In a recent Parental Guidance group sponsored by Playa Christian Church, a discussion broke out about the effectiveness of written behavioral contracts and using explicitly spelled-out boundaries for teens. We processed a scenario involving a 17-year-old, Stephanie, and her mother, Maya, who reported sitting Stephanie down for a serious conversation, “Things need to change with us,” she began, “I’m going to set some boundaries with you because I honestly can’t keep dealing with you, my job, and all the stress of life that is happening right now. Starting today, you need to stop skipping school, stop drinking, and start focusing more on life.”
Stephanie retaliated in anger by yelling and reviewing a litany of grievances she held against Maya. Then she stomped out of the room. The next weekend Stephanie was back to drinking. “I guess the next step is to send her somewhere,” Maya reported, “to an adolescent unit or boarding school.”
We all agreed that things were bad in this scenario, something needed to be done. But what?
Let me begin by clarifying that boundaries are not just about giving your teen marching orders and then expecting them to salute. Setting and maintaining good boundaries is a process that involves four principles that serve as the pillars of good parenting. These principles are interdependent. Just as a four-legged stool cannot stand on three legs, so it is that the elimination of one of these principles will cause disharmony in the home rather than enhance it.
1. Love: I am on your side.
To the best of your ability affirm your teen by letting them know that you have their best interest at heart. Do not assume that this goes without saying. It doesn’t. Teens need to hear you say it. Also keep in mind that, at the outset, setting boundaries will always separate the parties involved. Setting limits is not an easy process and things may get worse before they get better. In other words, conflict over guidelines is natural, normal, and to be expected. Teens feel persecuted so they resist. Love will help your teen hear what you are saying, understand the necessity for defining permissible and impermissible behavior, and tolerate consequences.
Think about it this way, how do you feel when someone gives you a hard truth? In order to accept those truths we need to be convinced that the other person protects our confidentiality and is on our side. Otherwise you end up dealing with hurt feelings, anger, and unforgiveness,
Words like the following go a long way in the heat of the moment:
“I’m not mad, I don’t want to punish you,”
“It’s not that I don’t care about you.”
“I’m doing this because I want the best for you.”
This approach helps teens become aware that their behavior is the problem as opposed to an angry, out-of-control parent. If you are only setting boundaries and you are not weaving into the conversation words of edification and validation, you perpetuate the false belief that their biggest issue is getting away from you – the upset and angry parent.
2. Truth: I have some rules and requirements.
Truth exists in the form of rules, requirements, and expectations for your teen. Many times rules do not work for a variety of reasons. For example, a parent may establish a rule without properly defining how it will be evaluated. Another mistake may come as a result of a rule being developmentally inappropriate for the teen – it may be too early, or too late for the teen’s age. This makes parenting groups very important as a way to process your intentions and bounce ideas off of one another.
Too often parents may feel weird or mean about establishing rules of any kind for their adolescent. If you encounter apprehension about fulfilling this role as a parent or making this kind of provision for your teens, you should view these feelings as problematic. Studies show that adolescents who have clear, age-appropriate boundaries and expectations from their parents tend to be more emotionally stable and accomplished as adults than teens who do not.
Once you overcome any apprehension that may cause you to hesitate, the next step is to make sure the rules are documented in writing and posted in the home. The apostle Paul says, “where there is no law there is no transgression.”
3. Freedom: You can choose to respect or reject the rules.
At first glance, this seems crazy. Why would I give my teen permission to ignore the rules? Well, you are not. You are simply reframing the relationship in contrast to the past. Whether you realize it or not, you cannot force your teen to choose to do right. This explicit mindset establishes the true nature of the situation. Your teenager is no longer a child. Don’t worry though, the correlation of you embracing this reality is for your teen to embrace the reality that they will, increasingly, be held accountable for their own behavior. The goal for successfully parenting a teen through the stages of adolescence is to transfer the locus of behavioral control from the parent (external) to the teen (internal).
This is scary. But think about it, what would you do in a conversation like this:
“It’s time to clean up your room.”
“What if I don’t?”
“But you have to.”
“What if I don’t?”
“Well, there is no ‘what if’ you just have to.”
“But you can’t make me.”
The best way to avoid the “you have to”/”I’ll make you” trap is by acknowledging the limitation but introducing a consequence.
“You are right, I can’t make you but you are not going skateboarding with your friends who are on their way over until your room is clean.”
Freedom to choose poorly is necessary to learn to choose well. Of course freedom has a limit. If the problem is life-threatening or dangerous, you certainly should not allow it. If your teen is extremely defiant or proves to be untrustworthy, consequences may escalate so far that intervention becomes necessary in the form of involuntary hospitalization, arrest, or residential treatment programs. But the idea is that there is a logical and appropriate progression of consequences.
4. Reality: Here is what will happen.
If your parenting technique only involves the first three principles above, your teen will assuredly be on the road to an undisciplined and out-of-control lifestyle. Reality here refers to consequences. That is, if they choose to utilize their freedom to reject the rules they must experience consequences. Your objective as a parent is to reflect the reality of what life is like outside the home. Generally speaking, good behavior brings good results and bad behavior brings uncomfortable results. This is the biblical law of sowing and reaping.
Good consequences are both communicated and acted upon.
For example, if your teen skips school, rather than having you advocate for them in the school system you can cooperate fully with the school and whatever detention they establish. In addition, you can ground them from going out with their friends for one week for every class missed.
Finally, no matter what your parenting style, it’s helpful to avoid the extremes. Relying on authority and fear may have worked early in a child’s life, but teens are more likely to rebel. On the other hand too much freedom leads to dangerous situations and raises doubts about whether or not they are really loved. It’s also wise to involve teens in setting boundaries for themselves. They will be more likely to understand and respect the limits, as well as respecting you as the parent for setting them. To insure that the rules remain fair and appropriate, revisit the rules from time to time rewarding responsible behavior with increasing independence.