4 Steps to Set Healthy Boundaries for Teens

By Jennifer A. Williams October 07, 2017
All parents hope their children will become respectful, responsible, and loving adults. However, family and work lives are extremely busy and hectic. Time collapses like a cheap cardboard box and soon the months turn to years and toddlers turn to teens. Parents find themselves stumped by the teenage years and completely unprepared.
 
As parents, we can slip into inattentive parenting from sheer exhaustion. Genes alone cannot give children emotional control. Sorry to disappoint but no gene guarantees emotional intelligence. This critical development is up to parents. Children cannot learn how to calm themselves or cope with life's challenges without the right ingredients. They need opportunities to build and practice important thinking and feeling skills. And we can't teach what we don't know or understand. Parents must understand the essential building blocks of emotional fitness for success as parents.
 
Teens on their cell phones

What are the ingredients and skills? For starters, a child needs to learn how to calm themselves. And before they can calm their emotions, they need to have an awareness of their feelings. After understanding their emotions, they need to learn thinking skills that guide actions. Making effective decisions requires delaying gratification. If they are to achieve meaningful goals, such as a earning a high GPA, it requires knowledge and practice.

Self-control
and empathy are learned through thousands of daily interactions over many years. One of the critical emotional intellegence (EQ) skills learned over time is how to set limits. Healthy limit setting is vital for making sound judgments and modulating emotions and behavior. Limit setting creates safety and success in the following areas that can be troublesome in the teenage years:
  • dangerous risk-taking
  • adverse peer influence, such as drunk driving
  • obsession and addiction to technology
  • self-destructive behaviors, such as binge drinking or drugs
  • failing academically (studying requires focus and saying no to other distractions)

The primary way children and teenagers learn to set limits and boundaries is by parents setting healthy boundaries and limits for them, especially during sensitive periods of brain development.

Parenting that Cultivates Emotional Control

There are certain parental responses that preteens or teens need to develop
self-control and healthy boundaries. Below are some vital ingredients to help provide a road map for emotional development:
  • A calm and accurate mirror for the child's feelings, so that the child or teen can see clearly and better understand what they are feeling
  • Understanding and empathizing with their experiences and challenges
  • Firm and consistent limits that are appropriate for their developmental stage
  • Modeling of healthy expression of emotions
  • Open-ended questions to encourage meaningful dialogue

Don't Be Nice, Be Real!

Children build emotional maturity by experiencing loving and firm responses from their parents. One of the most effective ways for parents to provide the ingredients listed above is by taking responsibility for their own emotional well-being. But more importantly, by being real. Sometimes we as parents try to be kind or patient too long when acknowledging our frustration could be more helpful.

By accepting our own shortcomings, we model acceptance. When we show patience for ourselves when we make a mistake, we model tolerance. When we apologize after reacting, we model responsibility. Every time we extend compassion, we teach compassion and our children grow in emotional fitness.

Whether you're struggling with rebellious teens or parenting an emotional preteen, below are some keys to help you provide the building blocks for your child's unfolding emotional nature.

Vital Keys for Setting Healthy Boundaries

KEY 1:  Calm your own emotions before responding to your teen.
If you need to calm yourself before responding, do it! Say, "I'll handle this when I've had some time to think about it." Or "I'm ready to blow. I'm going out on the deck to calm down." Or "I'm not ready to talk about this; I'm too upset." Wait—whether a minute or a day—before responding to your teen. Staying calm under pressure is a great model for your teen as well.

KEY 2:  Know what you want and ask for it.
Sometimes as parents we can react and get upset with our teenager without actually knowing what we want. Make sure you know what's important and ask for it directly. Don't wait until something is wrong to communicate your boundary. Also, get curious about what your teen wants and what's important to them. Seeking understanding paves the way for easy resolution in conflicts.

KEY 3:  Reflect back your child's emotions.
The more accurately you can mirror back your teen's emotions, the more they integrate the understanding of their emotional experience. When we react, they don't get to feel, own, or resolve their own emotions because the situation becomes about our upset and what we're feeling instead. With an accurate mirror, the teen can better understand their feelings and take effective action to be their best and handle stress more effectively.

KEY 4:  Describe what you see and how their behavior affects you.
Let children and teens know your observations ... without judgment. By specifically describing what you see, you help your child connect the dots and realize that emotions affect our bodies and our relationships. For instance, "Your face is showing a lot of stress. Are you upset about something?"

Father and teenage son talking over a situationSometimes a preteen or teen will say they are fine, but their body language says otherwise. In this case, it is important to point out to them that what they're saying is different than what you see. When you point out this discrepancy, your preteen or teen can then check in with their own internal experience and own a feeling they may have been avoiding. This also lends itself to a possible dialogue, giving you an opportunity to mentor.

Often, all a child needs to shift is the acceptance of their feelings. And at other times, they need to know how their behavior affects us. For instance, we might say, "Whoa! That's some intense energy coming my way. It looks like you could use some time to chill." Or "I want to hear what you have to say. I'll be in the kitchen when you're ready to talk to me respectfully." Or "I get that you're really angry. You have a right to your anger but not to dump it on me. Let me know how I can support you."

Emotional maturity is a process of growth, not an arrival point. Be compassionate with yourself. Be present to your own experience, and from a strong and centered space, respond to your teen.

For more on parenting teenagers, take a look at our other articles:
Keys to Turn Defiance into Healthy Self-esteem and Is Teenage Rebellion Normal?

Posted in Parents: Permission to Be Imperfect, Emotional Intelligence & Fitness