Adolescence can be a difficult time for parents because it’s hard to watch your child move away from family influences and become more interested in friends and social activities. But this is a necessary part of growing up and requires good communication by all in the family in order to navigate this transition smoothly.
While your teen no longer needs your help with regard to what they wear and what they eat, they may still need your help with navigating social boundaries. Boundaries are the rules, guidelines, and limits each person has for themselves. Boundaries include what we will and will not accept from others and they are necessary to protect our physical and mental wellbeing.
Setting boundaries can be difficult even for adults. For teens who are yearning for social acceptance and connection, it is understandably harder for them to establish boundaries. Teens may find it hard to say no to their friends, even when the friends are pressuring them to do something unsafe or that they may not be comfortable with. It is essential that parents have ongoing discussions with their children about the importance of boundaries and how they can be set in a respectful way.
Importance of Boundaries
Your boundaries come from your values, needs, and preferences. For example, if you like your own personal space, you need to let others know that you’re not comfortable with hugs. If you don’t like yelling and arguing, you need to let others know that you won’t engage in that type of behaviour with them, but you’d be happy to have a calm conversation. It’s important to set boundaries for yourself because if you don’t, others will do it for you.
We have all had different experiences that shape who we are, how we act, and how we think. This is why it is so important to tell others what you need from them: they haven’t walked in your shoes; they don’t know your struggles.
This is also a good time to remind your teen that it is equally important to listen to the needs of others and respect that they may need different things and that’s okay. Explain to your child to be on the lookout for non-verbal cues that others are uncomfortable. For example, if you’re standing too close to someone or talking about something that they don’t want to discuss, do you notice:
- they have a worried look on their face?
- they take a step or two away from you?
- they look fidgety or anxious?
Not having clear boundaries leads to people being influenced by others and pressured to act in ways that could go against their values or those of the family. Teens will often find themselves in situations where their friends are wanting them to try something new or engage in potentially risky behaviour. It’s important to talk to your teen about what they’re comfortable with and what they wish to avoid and then help them come up with a plan about how to set those boundaries and enforce them.
How to Set Boundaries
As parents, you can help your pre-teen and teen learn to set boundaries by listening to their concerns, validating their feelings, and practicing responses with them.
When your child tells you that they are feeling caught in a situation where they don’t know what to do, the most important thing is to listen. It’s okay to ask open-ended questions, but your child should be the one doing most of the talking. Here are some suggestions of questions you can ask:
- Do you feel safe?
- Do you feel respected?
- Do you feel heard? If not, are you confident enough to take a stand?
- Do you need support in speaking up?
Encourage them to pay attention to how they are feeling and validate those feelings. Remember that validating doesn’t mean that you have to agree with their feelings. It means that you accept your child no matter what or how they feel and you respect their perspective in that moment.
Let your child know that if they are feeling uncomfortable in a situation or within a friendship to pay attention to those feelings. They can be a clue that maybe a boundary is being crossed. Young teens may not make that connection between their feelings of unease and a potentially dangerous or upsetting situation about to happen.
Practice conversations with your child to give them some easy to use phrases if they ever find themselves in an uncomfortable situation. Remind them that it is ok to say no to things that make them uncomfortable and no explanation or excuses are required. Other responses could be:
“No, I’m not able to do that.”
“No thanks, I’m not comfortable with that,”
“I don’t feel good about this situation. I’m going to talk this over with my parents and get back to you”
“I need to think more about my decision and let you know tomorrow.”
Some other quick tips and reminders you can give your teen:
- Be clear and upfront about your needs.
- Let go of guilt; this is not an attack on others.
- Practice saying no without excuses.
- Practice having courageous conversations when others disrespect your boundaries.
- Maintain boundaries with gentle reminders.
Acknowledge that it can be really uncomfortable to set and enforce boundaries. You will have to accept being judged by others; hurting someone’s feelings; and potentially losing some friendships that aren’t healthy.
As parents, you will not be able to control who your teen hangs out with or where they are at all times. However, by letting your child know that you are there to support them in navigating social boundaries, you will give them the confidence to act appropriately in any situation. This, in turn, helps them have healthy relationships as they grow towards adulthood.
What Teens Need to Know about Setting Boundaries by Sherri Gordon. Published by VeryWellFamily.
Teach Your Teen to Set Emotional Boundaries by Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D. Published by Psychology Today.