Setting Boundaries with Teens

child climbing over the fence“Taking things away doesn’t seem to help, but doing nothing doesn’t seem right either. I don’t know what to do and I’m starting to feel resentful.”

I hear versions of this in my office almost daily. Most of the parents with teens that I talk to don’t want to be punitive, but letting things go doesn’t feel right either. If you’re like them, you may have tried both approaches, found that neither worked and now feel stuck. Ultimately, what we really want is to see our kids learn from their mistakes and gradually make better choices. To do that, we need to have influence. Having a positive influence with teens requires equal parts empathy and boundaries.

They Need True Empathy

Empathy is often misunderstood. True empathy isn’t feeling bad for someone or even knowing how they feel. To truly empathize with another person, we need to actually feel a bit of what the other person is feeling. This can be hard with this age group and it requires effort and curiosity. Most of us are too quick to assume and react to our kid’s negative behavior (“you haven’t been turning in your homework because you don’t care enough.” Or “I won’t tolerate any more disrespect!”) But when I see parents calmly put in the time and effort to be more curious about what’s behind the behavior they’re generally surprised by what they hear which is usually something along the lines of “I’m so frustrated, I don’t know what to do, I feel like I’m stupid and I’m a disappointment to you.” Most of us can empathize with that!

But They Also Need Boundaries

If you were to invite me to your house and say “Yshai, make yourself comfortable and feel at home.” I won’t know what that means. Can I put my feet up? Shoes on or off? Can I help myself to anything in the fridge? Is the dog allowed on the couch? We all need clear expectations and boundaries to feel safe and comfortable. In the case of your teen, are they clear about your expectations and boundaries when it comes to smoking weed, expectations in school, and behavior at home? Are you giving a consistent, clear and unified message about these things? In my experience, many parents aren’t and over time, this creates tension and frustration for everyone.

Which Part Do You Need To Work On?

Kids experiencing empathy without boundaries feel heard and understood but they also feel out of control and overwhelmed. Studies have found that these types of kids are more at risk for drug and alcohol problems. Kids with a lot of boundaries but no empathy, more often become rule followers and internalize a lot of their pain which often manifests in anxiety disorders and depression over time.

Very few of us excel at both of these and we often partner with someone that has the complementary strength. I’ve always been better at empathy with kids and have had to work on the boundary side of things. To maximize your credibility and influence, your child needs to see both of these traits in you. If you’re a naturally warm and nurturing parent, consider working on the expectation/boundary side of things (I promise you won’t lose that warmth!).  On the other hand, if you tend to emphasize expectations and boundaries, try working on listening and understanding your child a bit more when they screw up. My hunch is that your expectations are appropriate, but your child needs to feel that you get them more.

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