Setting Boundaries With Your Teen

I really like homemade waffles—especially when they’re topped with real butter, Canadian maple syrup, fruit, a pile of nuts… and more waffles. I’m serious as a heart attack about that. But while I love waffles, I hate waffling. And I’m pretty sure God is not big on that either. In James 1:8, we learn that a “double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” And in Matthew 5:37, we read: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

This holds true for how we parent our children as well. That’s why when you set boundaries for your kids and teens, you had better make sure that you stick to your guns on whatever boundaries and rules that you’ve set for your family. This includes implementing pre-determined consequences for breaking those rules.

Rules Rule!

No one likes the word “rules.” It sounds—well restrictive. Yet who would argue the need for rules in a court of law, a school classroom, or just about any sport? Without rules, it would be an “anything goes” free-for-all! I’ve got to tell you… I hate stop signs and traffic lights… but I wouldn’t want to live without them.

Raising a family requires rules, too. Children need and want boundaries. The world makes more sense when they know what’s accepted and what’s not. Children feel safer when boundaries are explained and defined. And they find comfort in the consistency of parents who stick to their game plan.

If You Don’t Make the Rules, Someone Else Will

Make no mistake; you absolutely, unequivocally need a parenting game plan. Because if you don’t have rules in place, the world will. And without your rules to follow, they will follow the culture or a peer group that could lead to life-shattering issues. The culture is constantly telling our children they aren’t enough, trying to get them to eat, drink, party and even spend their way into acceptance. Kids often lose their true selves due to social pressures, opting to morph into whatever is popular or acceptable to their peer group. Many teens end up in a personal identity crisis in high school or even middle school, medicating with alcohol, drugs, sex, and other addictions.

So, how do you as parents keep your children from falling prey to these challenges to their true identity? It takes lots of prayer, unconditional love and clearly defined rules. Rules with relationship—because rules without relationship cause rebellion. And the most important relationship your child can ever have on this earth is with you. You—not their peers—need to be their most important role model. They need to have your love and acceptance, and home has to be a safe place for them to land each day after school. They need to know that your rules are designed for their best and that as their parent they can trust and rely on you at all times. And they need to see you living out your life and your faith in an authentic way. You can model being true to yourself, giving them the courage and permission to be real and true to themselves. Your home will then become a place that builds intimacy through love, humility and honesty. With this model, you’ll have a lot less need to exert external controls. Why? Because they’ll want what you have.

Rules for Cyber City

But until they are adults, your children need you to keep external controls in place. As I already stated, kids needs boundaries to feel secure. Take the area of setting boundaries for social media use—a big concern for parents today, and rightly so.

How many times have we heard news stories about pre-teens and teens getting into trouble on the Internet via some form of social media? Increasingly, this trouble is turning deadly. It did for Amanda Todd. At age 15, Amanda committed suicide after years of cyber bullying. She was just eleven-years old when it all began. First, she became a victim of a Facebook predator/blackmailer, and then fellow classmates bullied her—both verbally and physically. Inappropriate photos of herself— that she posted in an impulsive moment —followed her everywhere. No matter how many times she changed schools, she could not escape the torment.

In a televised interview with Amanda’s mother, it was clear that she had no clue as to what her daughter was up to all those years. There Amanda was, alone in her room with unlimited, unrestricted, 24/7 Internet access. She would stare into the video cam with endless fascination and at all hours of the night. When her mother told her that she couldn’t have the video cam, she whined and pouted to the point where her mother finally waffled and gave in. “I lost that fight” she later lamented with deep regret in her voice.

When I was Seventeen, I “Unfriended” My Parents

Honestly, it is all so preventable—if as parents you set boundaries and rules early on for your teens. And then stick to those rules. Drawing lines in the sand, and re-drawing them, and re-drawing them again is pointless as your teen will use your weakened resolve against you. Whatever respect you might have had from them, can be lost completely.

The following is just one example of how an increasing level of earned trust, in the form of setting boundaries, might go down in the area of social media use. (You can read more examples in my book, Tough Guys and Drama Queens.)

  • When you’re 12 years old, you won’t be able to have a social media page—be it Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever.
  • When you’re 13 and 14, you can have an account, but you can only check it once a day for 30 minutes (not 30 minutes for each one). We’ll have full access to all your posts, tweets, etc. You must “friend’ us on your Facebook so we’ll know what your posting.
  • When you’re 15, you can spend one hour a day on social media as long as it doesn’t take away from family time, completing your homework, or keeping you up so late that you can’t get up on your own in the morning. Oh … and we’re still watching!
  • When you’re 16, no more than two hours on social media and make sure that your language is appropriate.
  • When you’re 17, it’s all yours. We’re no longer watching. You can “unfriend” us.
  • When you’re 18, I hope that you’ll accept my “friend” request.

My purpose here in giving you this example is not to turn you into a clone of myself and my own parenting style—rather to give you an idea, or model of what it might look like. I can only tell you that these boundaries have worked well for myself as a parent.

Well Behaved Kids or Healthy Adults?

But again, you need to first have a well-defined worldview. Only then can you add clear boundaries and subtract strictness. In other words, your goal is not to have well-behaved kids, but well-adjusted and spiritually mature adults who have learned how to flesh out their faith in a rapidly changing society. You want them to shine as lights in a dark world. And the only way they can do this, is if you (1) allow your children to be exposed to opposing worldviews while they are still under your influence, (2) to lovingly speak truth to them when they’re exposed to error and (3) to be a strong voice of reason and wisdom.

In short, if you do your “God job” as a parent right, you’ll make that “forbidden fruit” (worldly enticements) as appealing to your teen as a rotten banana—because, after all, home and hearth is where the homemade waffles are!


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program.  Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.

Tough Guys and Drama QueensFree online course: Tough Guys and Drama Queens

This free two-week online course will help you to parent your teen in a counter-cultural way. You will  walk through topics like appearance, performance, authority and respect, setting boundaries, and many more.

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