Parents frequently ask me for support in figuring out how best to set rules and expectations for their teenagers. This can be tough to navigate, especially if the teenager pushes back (which they are wont to do) or the parents aren’t sure how they “should” approach boundary setting (there are no “shoulds”; there is no manual).
I humbly submit, from a therapist’s perspective, thoughts on how to create a safe structure from which teenagers can explore:
Give clear and defined boundaries (and make them as wide as possible).
We want to create a space for teenagers to be able to explore and grow, while insuring that they are ultimately safe. This is tricky business, because it sometimes appears like there are potential land mines everywhere, and we have our own memory banks of near-misses and stupid decisions to contend with. I encourage you to take a deep breath, make contact with your inner teenage self, and think about what kind of rules you might have appreciated from your caregivers. Some of us wish we’d had a longer leash. Others wish there had been more stability and firmer structures. Whatever your point of reference is, start there, and then consider the individual needs of your own teenager (hint: if you don’t know what these are, ask them. They likely have some good ideas).
Make your boundaries firm and defined to prioritize safety, and allow plenty of room for roaming and mistake-making within them. The goal is never to make teenagers into perfect cardboard cutouts. The goal is to support them in discovering and becoming who they are.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
This one is hugely important. For whatever reason, many of us in positions of authority are drawn to making a list of exhaustive rules and regulations, regardless of their actual real-life value or relevance. A good rule of thumb is: set as few rules as possible, and make sure they are necessary. This simplifies the process and keeps everybody sane.
To give an example: if your teenager is on her phone late at night, has difficulty getting up in the morning, and her grades are suffering because she’s not completing homework, it’s a good opportunity to set a boundary around phone use. However, if your teenager is on her phone late at night, gets up on time, is doing well in school, and makes up for the lost sleep with a few naps here or there, I gently suggest that a rule doesn’t need to be set there. She’s learning about her own limits and keeping everything together. Let it be.
Allow the teenager to be part of the process.
If an adolescent is not given room to be part of a decision-making process that direclty impacts them, the process is rarely a success. Moreover, the teenager is robbed of the chance to build trust in, and to begin to consider boundary-setting for, themselves.
If rules are going to be set, it’s important to take the time to hear out what the teenager wants. This does not mean that the teen is setting the rules, simply that they are given room to be heard and taken seriously in the process. Ultimately, the authority figures make the final decision, but taking the time to consider the teenager’s perspective goes a long way in setting the system up for success, and in fostering a trusting and respectful relationship.
Boundary-setting does not have to be agonizing. Approached with intentionality, creativity, and thoughtful consideration for all involved, the process of creating structures and boundaries from which teenagers will operate and explore can be valuable and (relatively) painless.