How to Set the Guidelines Your Teen Needs

Mom and teen
Carolyn Ievers Landis, PhD
Carolyn Ievers Landis, PhD
Licensed Clinical Psychologist, UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital

Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine

If you think your teens are undergoing amazing physical changes as their bodies transition from children to adults, it might be hard to believe that the developmental and psychological changes are just as great, if not greater.

Cognitively, teens are transitioning between thinking in a concrete way to being able to think more abstractly. Psychologically, they are becoming more and more aware of how they appear to others and are experimenting with their own identity.

Why Parents Need to Make Rules

During this time of tremendous upheaval, the parental role in setting and enforcing limits is as important as ever.

Imagine embarking on such a scary journey through uncharted territory without a guide or even a road map. This is what it is like for teens without the loving and caring guidance of adults to help them make this transition.

Teens need to be able to have space to fully develop and to continue the process of exploring who they are within a safe zone. Rules and limits set by parents create the boundaries of this safe zone and let teens know what is expected of them.

A lack of limits set by parents is detrimental because their brains are still actively developing, particularly in the areas responsible for such functions as self-control, judgment, emotions and organization.

Research has proven that teens whose parents set and enforce rules are more likely to make good decisions on everything from seat belt use and safe driving to drug and alcohol use and delaying sex.

The most effective parenting style is an authoritative one — meaning that parents should use firm limits but set them with a great deal of warmth. Involving teens in the development of rules and consequences can help them embrace boundaries without feeling overly controlled. Opting for a democratic style when at all possible, asking teens to voice their opinions about parental limits, is strongly recommended.

However, parents ultimately have the final say, and sometimes the best you can do is agree to disagree.

Rules and limits help teens feel safe and secure at a very uncertain time in their lives. They also give teens an easy out when faced with an uncomfortable situation and potential bad decision by giving them someone to blame. Who can argue with the explanation, “I can’t do that, if my parents find out, they will ground me for the rest of my life!

How to Set Limits for Your Teen

  • One strategy is to pick your battles, just as you did when they were in the Terrible Twos. This means figuring out which rules/limits are negotiable vs. non-negotiable. For example, homework has to be done every day, but when it is done may be the source of some discussion with your teen.
  • Also, household chores are a must, but which chores your teens are typically responsible for may be negotiated with parents — maybe your teen doesn’t mind kitchen tasks but detests cleaning bathrooms.
  • Some limits, such as wearing seat belts in the car, are non-negotiable and are NOT up for discussion.
  • Remember to use warmth and humor when setting limits, often verbally praising your teens for good choices they make each day.
  • Finally, provide plenty of physical affection in a manner with which your teens are comfortable (i.e., a pat on the back versus a big hug), because every child is different.

Carolyn E. Ievers-Landis, PhD, CBSM, is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics and Psychology, UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital.

Related links

UH Rainbow pediatric practices are offering extended office hours in May to accommodate and prioritize teen well visits as part of Teen Health Month. Call for an appointment today.

UH Rainbow Babies & Children's experts provide two quick tips for keeping teens healthy. Watch the video.

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