Teenagers are known for testing boundaries. Some may use their phone for hours on end, hang out with the wrong crowd or dabble in substance use, especially if they don't know any better. Because teenagers have to navigate so many new environments and complicated social situations, it's important for parents and guardians to set healthy boundaries for their teens.
Limits and boundaries help young people build life skills, like recognizing how they feel and communicating or managing those feelings, especially as they begin to venture out on their own. Plus, they can take the boundaries established at home and apply them to other settings, like school, public places, college and work, helping them feel more secure in a range of environments.
"Providing any kind of boundary in a home environment is going to help your teenager know and understand that there will be boundaries in environments they're going to be in long-term," says Adriane De Moerloose, M.Ed, an education specialist with Mirmont Outpatient Center - Exton, part of Main Line Health.
Why boundaries are so important for teens
Boundaries are a fundamental part of a child's social, emotional and cognitive growth. Clear limits force teens to think more about their actions and the potential consequences that come from them.
"If you don't give them a boundary or limitation, then they don't really understand what the positive or negative part of the equation is," says De Moerloose.
For example, teens often struggle to set boundaries with technology. Young people need to learn how to unplug, and if they don't have limits or boundaries around their screen time, they might turn to their devices as a coping strategy—potentially for life. If parents or caregivers don't set firm boundaries and limits on their teens' technology use, they may never learn how to detach or function without their phone or laptop.
Clear, realistic boundaries can help your child feel safe and supported, while giving them the confidence to make smart, informed decisions. By helping your teenager adopt healthy boundaries, they'll understand they can always come to you when things get tough.
Below are five ways to set strong, healthy boundaries for your teens.
1. Set a good example.
Parents or caretakers are the first positive adult role models in many children's lives. Ideally, through their actions and choices, parents and guardians can demonstrate that they also adhere to certain limits, and that doing so has a positive influence on their life. These boundaries come in all shapes and sizes, from how parents consume alcohol to how they use their own devices or how they build and maintain healthy relationships.
"When parents have good boundaries and limits and they model that in a positive way to their child, they show their child that they can make healthy, positive decisions that help to fulfill goals in their life," says De Moerloose.
2. Customize boundaries for each teen.
Some parents make the mistake of setting the same limits for all of their children, but it's crucial to look at each child as an individual. What one child needs won't be the same as what another requires.
"Just because you have two or three kids doesn't mean that every single child is going to need the same limit," she notes. "They're all different."
A good example of this is setting custom limits around social media. If your first born can maturely handle access to TikTok, your youngest child may not be able to cope healthily with the platform.
"Parents shouldn't be afraid to set rules and boundaries assessing their child's maturity," says De Moerloose.
3. Empower your child.
Instead of creating a strict boundary, forcing it on your teen and punishing them if they don't adhere to it, help your teenager set their own boundaries with your guidance.
For example, having healthy, stable friendships is extremely important for teenagers. However, it's not uncommon for kids, at some point, to develop friendships with peers who might not treat them appropriately. Instead of telling your child that they're hanging out with the wrong crowd, ask them what qualities they're looking for in a friend.
"Help them see that they should set boundaries and limits," De Moerloose suggests.
This method empowers teens to make their own healthy decisions, which is a skill that will be critically important as they advance in life. If parents always set and enforce the boundaries without the teenager's participation, they will never learn how to do this for themselves.
4. Be realistic.
Parents need to remember what life is like as a teenager. Kids will go to football games and dances. They'll be invited to parties and spend time around peers who you may think are bad influences. De Moerloose warns that expecting teens to completely avoid these situations will eventually create a lot of toxic energy.
Instead, she advises taking a realistic approach and having honest conversations with your teenagers. Acknowledge that certain things, from attending parties to posting on social media, are part of growing up, and encourage your teen to make the best decisions for themselves in any situation.
5. Let them know you're there for them, no matter what.
Finally, remind your child that you'll always be a safe, trusted person in their life. Tell them that if they end up in a situation where they feel unsafe or uncomfortable, you'll be there to help—even if it's something that you asked them not to do. Let them know you'll always be their first point of contact, and that they should always trust you to provide that support.
One way to prevent your child from being too scared to come to you is to teach them that their actions can affect your trust, not break it. Telling your teen that they broke your trust might lead them to worry about coming to you for help in the future.
However, telling them that their actions or behavior affected your trust reminds them of the boundary in place, while acknowledging that they are not the problem as a person. This will help them see that you are there to guide them, not to ruin their fun or make their life miserable. Remind your child that you don't expect them to know everything or be able to navigate every situation with ease.
Growing up is hard, but by developing clear boundaries, along with love, trust and support, parents and guardians can help their teenagers work through complex situations with greater ease.
Make an appointment with a behavioral health provider
Learn more about behavioral health care at Main Line Health
Tips for helping your children use social media mindfully
Want to get the latest health and wellness articles delivered right to your inbox?
Subscribe to the Well Ahead Newsletter.