When a teenager doesn’t have boundaries, he does what seems right in his own eyes.
Contrary to what most moms and dads think, teens really do want rules. Rules help keep them headed in the right direction and prevent them from ending up in a place that they don’t want to be. When coupled with consequences, they help the teen more easily resist temptation and the inappropriate scheming of their peers. Having a good reason to say “No” comes as a relief to a teen raised to know basic moral values. Deep down, teens understand this, no matter how much they push against the rules, bend them, break them, and balk at them.
To be effective, rules need to be based on the boundaries you establish in your home, which are even more important and foundational for a child to learn. Boundaries aren’t the rules; they are the fence posts placed around behavior. They are the delineation of how a family’s beliefs are to be lived out; the “I will” and “I will not” statements that are the basis of our daily living and interaction with others. They help everyone in the family take responsibility for their own behavior, improve their choices, and know if they are headed into dangerous territory.
Boundaries define what you will and won’t accept, and should come from what you believe is right for your teen at this stage in his life and for your family.
An example of a boundary might be: “We will treat each other with mutual respect.” If you believe that respect for one another has merit (I certainly do), then your boundary will include showing respect to those you live with, and teaching family members to respect authority and those outside the family as well. Being respectful means: not taking things without asking, not talking badly about another, not leaving a mess, not calling names or mouthing off. On the positive side, being respectful means: celebrating one another’s successes, helping each other out when it’s needed, asking permission before using something that is not yours, or standing up for other family members. You fill in what you consider to be respectful and disrespectful practices.
Did you notice in this example that boundaries are about every member of the family, not just the kids? They are more about setting an accepted lifestyle and mode of interaction for everyone in the home, versus specific do’s and don’ts. If the boundaries are completely understood, then rules almost become redundant. For instance, “respect” would also cover issues like theft, honesty, caring for others, taking care of one’s belongings, etc.
Boundaries ensure each family member takes responsibility for themselves and their own actions.
Boundaries include what your child already knows, what you’ve taught them all their life. But sometimes teens get confused by “childhood” rules within those boundaries and rules that are lifelong. For instance, the boundary, “We will avoid unnecessary risks and dangers,” would include holding mom’s hand as you walk across the street as a child. This would of course not be appropriate in the teen years. Rather, it would shift more toward wearing a car seatbelt, a bike helmet, and not taking medications without a parent’s permission or doctor’s prescription in the teen years. But another typical boundary, “We will avoid illegal activities,” is a lifelong boundary. It never changes, other than according to changes in the current laws. The goal, then, is to make it clear to your teen which boundaries and related rules are now appropriate for him, according to the values you hold dear and just common sense (you may have noticed that teens don’t always have a lot of common sense).
Boundaries aren’t just to corral behavior, but they are also for protecting teens from their peers on the other side of the fence. For instance, a teen girl should establish her own personal boundaries in regard to her body and not allow others to cross those boundaries with her. Talk to her about those boundaries, so she solidifies them in her mind before the situation arises.
How to Establish Boundaries
Parents can begin to establish boundaries by picking their top ten or fifteen deeply held beliefs and then identifying boundaries for each. Think about and write down different real-life situations and how far things can go before your family boundaries will be violated. Having too many boundaries can confuse the whole family and make it impossible to grow and adapt, so keep it simple.
Here are some examples of boundaries (yours may be different):
- We believe our home is a refuge, where there should be mutual respect for one another and for each other’s belongings, time and personal space.
- We believe in truth and honesty, so we will tell the truth (including the whole story). We will not bend the truth, gossip untruths or exaggerate.
- We believe that having positive and uplifting communications is important, so will not use inappropriate language, cussing, swearing, off-color stories, or yelling in anger.
- We believe that there is nothing good that can happen after midnight, so everyone should be home.
- We believe that excellence is important, so we expect everyone to do their best in what they do, including work, chores and school.
- We believe that faith is an important part of life, so we will participate in the activities and the fellowship of others in our church.
Boundaries Demand Rules and Consequences
If you wonder why teenagers behave irresponsibly, well, it’s because they are irresponsible. And, they will not become responsible or mature, or wise, until they engage in the process of dealing with the consequences of their choices and behavior. It is a cycle that needs to happen over and over before a teen comes to full maturity.
So, the next job is to create specific rules and then consequences for breaking those rules. That’s a job best developed by the whole family, so they feel as though they have contributed. You’ll be surprised how harsh your teen will make their own consequences, so it will be your job to make those more reasonable. And don’t forget to make the consequences escalate for each continued breach of the rules and match consequences with the severity of the infraction.
“Every one, though born of God in an instant, yet undoubtedly grows by slow degrees.” – John Wesley
The point is this: your teen needs to learn how to make good choices. When they know in advance what the boundaries are, what the specific rules are, and what the consequences will be, they’ll more likely be able to make a better choice. At the very least, they’ll not be shocked and feel “ganged up” on when consequences are applied. “Mom might ground me for this” simply isn’t a concrete deterrent. Instead, “I’ll lose my cell phone for a month” is a clearer and more direct deterrent that will stick in the teen’s mind.
Keep In Touch
Boundaries are important. But teens are still prone to test them in every possible way. So, as you develop and enforce healthy boundaries it is important to spend time with your child on a regularly scheduled basis to discuss them. This makes it clear to them that no matter what decisions they make; your relationship will not be affected. Set up a weekly breakfast or dinner where you can talk, one to one. Avoid rehashing past mistakes but talk about better choices that can be made in the future and how those will positively impact your teen’s life. Help them begin to set goals and think about their purpose in life. And be sure to begin and end your discussion with making sure your child understands that there is nothing they can do to make you love them more, and there’s nothing they can do to make you love them less.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.org. You 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.