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COVID-19 Parent Questions: How Do I Set Boundaries for My Teen?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

One of the most important jobs for a parent is to teach their children how the world works. One of the most important lessons about how the world works is this: you have to play by the rules, or you’ll get in trouble. At home, you get in trouble with your parents. At school, you get in trouble with teachers and principals. And at work, you get in trouble with your boss.

Out in the world, the stakes are higher: if you don’t play by the rules of society, you can get arrested and put in jail.

That’s why it’s important for parents to set boundaries for their children as early as possible. The earlier they understand there are some things they can do and some things they can’t the easier it is for them to handle to slow and steady accumulation of rules and norms that govern their lives as adults. Not because parents need to turn their children into drones who mindlessly follow every rule to the letter, but because everyone needs to learn how to get along.

That means following rules.

And following rules means learning all about boundaries.

What Are Boundaries?

In this context, the word “boundaries” means exactly what it sounds like: boundaries are the limits of behavior that parents accept in the home. When a child crosses a boundary, they trigger an outcome. When we talk about boundaries and outcomes, what we’re really talking about is rules and consequences. For a teenager who’s never encountered firm boundaries before, their first experience may be a significant wake-up call.

It may be the first time they’ve ever heard their parents say “No” and mean it. That’s why it’s critical to start teaching children about boundaries from an early age. But if that’s not how things happened in your household, don’t worry: it’s not too late to set boundaries.

What matters – at this point – is how you do it.

In fact, how you set those boundaries can make all the difference in the world. Boundaries set without care can create family tension, disagreements, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and a total breakdown in the parent-child relationship. However, boundaries set mindfully, with care, can create the opposite: family unity, understanding, emotional support, and a deepening of the parent-child relationship.

That begs the question: how do you go about setting boundaries in a way that helps – rather than damages – the family dynamic?

Like many things in life, it’s all about style.

Boundaries and Parenting Style

Research into parenting styles shows there are three primary approaches to raising children. With some variations, experts agree the three styles are:

  1. The Authoritarian Style. In an authoritarian household, everything is black and white. Parents rarely explain rules and consequences. Parents take a my way or the highway attitude and don’t accept input from their children.
  2. The Authoritative Style. In an authoritative household, parents set clear rules but take the time to explain the rationale behind the rules to their children. They make sure their children understand the why of the rules, not just that the rules exist. There may be some negotiation, but distinguishing characteristics of an authoritative household include firm, consistent parents and kids understand why they’re expected to follow the rules their parents establish.
  3. The Indulgent Style. Indulgent households few rules and almost no consequences. Indulgent parents believe their children are born with the instinct to know what’s right and wrong for them. There may be some rules in an indulgent household, but the consequences of breaking them are almost always negotiable.

What the research into these three styles tell us is that, of these three parenting styles, the authoritative style is the most effective. Parents who establish firm rules and consistent consequences generally tend to raise kids who understand what rules are and why they’re in place. If a child breaks a rule, they understand it’s their decision – and they’re prepared for the consequence.

Implementing New Boundaries for a Teenager During COVID-19

If this is the first time you set clear and hard boundaries for your teen, the key element is communication. Communication first, communication last, and communication always. Your teen needs to understand everything about the changes: why you’re making them, what they mean, and exactly how they need to change their behavior to meet your new expectations. You, as a parent, need to make your new expectations crystal clear.

Any gray area or wiggle room will result in confusion and misunderstandings – guaranteed.

Therefore, as a parent, you need to have a heart-to-heart with your spouse – or yourself – and decide exactly what those expectations are. Once you define those, you can create sets of rules that relate to your expectations. Once you create rules, you can determine consequences for breaking those rules. And once you do that, it’s time to determine how you’re going to communicate all this new information to your teenager.

Our advice is to communicate the rules and consequences – which are simple and clear – in a calm, loving, and compassionate manner. Put yourself in their shoes. If you lived your whole life without fixed rules and boundaries, you’d probably rebel if your parents decided to lay down the law during a situation like the one we find ourselves in now, the COVID-19 lockdown. On the other hand, if your parents explained the new rules in a calm, rational manner, defined the consequences clearly, and asked for your input, you’d probably respond to the changes differently. You may not love them, but you’d be less likely to rebel.

How to Create an Authoritative Environment

Let’s be clear: even if you’re perfect in every way – meaning you make reasonable rules, set logical consequences, and explain them well – your teen may have a hard time adjusting to them. You might have a hard time adjusting to them, too, because you have to get used to being the villain. Maybe villain is overstating things, but you know what we mean: if you aren’t comfortable saying no to your child, you have to get comfortable with that – and you have to do it right now.

Because without consistent follow through from parents, rules and consequences are meaningless. They’re only as real as you make them, and to make them real, you have to follow through. Not just once. You have to do it every time.

Here are three helpful tips creating an authoritative atmosphere in the home.

Three Tips for the Authoritative Parent

  1. Understand the difference between discipline and punishment. In a nutshell, punishment is punitive and involves little communication between parent and teen, while discipline is educational and involves open and direct communication between the parent and teen.
  2. Be firm but loving. Teens need boundaries. They need clear rules and consistent consequences, but they need them delivered with love, understanding, and kindness. Talking through the reasons behind rules and consequences helps teens understand why they need to follow rules. When parents explain the why, teens don’t just follow rules because they’re afraid of the consequences of breaking them. They follow them because they understand and respect them.
  3. Don’t act out of emotion. If your teenager crosses a new boundary – meaning they break a new rule – and it makes you mad, give yourself a short time-out before applying the consequence. Take a deep breath. Take a walk. Then take five minutes. Return to the situation when you’re calm and can speak to your teen in a calm, reasonable, and rational manner. Kids and teens internalize tone of voice and expression more than most parents realize, and they’ll be more likely to respect rules and consequences if their parents apply them with love, respect, kindness – especially when those rules are brand new.

These three tips work well for younger kids, too. If you have littles ones and decide you want to take the authoritative approach, then the earlier you start, the better.

Adapting to Circumstances

You may worry that defining boundaries for your teenager at this stage of their development may be too difficult. That’s reasonable. However, as hard as it may be, the effort will be worth it. The key, as we mention above, is communication. If you’re open, honest, and transparent the entire time, your teen is likely to recognize the respect you give them, appreciate the care you take in implementing the changes, and buy in to the revised system with little resistance.

On the other hand, your teen may resent the new rules. Which is also reasonable. But again, the effort you take to work through that resistance will be worth it. And again, it’s about communication. If they resist, avoid getting angry. Give them the space to dislike the new rules. Stand firm and give them time to come back to you when they realize you’re serious.

When they do come back, view it as an opportunity to deepen your connection and move forward with an improved relationship: you can both learn, grow, and work to find the good in this unique and challenging time.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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