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Discussing Boundaries and Expectations with Your Teen

One of the most difficult parts of parenting is knowing how to set healthy boundaries and expectations with your teenager. Adolescence is a time when children are looking to define themselves and push boundaries. Naturally, this is not a stage in life where most children are particularly receptive to parents’ concerns. However, finding the best approach to setting boundaries and expectations is a necessary step in addressing behavioral issues and encouraging children’s positive development into independent, healthy adults.

Setting Expectations Via Authoritative Parenting

Parents should set firm boundaries which define what behaviors and outcomes are acceptable. For instance, parents may implement a limit on technology use, or an expectation that the child keep their grades up to a certain standard. At the same time, parents should approach such topics with empathy and a willingness to listen to their child’s input with an open mind. This approach is consistent with an authoritative parenting style.

Authoritative parenting contrasts with authoritarian parenting, where parents adopt a harsh, strict attitude towards their kids and their behaviors. Authoritative parenting is dramatically different from permissive parenting, where “anything goes” and parents are willing to excuse or ignore bad behavior. The goal is to set expectations which are grounded in the best interests of the child, which are not necessarily aligned with what they want all of the time. Parents can set firm expectations without being harsh or adversarial towards their teenagers. Parents should calmly explain the rationale behind their expectations, and treat these conversations as productive discussions, and not opportunities to “lay down the law.”

Mental health organization, ReachOut, suggests viewing discussions of boundaries as the process of generating a “behavioral contract,” which both parents and children create collaboratively. Boundaries and expectations should address specific issues and concerns that the child or family is facing. A discussion of boundaries or expectations is often necessary in novel situations, such as a new school year or a new social environment a teenager may be entering. ReachOut also notes the importance of communicating expectations around topics like social outings or parties with friends, substance use, and social media usage. These expectations should be clear, should include a plan to overcome any potential obstacles, and should impose agreed upon consequences in the event they are not met.

How to Approach Academic Expectations

Parents often find it difficult to set expectations and follow through with appropriate actions when their teenagers struggle with academic performance. It is best to approach these issues with an open mind, and not to assume that your teenager is lazy or unmotivated. Parents should be willing to ask their teen why they are struggling, what material they are finding difficult, or how they feel about school as a whole. Emotional issues, such as anxiety or depression, can often lead to poor academic performance. ADHD and other conditions that interfere with executive function can also cause numerous issues in paying attention, completing assignments, and similar vital academic tasks.

Setting boundaries and expectations in the face of academic issues can involve multiple steps. Expectations for academics may include things like consistently showing up for class, studying for a certain amount of time each day, or maintaining a minimum grade point average. It is important that such expectations are communicated clearly, and that parents are willing to offer their child help, if needed. This can come in the form of assisting in study, creating a quiet environment in which to focus, ensuring their child has access to study tools or other resources such as tutoring, or offering incentives for good performance. If your child expresses a lack of understanding of the material, they may need a different style of help than if they face anxiety-related issues that impact their academic performance. Being flexible, willing to listen, and dedicated to solving problems rather than scolding is often important.

Behavioral Issues and Setting Consequences

There are times when boundaries are crossed and expectations are ignored. In such instances, parents should communicate what the problem behavior is, the reason it is wrong, and what consequences or changes in expectations will be imposed as a result. Consequences should be fair, proportional to the incident, and understood by the child. Ideally, consequences for a given behavior are negotiated before, and not after, the incident. They also need to be implemented consistently and carried out without volatile emotions on the part of parents.

Identifying and Addressing Risky Behaviors

Adolescents are more inclined towards risk-taking behaviors, such as drug and alcohol abuse or risky sexual behaviors, than other age groups. The reasons for this may come down to peer pressure, an attempt to model perceived “adult” behaviors, or a desire to escape personal troubles through a retreat to risky activities. Regardless of the cause, parents must know how to identify a problem behavior, express concern, implement consequences, and set expectations for further behavior accordingly. In the case of alcohol or drug use, this could involve frank discussions of peer pressure, or therapy to address underlying emotional issues, like depression or anxiety. Other issues may require unique solutions tailored to address the teen’s motivations for acting out.

Praising Your Teen for Their Successes

Positive reinforcement encourages and supports healthy behavior. While it is crucial to set boundaries for your children, it is equally important to praise your teenager when they get things right. Recognizing their hard work on an assignment, a positive trend in their home behavior, or their willingness to help a friend or sibling can go a long way in communicating to them that they have your support and approval. The Department of Health and Human Services also recommends that parents gradually introduce more choice and freedom into the boundaries they set for their teenagers as their kids mature towards independence. They offer the example of setting behavioral expectations like chores, but allowing the teenager to decide when to do them so long as they get done. Further, they suggest that parents remain flexible to negotiating with their teenager on revisions or changes to rules as time goes on.

Setting boundaries and expectations with your teenager is not always easy, but it is a necessary step in aiding their development into responsible, independent young adults. In addition to parental support, some teenagers may need additional help from teachers, tutors, or counselors to address recurring academic, emotional, or behavioral issues. Whatever the case, setting expectations, boundaries, and goals with your teenager will help give them the structure and decision-making tools they need to thrive.


Courtesy of Shortridge Academy