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The Informed Parent

Setting Limits With Your Teen

by Sandra Smith, Ph.D.
Published on Nov. 01, 1998

Nancy, a 16-year-old teen, was brought to my office by her mother. Her mother expressed her opinion that this daughter was depressed, noting, "She and I NEVER fought before. Now, we fight all the time. It is very unpleasant in our home!" Nancy insisted that she was not depressed, and that, in fact, the problem was her mother! She stated, "My mother is mad at me all the time because of my relationship with Joe." Further discussion revealed that her mother did indeed disapprove of her daughter's choice for her first "real" boyfriend. She considered Joe to be a dangerous youth, indicating that he had a "reputation" for using drugs, skipping school and skirting trouble with the law. Nancy acknowledged that Joe had "problems", but cited his parents' lack of involvement in his life, and their poor role models, as central to Joe's difficulties. She considered her mother to be uncaring and unsympathetic in her approach to her boyfriend.

As therapy progressed it became readily apparent that Nancy and her mother were fighting different battles. Nancy's mother had realistic apprehensions about Joe's impact on her daughter, as well as a fear that she might marry him someday. Hence, she saw her "duty" as that of saving her beloved daughter from a fate worse than death. Nancy, on the other hand, was appalled by her mother's efforts to control her and her life. When her mother was able to acknowledge her feelings of love and protectiveness for her daughter, and ceased to focus on what Nancy considered to be her "constant criticism" of Joe, the situation was defused. Ultimately, Nancy ended the relationship.

Adolescence Implies Increased Responsibility

Adolescence is a period of increased responsibility. Behavioral control must begin to shift from the parent to the adolescent--but not totally. One of the most terrifying aspects of being a parent is the realization that adolescents must protect themselves--parents can no longer perform this function--and that they might not!

Limit setting becomes a critical issue during this vulnerable period of your teen's development. Parents can experience what feels like a overwhelming sense of guilt as they struggle to "let go" of their position as their teen's "controller". The focus of control must, nonetheless, begin to shift toward the teen. The teen is reaching a point in his life where he will, in fact, be considered accountable for his actions--by school and society in general. It is not in the best interest of your teen to believe that his parents will always be able to save him. In any case, most teens will vigorously resist being controlled by their parents--the last thing they want is to feel as though they are regressing to the period when they were helpless children.

How Do I Set Appropriate Limits?

The following are intended as guidelines--suggestions to review basic concepts that have already been learned but are often discarded or ignored as we struggle to behave as good and caring parents.

  1. Set and implement a reasonable set of rules.
    It is most important that parents have a consensus about what is important, and that they convey this philosophy succinctly and clearly to their teen. The most important rule of thumb is that of safely: if a behavior presents a significant risk to the teen's life, it must be forbidden. If a behavior is not life threatening, the second issue is that of character: parents must decide if an issue is central to character-building.
  2. All rules must have value and purpose.
    Rules have no value if the parent is not prepared to back them up: parents must truly respect the
    values they are holding forth to their teen. A "no drugs" rule will, for example, have little value to the teen if he is aware that his parents smoke marijuana or use alcohol to excess. Rules should also have a purpose, and that is to establish an understanding of cause and effect, e.g., "If I do X,Y will happen. Perhaps I would be better off not doing X." This growing awareness of cause and effect allows the teen the opportunity to begin to abide by a variety of rules which are, ultimately, imposed by society itself.
  3. State your rules clearly.
    Rules about home, school and work, and play must be made simple and clear to the teen. If two parents are present, both must agree on each rule--any ambivalence on the part of one parent will be quickly realized by the teen. There is not room for any uncertainty.
  4. Limit the number of rules you impose.
    Avoid being a "micro-manager". Instead, determine which rules you consider truly essential. Stated differently, "Pick your battles". Don't turn your relationship with your teen into a battleground by attempting to impose multiple rules. Instead, allow your teen to develop responsibility by determining most of his actions.
  5. Expect your teen to test the rules.
    Teens invariably test the rules. Doing so assures them that their parents mean business. The teen should experience an immediate consequence; this reinforces the teen's belief that breaking the rule is dangerous. Conversely, it means that keeping the rule offers him a sense of safety.
  6. Don't squelch: stick by your guns.
    Rules must be consistent and predictable. When parents keep their word, and deliver on promises made, it models reliability for their children. The same goes for teen limits: your rules will have no value whatsoever if you fail to back them up.
  7. Change the rules when it is reasonable and appropriate to do so.
    As the teen becomes increasingly responsible, he may naturally resent rules which seemed appropriate at a lesser stage of development. As your teen demonstrates greater and greater ability to run his life effectively, relinquish the task. Growing maturity on the part of your teen should inevitably result in a changing of the rules.

How Do I Enforce These Limits?

As addressed earlier, the most important guideline for enforcing your rules is consistency. Your rules must be applied to all of your children equally, and consequences to broken rules must occur with no deviation. The following guidelines are offered to assist the parent in maintaining this consistency.

  1. Make sure that your rules can be enforced.
    Orvin (1) tells an interesting story about a 114 pound mother insisting that her 200 pound son "remove himself" from bed; she threatened that if he failed to do so she would forcibly pull him out of bed. He called her bluff, and she left his room defeated and angry. Parents need to carefully think out what the consequence of the teen's behavior will be--to ensure that your prediction about a consequence will in fact occur!
  2. Make sure you are willing to enforce the consequence of your teen's behavior before you tell him about it.
    Enforcing rules is perhaps one of the most unpleasant tasks of parenthood. Try not to impose sanctions in the heat of anger. This often results in unreasonable demands on both the parent and the teen, i.e., grounding the teen for a month instead of a week. And, once you impose the sentence, you need to carry out if you plan to remain credible with your teen. Take some time for yourself to determine a reasonable consequence--better yet, try to negotiate reasonable consequences with your teen before the onerous act occurs. This may serve as an additional deterrent--a teen is less likely to break curfew if he realizes that he'll be house confined for a week afterwards!
  3. The punishment must fit the crime.
    Avoid severe and arbitrary punishments. A consequence must always be appropriate for the rule broken. Does missing curfew by 1/2 hour merit the same consequence as being found drunk in public? The teen's growing sense of responsibility is best served when he believes (although he may not acknowledge it!) that an appropriate parental response to his transgressions has occurred.

A Final Thought

Teenagers are usually ready for abstract ideas. Ask them questions that will allow them to begin considering their future responsibilities, e.g., "What kind of a father? mother? husband? wife? do you think you will be? Will you be able to meet your responsibilities to your children? Will they have an educated mother? father?" Reinforce the concept that, ultimately, their lives are not entirely their own, that others may well have an important stake in it. When you talk with teens about their future, and the responsibilites they will hopefully assume--they may begin to realize that they are not striving for us, but for themselves and their futures. They may then develop a sense that the rules are not for "us", but for them.



Orvin, G.H., M.D. Understanding the Adolescent. Washington, D.C., American Psychiatric Press, Inc., 1995

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