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How to Set Appropriate Boundaries For a Teenager

Teens are hardwired to push boundaries and break rules. But they'll be less likely to if you abide by these principals.

Teenagers have an instinct to push boundaries parents have set for them. It’s enough to make parents wonder if they should even bother. But boundaries remain important for teens trying to figure out their own limits. Of course, all of this means that conflict is almost unavoidable — parents want kids to follow the rules and listen to them, and teens remain annoyed they don’t have more independence. So what is a parent to do?

“You want to be mindful with what is important to your family,” says Lisa Howe, a family therapist and parenting coach based in San Diego, California. “Some families may have a rule, for example, that they don’t use phones at the dinner table. Some families may not care. But the rules are specific to your family,” she says. In other words, good boundaries are rooted in the values that are important to the family.  

How to Set Appropriate Boundaries With Your Teenage Daughter

  • Set rules that are actually important to your family. If screen time is a problem, make rules about screen time. If your teen can self-regulate, there’s no need to battle over it.
  • The most important boundaries should be around health and safety. Don’t be restrictive or authoritarian. Be reasonable.
  • Don’t take a teenager pushing boundaries personally. That’s what they are hard wired to do.
  • Choose your battles. Not every single thing should be a fight. If your kid wears a dirty t-shirt, let them.
  • Give kids chances to make right by rules they continue to break and let them explain their thinking before meting out discipline.
  • Don’t be afraid to get your kid a therapist if you suspect they may be struggling with more serious issues than regular teenager-dom.

Howe stresses that the rules shouldn’t be arbitrary. When it comes to boundaries and rules in the family, health and safety of children should always be the number one focus. Having a rule about not wearing a dirty t-shirt with a hole in it, for instance, is not really related to health or safety. But one soda a week is a rule that might correspond to a health-conscious family’s values.

“Especially as kids get older, and they’re really testing limits, and wanting to have increased independence, parents can feel like it’s an affront. Parents tend to dig in their heels,” says Howe. But she notes they should pick their battles carefully. Not everything needs to be a fight or a conversation. “We don’t have to attend every argument or power struggle we’re invited to.”

They should also give kids the benefit of the doubt. There is trust to be cultivated in conflict around boundaries. If a teenager has a curfew that they continue to miss, for instance, parents need to give their kids a chance to explain why they were late before they move right into a punishment.

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“Maybe their friend had been drinking and so they didn’t want to get a ride home with them and then before they knew it, it was late because they had to walk home,” Howe offers. “It’s not always going to be a fantastic, reasonable excuse. But discipline really needs to guide and to teach.”

The teaching comes in asking the teenager what they should do different the next time and offer suggestions. Empathy is important. But so is explaining why the rules are there in the first place. In the case of some curfews, the repercussions could be legal.

If a teenager still can’t get it together after repeated conversations and solutions, mom and dad can lay down the law. The important thing to remember is that when teenagers repeatedly break the rules, it’s because they’re really trying to figure out what they can get away with. Parents need to stand firm but do so compassionately.  

And of course, if a teenager pushes past the boundaries of normal behavior and runs afoul of health, their safety or the law, parents should feel empowered to get professional help in the way of a school counselor or a therapist. “There is still a lot of stigma about that,” says Howe. “What I have seen both with people who come to me for coaching or people who have sought out therapy, every single one of them wishes they would have done it sooner. No one comes and says, ‘Gosh. I came too soon.’”