I am often asked about what are acceptable boundaries for our teens and how to go about implementing them. The quick answer is: yes they need them, but there is no ‘one size fits all’; and implementation is a process, not just a knee-jerk reaction. Boundary setting is something you need to do well in advance. It should only be done when those involved are calm. It is not an authoritarian act, but one that must include your teen.
Things to consider when setting boundaries:
What is the reasoning behind the boundary lines?
This can be pretty easy: safe/healthy use of screen-time; reasonable expectations for social activities; chores/home obligations; attitudes and behaviours and so on. But then you have to work on the reason why, not just the what. I find that it is a good idea to work through things in a journal or notebook first. It might sound crazy, but writing things down requires you to think things through. This is really important because you are going to need to defend your boundaries when you are implementing them.
There are a number of things you should be very clear about in your heart and mind when defining boundaries. Have a heading on the top of your page with the behaviour/activity. Then list what it is you are worried about in relation to the behaviour/activity. Be honest. Are they rational? Do you have good reason to fear? Or is it just fear coming from a place of love (which is perfectly acceptable reasoning to set boundaries by the way)?
Where is your teen at developmentally?
You would benefit highly to consult a reference to the developmental stage that is indicative of the age of your teenager (good resource here - just skip to the adolescence part) Maybe list down a few things that you can see your teen showing which places them in a certain stage.
Now reflect back on your fears and see if their displayed behaviours warrant that fear? You must be mindful of not making them guilty of things they are innocent of: there is a difference between what you fear and what they may actually be doing.
Flexibility and growth
The whole point to boundaries when raising teens is to allow flexibility for those boundaries to expand, and also to retract if needs be. As teenagers are not usually the best at knowing what is safe or otherwise, it is our role to assist them in the learning process of these things.
Risky behaviours need to be identified and appropriate boundaries put in place. But then the next stage is to explain the type of behaviours/choices/attitude/decision-making they need to show in order for the boundaries to be relaxed over time. You need to have a clear idea of what you are wanting to see from them in order for them to ‘level up’.
It is not only their growth you need to consider: you may also need to grow a little. The task of setting boundaries may require you to work through some of the things on your list; do you need to let go of some things or work through them? In other words, is the ‘fear’, actually, your issue?
Consequences must - must - be proportionate to the boundary breach. If you go straight to ‘removal of all civil rights’, (in teen-world that could mean wifi access), then you have nowhere to go after that. Too many parents fall into the trap of going full guns blazing into the ultimate punishment for the first boundary breach, and then they find that they have nowhere to go. I can assure you your teen could very likely stuff up again, and then you are left with nothing.
You also have to be mindful that not everyone gets things 100% right the first time and then every time. If your teen stuffed up, was it a genuine mistake? Was it a circumstance that they have no control over? Maybe they are breaking a curfew because they are helping a friend in dire distress? Always find out what the full story is before you lay down the law. List a few options of what might be acceptable consequences, but keep in mind this is a suggested list.
Once you have sorted through some things on paper, and you are 100% happy with where you feel the boundary should be set, it is time to discuss with your teen. I feel it is absolutely imperative that you discuss with your teen, if not then you are going to certainly encounter objections, resistance and minimize any active participation and ownership in the boundary line from your teen. I encourage you to use phrases like ‘proposed boundary’, ‘open for discussion’, ‘willingness to change’, ‘evidence of responsibility’ and so on.
Start with outlining the behaviour/activity in question and list your concerns about it. Talk through why these are your concerns. Explain that, given their developmental stage, the reason why the behaviour/activity needs a boundary. Maybe give an example as to when they showed why you think they might need the boundary where you are proposing; a time where they used bad judgement?
Encourage your teen to see if they can identify what the risky behaviours are and inquire as to what they deem as appropriate measures to keep safe, and what should be the consequences if boundaries are breached. Use negotiation skills that are calm, respectful and rational. Allow your teen to talk and process things. This should not be an argument or seen as an inquisition. It has to be a two-way conversation. Make sure you are displaying the type of behaviour and speech that you want to see in your teen.
The next step is to explain the type of behaviours/choices/attitude/decision making they need to show in order for the boundaries to be relaxed a little more. You are teaching them to grow so give them a clear understanding of what it is that you want to see form them. Explain that ‘one offs’ are not usually enough, but will be acknowledged and appreciated. Give your teen a reason to abide by the rules, not just a reason to fear of breaking them.
Finally, you might wish to record the agreed rules and put it somewhere where your teen can see it - often. But if they are older, or more mature, then maybe you just need to agree verbally, or even throw in a ‘pinky-promise’ (still has currency no matter what age/stage). You will also need to record/reiterate the agreement when the boundaries can be relaxed or tightened.
You need to be conscious of when your teen is doing the right thing as well. This is harder because we do not tend to notice good behaviours, only the bad. How good would it be to be able to sit your teen down and say ‘you have shown me over the last few months that you can respect the rules and I can trust you, therefore I am extending your curfew by an extra half hour if you are happy to maintain using the Life 360 app* on your phone. Because, you know that I need to know you are ok and the app gives me peace of mind.’
‘Fairtrade negotiation’ is do-able with your teen. You just need to have a well thought out, considered viewpoint and be willing to invest time in discussing with your teen, and being open to their thoughts. Be honest with yourself and them. By providing them with the framework of decision making and role modelling calm negotiating skills you will make future boundary setting easier. You are not only setting a good example, but you are supporting them to develop cognitive skills in risk management and responsibility.
By including them as an equal party at the negotiating table will result in them being invested in the rules and develop their ability to make better, safer, healthier decisions in the future.
Good luck. You’ve got this!
*Life360 is a mobile app I used with my mid to late teens. It is a gps tracking app that we all use when we are out in the evenings or somewhere that is outside the norm. It was negotiated as my teens had given me no reason to not trust them, but my fears of the 'big bad world' were influencing how many times I said no to them. This gave me a little more peace of mind, and them security in knowing where we were as well.