Setting Limits With Your Teen

As the parent of a teenager, you may often find yourself thinking about how it used to be so much easier to enforce rules, boundaries, and limits on your young child. Now, your child has grown into a teenager (new territory for everyone!) and your child has learned how to push, and even reject, limits set on them. This can be confusing and frustrating.


You may remember when you were a teen, how you wanted more independence, more freedom, and it may have been difficult at times with your parents, negotiating with them to obtain more autonomy. It is healthy for teenagers to test limits, but it is a tough push-pull dynamic that often arises in families.

It is okay to set firm limits in the areas of health and safety, but when it comes to other areas, be open to negotiation with your teen. If they can demonstrate they can handle limits already put in place, hear them out, and reassess. It is easier to become more relaxed with limits than to enforce more of them.

The following tips will help guide you when setting limits with your teen:

Plan Ahead: Think ahead and plan out what kind of limits you want to set. Will this be implementing a curfew? Limiting screen time? Any limit you choose to set, think about why you think this limit is important for your child and your family. To be the limit setter is to decide what a healthy, safe environment is and then be willing to enforce it. Your first way of enforcing it is through verbal directions and reprimands. If your child has difficulty responding to your direction, one of the things that you can fall back on is a consequence structure.

Implement Consequences: Consequences are a way of maintaining limits; rewards are a way of keeping hope going and expectations high. Consequences are also a way of responding when your child tests limits too forcefully. According to parenting models outlined in books such as Love and Logic and Positive Discipline, consequences work best when they are related to what the child has done (if your child has not completed his homework before playing on the computer, perhaps limiting computer time is an appropriate consequence). Being respectful in how the consequence is implemented is also important. What is your tone of voice when you administer a consequence? Implementing a consequence in a calm tone of voice will help your child be able to listen to you. Consequences should also be reasonable. Is this consequence too much or too little for your teen’s behavior?

Remember, setting limits is a way to help your child internalize good behavior. You set limits by telling your child “no” and explaining why once. You tell him what the consequences are going to be if the behavior continues. The next time he does it, you give him the consequence that you laid out. Ideally, he learns to weigh out the cost-benefit ratio of following the limits on his own. In that way, you’re helping your child set limits on himself.

Be Open to Incorporating Your Teen’s Ideas. Responding to your teen’s concerns about limits does not have to mean giving in on core principles—in fact, it can sometimes lead to more cooperation and fewer power struggles.  If it looks like your child is going to test a limit, or if she already has, it can help to integrate her suggestions, as long as you maintain your overall standards. Sometimes her ideas can be used as incentives.  For instance, if your teen has violated a curfew, you might say, “I’m wondering why you didn’t come home on time. Your curfew is 10:00 pm. and you violated it.” If your child says, “Well, that’s not fair; 10:00 pm is too early,” you might respond, “Well, let’s do this then. If you can come home on time every day for a month, then we’ll talk. I’ll listen to you share what you think is fair; we’ll work something out. But that’s the only way to change the limits without consequences around here.” This way, you are empowering your teen to behave responsibly, which will help your teen mature and develop independence.

Setting limits on your teen is not an easy task. In fact, it is one of the most common struggles I hear about from parents. If you are able to follow the above steps, you may find that your interactions with your teen become more positive (as the power struggles lessen) and you are able to enjoy your teen more!

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