Setting Boundaries for Your Teens

Is your teenager toeing the line, or out of control? Are you wondering how to set boundaries? Here’s help from some parenting experts, including Dr. Karyn Gordon, on how to establish boundaries and keep the peace on the home front.  

“It’s our job to teach our children the life skills that we want them to have,” says Karyn Gordon, Toronto-based family consultant and author of the new book Dr. Karyn’s Guide to the Teen Years: Understanding and Parenting Your Teenager. “If we want them to have a good, healthy sense of boundaries, we have to start in our home.”

Got a teen or two in your home? Here’s what you need to know about…

…why teens need boundaries.

Your teenager may act like he can handle anything. But he’s still struggling to develop his identity, and he craves the security that boundaries give him. Boundaries mean routine, and a sense of control over his life.

Sure, your kids may fuss about the house rules. “But structure is important in any group,” says parent educator Beverley Cathcart-Ross in Toronto. “They are living with others. We need an understanding of what’s acceptable in our home.” The key to getting their cooperation is to include them in the planning process.

…choosing the boundary areas.

Curfews, chores, spending, cellphones, TV, homework… they all may call for rules. But Gordon notes that if you started teaching boundaries when your kids were younger, a lot of them don’t need rehashing. Pile on too many directives at once, and your teen is sure to tune you out – or rebel. Plus as Calgary psychologist Scott Wooding, author of three books on parenting teenagers, points out: “The more rules you set and stricter you are, the more energy it takes to enforce them.”

Want your teen to pitch in more around the house? Be home by 10:00 on weeknights? Turn off her cellphone at suppertime? For now, “focus on two or three key things that you’re really wanting to change,” Gordon advises.

…setting the boundaries.

You’re more likely to get your teen’s buy-in if she has some say. “Get their input,” Wooding suggests. “It’s amazing how sensible teens are when you give them some responsibility.”

When you’re negotiating boundaries, make sure everyone is clear about expectations and time limits-be specific. What does picking up your room involve? What’s the deadline for doing homework? And be flexible. Your teen should contribute to the household, but maybe she’d rather take out the garbage than wash the dishes.

Are you setting a good example with your own boundaries? “What we model, we often get back,” says Cathcart-Ross. “If we’re going to be half an hour late coming home, we call our kids and tell them. It’s a two-way street.”

…dishing out the consequences.

And when the rules get broken? Discuss options with your kid – teens can be surprisingly fair. Gordon says the key to consequences is that they’re reasonable and consistent. “The consequence has to be enough of a pinch to motivate them, but not so big it overwhelms them.”

A consequence should also be immediate, says Wooding. “Teens have very short memories.” A grounding won’t kick in until the next weekend. “Removal of a toy or a privilege is more effective.”

…keeping the peace.

When it comes to hashing it out with your teen, timing is critical, says Gordon. When not to do it? When your kid comes home two hours after curfew and you’re ready to spit nails. Rather, everyone should be well fed, calm and relaxed and in a good mood if this pow-wow is to remain peaceful. “Give them a bit of a head’s up,” Gordon adds. “Say, ‘I want to talk about this. Tell me a time this weekend when we can sit down.'”

When you’re discussing boundaries, don’t dwell heavily on what your teen is doing wrong, or she’ll shut down. You’re here to address the problem, but you’re best to focus on the solution.

Then open your ears. You might share your feelings about the situation, and ask to work together on a solution. But your aim should be to see things from your child’s point of view.

As Cathcart-Ross points out, “Listening is one of the best things you can do with a teen.”

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