Setting and enforcing healthy limits with your teenager is probably one of the biggest challenges that you face on a daily basis. It can be quite tricky to know when to say yes and how to say no.
In this post I am going to share with you four important keys for successfully setting limits with your teenager. These thoughts are inspired by a book I have been reading called “Boundaries with Teens” by Dr. John Townsend. I would definitely recommend checking it out if this is an area of your parenting that needs to be strengthened.
Here are some things to consider next time you have a conversation with your teenager about your expectations and their behaviors.
1. Love: I am on your side
When you set limits with your teen it is likely to cause conflict and initially create separation in your relationship. That is why it is always important to start with love. Your teen needs to know that even though he drives you crazy, ultimately you are on his side and you really do care.
If you skip expressing your feelings and genuine intentions, your limits can feel like you are always trying to ruin his fun and that you really don’t care about what he cares about.
In family therapy, I help parents create more balance between enforcing rules and building positive connections. These are both important aspects of your relationship with your teen. However, without feeling secure in your love your teen will be more likely to resist your limits.
“Love also helps your teen begin to see that his behavior is the problem, not an out-of-control and angry parent.”
Many parents move too quickly past this step. Do you take it as a given that your teen knows you love him? This may be something to consider.
2. Truth: I have some rules & requirements
Rules and requirements are a fact of life, even though there are some adults who pretend this isn’t true. From speed limits to tax laws to the unspoken rules of friendships.
There are parents who give their kids love without limits. The Chinese proverb says, “Parents who are afraid to put their foot down usually have children who step on their toes” These teens often hold more power and control in the family than their parents. They are not well equipped for life.
Here is a helpful tip. The more immature your teenager is, the more specific you must be. It is easy to get mad when your teen doesn’t come close to meeting your expectations. You may need to spend a bit more time explaining and modeling how to follow the rules of the family. Don’t get mad, get clear.
“You are helping your child see that structure and responsibility are normal and expected in life.”
Check out this Family Communication Worksheet that I often give to my clients. This worksheet will help you get clear on your expectations and effectively communicate them to your teenager. Click HERE to download the worksheet.
3. Freedom: You can choose to respect or reject the rules
This one might make you a bit uncomfortable. Your son is no longer a toddler that you can physically restrain. It is impossible at this stage of life to have anything approaching complete control. In fact, there is little that you can actually “force” your teen to do.
This is a truth for you to accept and also to acknowledge with your teen. It could sound something like this. “I know you understand my expectations and I also realize that you have a choice to make. You can choose to respect or reject my rules. I know that I can’t make you choose the right thing.”
“Whenever you find yourself in the “you have to” and “I’ll make you” trap, get out of it.”
Power struggles with your teen often set up a lose-lose situation. Avoid this whenever possible.
I believe that teenagers respect adults who speak the truth to them and don’t try to control them. Your teen may fight and fuss, but he will have difficulty arguing with you if you are consistently clear, fair and honest. Don’t skip the step of acknowledging your teenager’s freedom of choice.
4. Reality: Here is what will happen
This key is about helping your teen understand the potential consequences for his actions. This applies to bigger life lessons as well as what will happen if he chooses not to follow your clear expectations.
It is important to recognize that your teenager’s brain is still developing the capacities for judgment, impulse control, dealing with right and wrong and rationality. This is a work in progress.
It is time well spent in helping your teen map out the cause-and-effect of his choices, preferably not when emotions and voices are being raised. Aside from clearly stating your chosen consequences, it is a good idea to challenge your teen to imagine the outcomes of his actions on his own.
“Consequences should be both said and done. Your teen needs to know what will happen on the other side of the line. He also need to experience what will happen on the other side of the line.”
The next time you decide you need to have a limit setting conversation, be sure to tell your teen:
- I love you and I am on your side
- I have some rules and requirements for your behavior
- You can choose to respect or reject these rules
- Here is what will happen if you reject these rules