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  • Sara Balkanli

Setting Boundaries with Teens

Today's blog is about one of my favorite topics personally & professionally - Boundaries! While boundaries have always been an important area of consideration in relational therapy, it seems that boundaries have become more of a well known topic for the masses over the last few years. Books like Set Boundaries, Find Peace & the accompanying Set Boundaries Workbook have grown in popularity & made boundaries a part of the mainstream conversation. As we re-evaluate what boundaries look like in different facets of our lives, one area that constantly pops up in my office is with parents. "How do we set boundaries with our teen? It's SO hard!" I know, right! Boundary setting is tough regardless, but even more challenging with teens. The constant balance of autonomy versus limitations is ever changing. How much freedom do we give our teens, and how much is too much? Hot topics like screen time, curfews, and dating almost inevitably result in a differing of opinions between parents & teens, which creates challenge with limit setting around these topics. There is never a one size fits all answer, but in fact this is what makes boundary setting conversations so important with our teens. Here are a few tips to help make it easier to facilitate these talks with your teen.

Stay Cool & Collected Before Your Conversation

Boundaries are a tricky subject, especially at first! Usually, folks are only talking about boundaries after a violation has occurred. Most of us are not thinking about our own boundaries in a preemptive way, but rather as a reactive response to a crossing of expectations occurring after the fact. This usually leads to a conversation that is more angry & harsh rather than kind & firm. In order to help keep the conversation respectful & productive we have to get regulated prior to having any conversation about boundaries with teens. If you're staying calm & collected, they will be more likely to follow suit. Use grounding skills like deep breathing, taking a walk, or even a brief meditation prior to your conversation. Find a time for the conversation that is quiet, uninterrupted, and not rushed.

Come Together, Don't Single Out

One way to help the boundary conversation go smoothly is to use what I call "together" language. These are words that help symbolize unity & alliance, and help deflect the power dynamic between parent & child to create more equitable conversations. Words like "we, us, ours" in a sentence helps change the whole tone of the conversation. Here's an example that comes up often with teens - curfew violations:

Instead of saying:

"You should've been home at 10:30, it's almost midnight! I can't believe you. You're so selfish to keep me up waiting on you and worrying. You broke the rules, now you face the consequence."

We can try saying"

"Wow, it really looks like we weren't on the same page about what time you were getting home tonight. We expected you home around 10:30, and it caused us to worry when you were late. We want to make sure this doesn't happen again. Let's talk tomorrow morning about our family expectations regarding our curfew."

See the difference? Both sentences address the boundary violation of getting home past curfew, but the 1st sentence may create some defensive feelings & resentment. The 2nd sentence creates a more collective, all-inclusive connection between teens & parents which creates a sense of shared responsibility & experiences. It also allows room for some more discourse and input from the teen in their conversation. As teens get older, they are hungry for more autonomy over their choices & decisions. When we use together language, it creates some space for that autonomy to be voiced and considered.

Now, this doesn't mean they get to call all the shots & live in No Boundary Land! Teens still need structure and boundaries, even as they get older. However, creating space for them to have input in creating those boundary agreements with parents help model good boundaries, and teens are more likely to follow the rules when they feel they had a hand in creating them.

Kind & Firm is the Name of the Game!

I mentioned this phrase earlier, but it is so important that it deserves its own paragraph. The best boundaries are both kind and firm. We want to ensure that we are being kind and respectful in our delivery so that it can be well received by our teens. Focus on keeping an even and calm tone of voice, using respectful language void of character shaming or accusatory remarks, and demonstrating understanding & validation of your teen's needs & experiences. In addition, we need to maintain our firmness throughout the conversation. This looks like clear & concise word choices, maintaining steady tone of voice, and staying true to the boundary in the face of potential resistance or emotional dysregulation from your teen. These statements are the foundation of creating mutual respect in our relationships. Mutual respect is the idea of everyone getting their needs mutually heard, respected, and addressed. The formula I like to use to create this is "What are your needs, my needs, and the needs of the situation?"

Going back to our curfew example from above let's fill in some examples. Let's first use our formula for mutual respect.

What are the parent's needs? - to have their teen home at a reasonable hour for safety & health reasons.

What are the teen's needs? - to gain autonomy & peer acceptance

What are the needs of the situation? - there are legal, health, and safety ramifications to teens being out too late.

Using our blueprint above, lets take a look at few different options to demonstrate kind, firm and kind & firm boundaries.

Too Kind:

"I know you were having a good time with your friends tonight, and it sounds like you really don't like the idea of a curfew. I guess you're right, they are kind of pointless. We can just play it by ear when you go out. Try to remember to text me when you are coming home."

Too Firm:

"You must be home by 10:30 every single night. No exceptions. I don't care if you think it is too early or too strict. If you are not home by 10:30 you will not be able to go out with your friends again."

Kind & Firm:

"I know you were having a great time with your friends, and time with your friends is important to you. I also know that it is important to me that I know you are home safe at night, and that you are able to get enough rest for the next day. What time feels like a reasonable curfew for us? You said midnight? Ok. So I was thinking 10:30 would feel good for me. What if we met in the middle and agreed to an 11 PM curfew. What do you think is a fair consequence if we break our boundary?"

Remember - Be Patient!

It can be really challenging to develop boundary setting skills! Not only do we each have our own style that we gravitate towards, but our teens are constantly shifting too. Boundary setting is a practice & a skill, it's not always our default. We can learn how to incorporate them as a part of our communication toolbox over time. It's ok to start slow at first, and it's ok if it doesn't stick right away, either for you or your teen. Be gentle with yourself and your teen as you start practicing. Finding a therapist who is skilled in communication and boundary work is a great asset on your journey! Don't hesitate to reach out to Sunstone Psychotherapy for help walking alongside you and your teen for relational support.


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