Parenting during the teen years can feel like trial by fire. Not only are adolescents programmed to push back against their parents and assert their independence, but risk factors like drugs and alcohol use can mean that experimental behavior has serious consequences. Many parents grapple with how to give their teenagers enough freedom to grow and mature, while still keeping them safe.
“Trust and boundaries are the connective tissue to one another,” Davis says. “Kids need to know we can count on them and they can count on us.”
Here Davis, who is a family counselor, shares his tips for establishing boundaries early on, and reestablishing them if needed so that a healthy parent-child relationship can flourish.
Many parents start worrying about boundaries when their kids are in the later teen years, when they are really beginning to live independent lives. However, Davis says that setting boundaries early on, when children are much younger, makes them easier to stick to during the teenage years.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he says. “When you don’t have boundaries, it’s hard to establish them.”
Davis says that families should start explaining expectations to children early and often. Healthy boundaries, he says, mirror healthy relationships: they’re based on open communication and respect, without relying on manipulation or shame. Parents should be sure that their kids know what is expected of them, and consistently stick with the boundaries and expectations they have established.
Embrace Boundaries as Positive
Initially, it’s easy to think of boundaries as constraining or restrictive. However, Davis says that in addition to being part of any healthy relationship, boundaries are actually freeing for children and teens.
“There’s a whole lot of freedom in knowing our boundaries,” he says. In sports, boundaries help define the game. When training animals, boundaries and expectations lay the groundwork for success. Kids and teens are the same, Davis says.
“The more boundaries and expectation they have, the happier they are because they know their limits and it teaches them healthy adult interactions,” he says.
Prepare for Pushback
Ideally, parents would have started establishing boundaries early on in their children’s lives. However, if that didn’t happen or if the boundaries have been eroded over time, parents should expect that their kids aren’t going to be happy about the change initially.
“That’s the first rule of thumb: if you haven’t ever held hard boundaries, prepare for the worst,” Davis says. Parents should confront their fear over the kids’ reactions, then start introducing healthy boundaries slowly.
“It’s one boundary at a time,” Davis says. “You can’t have 50 boundaries up front but you can have one.”
At Clearfork Academy, Davis reminds parents that even when boundaries have slipped, they can still establish—or reestablish—healthy habits.
“That’s what we communicate every day: this has gone south, you guys haven’t done the correct things but it’s never too late,” he said.
Choose Your Moment
Oftentimes, parents want to begin using strict boundaries when their children are in crisis, dealing with issues like substance abuse or legal trouble. But this can backfire.
“Don’t pick a time of chaos to try to have boundaries,” Davis says. Parents should establish rules and boundaries as a way to teach their children about healthy relationships, not as a means of punishment.
“Boundaries are pre-determined criteria to help navigate the relationship, not crisis-management tools,” Davis says.
Davis recommends getting through the crisis with professional help, then working to establish new family norms.
“The rules need to be completely lined out top to bottom for the kiddo,” he says. “Parents should say ‘Here are our family values. We’re not going to allow you to go against these in our home.’”
Be Willing to Look at the Whole Family
If a family is in turmoil, it can be easy to blame the child who is acting out. But Davis says that more often than not, a teen’s behavior is symptomatic of bigger issues within the family unit.
“Usually there’s not just one person in the family who has poor boundaries,” he says. “More often, it’s a systematic issue, that the family doesn’t have norms or a boundary system.”
In these instances, the whole family can work together in a group therapy setting to help establish a vision for their family. By involving teenagers and other kids in this process, parents encourage them to become invested in the system.
“You can give them some buy-in, meet in the middle, go from there,” Davis says.