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This project was created by the Jefferson County Communities That Care coalition and is housed within Jefferson County Public HealthThis resource was developed with funding from a Communities That Care grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, a grant from Community First Foundation and a Drug-Free Communities grant from the Office of National Drug Control Policy and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The views, policies and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the grant providers.

Twelve Talks to

Have With Teens

Boundaries

While testing limits is normal teenage behavior, teenagers are safer and happier when they have clear boundaries and family rules. By setting and agreeing on boundaries together, you create a clear understanding of expected behavior, which can help avoid conflict. 

  • Setting and adjusting boundaries happens as an ongoing process throughout everyone’s life, especially during adolescence. Boundaries and clear rules create clarity between adults and teens as you and the teen navigate adolescence, which is a time of great change. 

  • Youth with clear boundaries are happier and safer. A Jefferson County survey indicated that when parents involved teens in important decisions, know where they are and who they are with when they are not home, and have clear rules and expectations, their teens were also:

    • Less likely to have experienced depression or engaged in self-harm (cutting, burning)

    • Much less likely to misuse alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs

    • Much less likely to be the victim of sexual or relationship violence                                                                                                               

    • More likely to do better in school

  • Families may need to discuss boundaries fairly often during the teenage years. As young people grow, boundaries around their behavior need to change. Boundaries may also need to be adjusted if the youth exhibits untrustworthy, dangerous, or otherwise problematic behavior. 
     

  • Boundary testing is developmentally normal during teen years. All teens will likely violate some agreed-upon boundaries at some point.

Learn strategies for managing conflict and setting boundaries with your teen. (2:39)

How to start a conversation

  • Prior to discussing boundaries with your teen, think through the issues below. If possible, discuss your thoughts with other involved  adults to help minimize confusing, unclear or mixed messages for your teen.

    • What are the most important boundaries?  

    • What are boundaries around technology, video games and social media use?

    • Which boundaries are negotiable, and which are not? 

    • What kind of consequences are we comfortable with? How might they backfire or be difficult to implement?  

    • When, how, and why do established boundaries change?

  • You can continue the conversation with your teen based on the situation:

    • “I’ve realized you and I haven’t really had a good talk about our expectations of each other, so I’d like to make sure we are both clear on boundaries and consequences.”

    • “Are you open to clarifying how we are handling your curfew/ letting us know where you are/ your friends vaping in our car/ etc.?” If their answer is “no” then ask why that is.

    • After a request for more freedom--“Well, I’d like to talk about that more-- and what responsibilities come with that change. When can we talk about it?”

    • Or, in response to dangerous behaviors--“I want to have a conversation about the speeding ticket-- and I’d like to figure out how we can have a productive conversation.”

Quick tips

  • When setting boundaries with youth and teens, it is important to get their feedback and input into the process. Young people are less likely to stick to boundaries that have been dictated to them without any negotiation.

  • An important part of every boundary-setting conversation is to ask what boundaries they’d like you, as an adult, to stick to. Some possible boundaries an adult might agree to could include your expectations for their participation in family obligations or events, ways you respect the teen's privacy, your interactions with their teachers/coaches/work supervisors/school, allowing the teen to call “time out” during conversations, etc.  Like the boundaries that they agree to follow, it’s important that you stick to those that you agree to follow.

  • Choose a good time of day to have the discussion. Make sure you have plenty of time, you’re in a good mood and there has not been any recent, severe or unaddressed conflict. Minimize distractions or interruptions. Ideally, have a discussion with the whole family or all people involved present. 

  • During the conversation, aim to:

    • Listen and respond to the youth’s concerns. 

    • Be clear and precise to ensure that there’s no miscommunication.

    • Negotiate points that you disagree on, but be clear if there is something that is non-negotiable (and explain why).

    • Remind them why you’re establishing boundaries together and reiterate your care and concern for them.

    • Discuss what the consequences will be if the boundaries are not followed. Be clear that they have control over avoiding these consequences.

    • If the conversation is turning into an unproductive argument, take a break and follow-up when things have cooled down a bit. Consider setting a specific time frame for returning to the discussion.

    • Suggest a follow-up talk to cover other things that come up unexpectedly, or that don’t feel resolved.

Things to Do

  • With your teen, write down specific and clear boundaries, and consequences, for specific issues. Some ideas for discussion topics include:
     

    • Letting you know where they are, who they are with and when they will be home

    • Having friends over or driving friends in the car

    • Doing chores

    • Attending family obligations or events

    • Dating and sexual activity

    • Using technology, including viewing, sending or receiving explicit content

    • Setting expectations for school, such as attendance, grades or homework

    • Treating family members with respect, including any language/cursing rules

    • Closing and/or locking doors, particularly their bedroom door

    • Using, buying or selling alcohol, vape or other drugs

    • Having a group of friends over, or having a party, without permission

    • Driving and/or using your vehicles,  getting parking or traffic tickets and/or following rules for the graduated driver's license

    • Using firearms, explosives or knives

    • Shoplifting

    • Following school rules, including not skipping class, not cheating or copying (or allowing others to use your work)

  • Testing boundaries is normal teenage behavior. When this happens:

    • Remind your teen of the previous discussion and which specific boundaries were agreed upon.

    • Ask them to identify how their behavior did or didn’t live up to their agreements.

    • Cooperatively decide, if possible, on a consequence that fits the behavior, preferably based on your previous conversations about consequences.

    • Follow through on consequences.

Follow through with the consequence. If there are possible/planned reductions in the consequence — perhaps as an incentive — these should be decided beforehand, NOT “sometime later.” Knowing and agreeing before how this adjustment could work will minimize misunderstandings, manipulation and conflict. Provide appropriate reinforcement when the youth does behave within the agreed boundaries. Catch them doing well, and you will find them doing better, more often. 


Content adapted from Reachout.com.

Help

Some family conflict is normal! However, if conflicts feel too frequent, too extreme, or too upsetting, there may be a need for additional assistance. If you feel that your family could use help reducing on-going conflict, or simply working through changes within the family (such as substance misuse, divorce, incarceration, death, illness), consider reaching out to someone trained to help families get through tough times:

  • Jefferson Center is a nonprofit, community-focused mental health care and substance use services provider.

  • Family Tree Inc for help addressing the interconnected issues of child abuse, domestic violence and homelessness. 

  • STRIDE Community Health Center is a Federally Qualified Health Center provides affordable and accessible behavioral health care, as well as medical and dental care, among low-income, uninsured, and under-served residents in Jefferson County. 

Recommended Resources

  • Parent Teen Connect includes detailed information on boundaries related to the following issues: screen time, independence, responsibilities and communication.

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