Setting Limits

One of the hardest things for a parent to do is say no to his child. “Well,” parents often rationalize, “it’s only the first time he has stayed out past curfew. He is under a lot of stress and really wants to see his friends, so I suppose I will let him go out tonight.” And out the door he goes.

If these thoughts sound familiar, you are not alone. Teens love to push the limits and their parents are boundary number one. How long can I stay out? Do I really have to study for this exam? Pre-teens and young adults alike are constantly exploring the world around them, pushing to determine their abilities, their strengths, and their weaknesses. The resulting behaviors can be exhilarating, devastating, and some times even dangerous. Parents need to help their teens learn where to draw the line.

Although they often feel invincible, teens are, of course, quite vulnerable. In some ways, parenting a teenager is like re-living an earlier challenge, the “terrible twos.” A two year old wants to discover everything around him or her. Two year olds will eagerly toddle away from mom. Studies have shown, however, that that same toddler will undoubtedly turn back and look for reassurance in their parent’s eyes; “Can I touch this?” little Janey inquires, “Is it safe for me to walk over here?” We watch with delight as a little one explores and grows more independent. But, sometimes we have to say no. When something is off limits Janey cries and screams in frustration. How unfair!! However, parents rest assured that they have done the right thing by preventing Janey from sticking her finger in the socket. Parents also know that in a few minutes something else will catch Janey’s eyes and all will be right in the world again.

Teens are not so different. They too want to discover the world and practically demand independence. While a toddler will look for a parent’s permission, teens act like they want anything but! Contrary as it may seem, teens do still need their parents help. Clearly help is not as simple as moving a hand away from a socket. As your child grows, helping them thrive and succeed in the world takes on a different look.

It may sound cliché or like an over played TV ad, but when you are concerned about your teens behavior, talk to them. Ask why they want to do such and such; make it known that you hear what they are saying. In return, explain to them your concerns. If you can, try to reach a middle ground. For example, “I will let you go to this concert, but I want a parent to be present, and I would like for us to talk to that parent together about the plans for the evening.” Empower your teen as much as you can. The more open you are with your children, and the more respectful you are of their desires, the more likely it is you will reach a mutual agreement.

Of course, there are still times when you have to say no. In the above-mentioned example, if a parent cannot attend, and you still have concerns, then you need to say, “No.” Make it clear to your teen that you want them to have fun with their friends, and you understand this concert is important, but also make it clear that you are the authority and you have the final say.

Setting limits is about helping your child survive and succeed in the world. When your teens do push past your limits, consequences must follow. If your teen comes home late, perhaps she shouldn’t go out the next night. This will serve as a reminder that when you set a limit, it needs to be respected.

It is okay to say no to your kids. They will not hate you forever. They may lock themselves in their rooms or scream and yell, but that is okay, too. They are upset and they have a right to express that. Just keep in mind: you are the parent, the one with more experience, the one who is there to help your teen navigate this crazy world. If you don’t show them where the deep end starts they might just flail.

If you find your family is struggling with setting limits, there are many services available at your teen’s school as well as in the community. Adolescent Counseling Services has therapists on your teen’s campus that can work with you as a family, and with your teen individually to help relieve building tension and work towards more peaceful family relationships in your home

Commentary by Amy A. Moskovitz


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