Parents often talk to me about how their teenage and young adult children don’t accept their rules. Parents complain about getting resistance to every boundary they set, be it curfews, what not to wear, or issues related to dating. What’s important for adults to understand is that this is normal. It is part of the developmental process that adolescents question, resist, push up against, and challenge boundaries set by parents and other adult authority figures.
However, boundaries should not change, just because a child or teenager is having a temper tantrum.
“My mom tells me I have to stick to her curfew and, even when I’m a bit late, if I bitch about my curfew and how it isn’t fair, she usually gives in and I don’t get in trouble.”- Eric, 16
“I try to be fair, so I was more and more flexible (with my teenage children) about rules. I let my daughter go to parties, where there was drinking, as long as she didn’t get drunk. Then she comes home and is three sheets to the wind! I never would have been allowed to get drunk at age 14.” –Amelia, mother of three.
“Every time I make a rule, I get crap about it from my kid. It happens every single time. I get tired, and then just give in a lot of the time.” –Jeff, frustrated dad.
Understanding and Setting Clear Boundaries
Boundaries are there for a reason: the safety, protection, and guidance of those who are surrounded by them. Just because a teenager pushes against those boundaries does not mean that the rules need to be adapted to accommodate an ornery teen.
Clear boundaries are necessary, because they help teenagers know and understand limits. Adult life is full of limitations and boundaries. Learning what clear boundaries are helps adolescents grow into well-adjusted and capable adults. Limits provide an opportunity or framework in which to grow, test one’s abilities, and understand and have empathy for others.
I have seen many situations where parents didn’t set clear boundaries for their children. In these cases, children have had difficulty respecting teachers or bosses, they were demanding and rude if their needs were not immediately attended to, and they carry these expectations into relationships and other settings. Re-learning appropriate boundaries in one’s twenties is much more difficult than during adolescence, when the restrictiveness of boundaries is externally applied and reinforced.
Eric was 23, and had come to therapy because he had been dumped by his girlfriend. This was a familiar story, as he had never managed to get beyond the three-month point in his romantic relationships. Eric came from a divorced family, where Mom and Dad would compete to be the ‘fun parent’. This led to Eric breaking rules and, when one parent imposed a consequence, he would go to the other. Always threatening to, “Move in with Mom!” or “Never see you, so I can live my own life at Dad’s house!” his parents caved in to his demands.
This created a very unhealthy pattern of controlling behavior and pushing boundaries. Eric learned he could get what he wanted by playing his parents off of each other. This didn’t work out well in his relationships, when he would say things like, “If you don’t want me to flirt with other girls, then I’ll find someone who doesn’t care and knows that it’s just for fun.” Obviously this was not the best approach.
Through some very candid conversations, I talked with Eric about boundaries, and how the lack of clear boundaries in his adolescence helped him to learn to manipulate. He was very wary of this, thinking that I was somehow going to talk about how he was dating women like his mother, who seemed willing, but were actually unavailable emotionally. This was probably true, but the point was that he had to establish clear boundaries ahead of time in order to know what was and wasn’t acceptable in a dating relationship.
I had him write down clear expectations, guidelines and desires, and then think about how to adjust them to the situation and to follow through. With work, Eric came to set internal boundaries for himself. He went on to date a woman, who he brought into session for help with setting up guidelines for the relationship. Although they broke up after 11 months, they remained friends and Eric is now dating again with healthy boundaries.
In order to know the rules and boundaries, and how far they can push things, adolescents push back, question, challenge and resist limits. They desperately need these boundaries, during this time of discovering themselves and their peers, in order to have structure and consistency. Structure allows us to function within a given set of expectations and consequences. When we know what to expect when we do something, we are better informed as to whether we should engage in that behavior.
Adolescents are not the best at things like planning, anticipating the consequences of their actions, and making good judgments. These are developmental tasks that are related to brain development and the growth of white matter in the frontal lobe. Because of this, we need to set very clear guidelines and hold to them.
Talk to teenagers about rules. Ask what they think would be fair. What do they think would be an appropriate consequence? You can always listen to their opinions and take them into consideration, but it needs to be established (to the extent that it’s possible), before boundary and rule violations happen. Dialogue with teens about rules and boundaries is essential, but keep in mind that you are the authority. Listen, take it in, and then think about things.