a reminder.
  • Follow through with your consequences: If your teen crosses the line, dish out the consequence. You can do some compassionately, reminding them that you love them and also respect yourself and stand by your word. Once they experience consistent boundaries, they gain trust that you will do what you say.

Some teens learn faster than others, and it can be draining to maintain consistency. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you have a few slip-ups, use them as an opportunity to take accountability with your child and don’t be afraid to table something if you don’t have the energy to deal with it that very moment. Saying, “I am very upset about your disrespectful behavior and need some time to calm down, but there will be a consequence for your actions later” would be an excellent way to table something until you have the capacity to take it on.

Boundaries & Substance Abuse

Sometimes, especially when it comes to dealing with an adolescent struggling with substance abuse, it can be excruciating to watch your child continue to make scary and damaging choices. Finding the line between supporting your child and rescuing them is harder when the consequences of their decisions are more drastic.

Treatment for Teens with Addiction & Mental Health Struggles

Seek help for your teen if they continue to cross major boundaries. If your teen is abusing substances or alcohol, this may be connected to an underlying mental health issue such as depression or anxiety. Parents can become emotionally over-involved in their teen’s struggles, making it hard for them to support their teen in the best way. Sandstone Care offers a compassionate and structured container for teens struggling with substance abuse and addiction, as well as co-occurring mental health issues. Call (888) 850-1890 today to see if Sandstone Care is the right choice for your family.

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