Setting Healthy Boundaries With Teens

The word “no” has a bad reputation- from toddler to teenager, using that word can create conflict. Parents may feel guilty when saying it and worry their kids feel unloved hearing it. However, “no” is a vital part of keeping teenagers emotionally balanced, safe, and healthy. Here are some tips on how to practice setting healthy boundaries with teens.

What are Boundaries?

The purpose of boundaries isn’t to punish your teenager.  Setting healthy boundaries with teens helps them feel safe. This is true even if they don’t recognize it.  To illustrate:

There once was a kindergarten that sat on the corner of two busy streets. Although the school had a nice playground, every day during recess all the students played right up against the building. The didn’t feel safe playing near the busy street.

Finally, the school decided to put fences around play area. Once the fences were installed, the kids played freely using the entire playground. The clear boundaries helped the students feel more secure.

As you work to provide a safe environment for your teenager, try thinking about boundaries like this:

  1. Boundaries Avoid Blame- It’s not about who is at fault, it’s about responsibility. You are not the problem, and guess what? Neither are they!
  2. Boundaries Teach Responsibility- When you consistently hold boundaries, you are being responsible. When they break them, they are not being responsible. Although it’s tough to remember this when feelings are involved, it really is that simple.
  3. Boundaries are about Choices and Consequences- Boundaries are about facts. What decisions were made and what will happen because of those decisions? Boundaries are not emotional, so don’t make them emotional.

Show Love While Holding Boundaries

Boundaries are only effective if your teenager knows they come from a place of love and concern. Here are some ways you can show your love as you set healthy boundaries with your teenager:

  1. Separate you from them. So you’ve set a boundary and there is conflict. Depending on your child, this could be anything from a full blown tantrum to passively isolating. Remember: when they are expressing frustration it is not about you.
  2. Identify what this is really about? Ask yourself: Is this about me?  Usually, it is not. When it’s not, it is time to investigate what it’s really about. Show you care by asking questions and really listening.
  3. Get on your daughter’s side. Make it clear that you want to face this issue together, but that will only work if they let you in.

Nurture a Connection While Holding Boundaries

  1. Empowerment- Hopefully, you’ve managed to make it clear you’re willing to connect, so now you can empower your teen. There’s nothing you need to do that they can’t do themselves.  So tell them that! When you let them handle consequences by themselves, you’re proving it’s not about you asserting your authority over them. It’s about respecting the boundary.
  2. Non-Judgment- Once your teenager is empowered, let her make decisions without fear of judgment. This means you may need to work on your perspective a little bit so you honestly are not judging them.
  3. Empathy & Even More Love- If your empathy, love and trust is not real, they will be able to tell. Work on your perspective or talk to a therapist. Do whatever you need to do so you can honestly empathize with your teen’s reality and show them unconditional love.

Practice Setting Healthy Boundaries

No one holds boundaries right the first time. It takes practice. Here are two ways you can improve your boundary holding skills:

  1. Role-Play– One thing you can do is reach out to people you trust and role-play the situation. If you’re stressed about a conversation you need to have with your teenager, call a friend or family member to talk it out. Choose someone impartial who will give you honest feedback. Of course, practicing with a mental health professional would be ideal.
  2. Identify what is yours- As a parent, you already have dozens of big responsibilities in your life. Really ask yourself: What am I willing to take responsibility for today? Decide what is yours, help your teen see what is theirs, and make peace with the word “no.”

Setting healthy boundaries is a vital part of keeping teenagers emotionally balanced, safe, and healthy. As you practice, you’ll better be able to show your teen that you’re holding boundaries out of love and as a way to improve your relationship.

Emma Cone is a Residential Director at New Haven Residential Treatment Center