How to Establish Boundaries

Parents can begin to establish boundaries by picking their top ten or fifteen deeply held beliefs and then identifying boundaries for each. Think about and write down different real-life situations and how far things can go before your family boundaries will be violated.  Having too many boundaries can confuse the whole family and make it impossible to grow and adapt, so keep it simple.

Here are some examples of boundaries (yours may be different):  

  • We believe our home is a refuge, where there should be mutual respect for one another and for each other's belongings, time and personal space.
  • We believe in truth and honesty, so we will tell the truth (including the whole story). We will not bend the truth, gossip untruths or exaggerate.
  • We believe that having positive and uplifting communications is important, so will not use inappropriate language, cussing, swearing, off-color stories, or yelling in anger.
  • We believe that there is nothing good that can happen after midnight, so everyone should be home.
  • We believe that excellence is important, so we expect everyone to do their best in what they do, including work, chores and school.
  • We believe that faith is an important part of life, so we will participate in the activities and the fellowship of others in our church.

Boundaries Demand Rules and Consequences

If you wonder why teenagers behave irresponsibly, well, it's because they are irresponsible.  And, they will not become responsible or mature, or wise, until they engage in the process of dealing with the consequences of their choices and behavior.  It is a cycle that needs to happen over and over before a teen comes to full maturity.

So, the next job is to create specific rules and then consequences for breaking those rules. That's a job best developed by the whole family, so they feel as though they have contributed. You'll be surprised how harsh your teen will make their own consequences, so it will be your job to make those more reasonable. And don't forget to make the consequences escalate for each continued breach of the rules and match consequences with the severity of the infraction.

The point is this: your teen needs to learn how to make good choices. When they know in advance what the boundaries are, what the specific rules are, and what the consequences will be, they'll more likely be able to make a better choice. At the very least, they'll not be shocked and feel "ganged up" on when consequences are applied. "Mom's might ground me for this" simply isn't a concrete deterrent. Instead, "I'll lose my cell phone for a month" is a clearer and more direct deterrent that will stick in the teen's mind.

Keep In Touch

Boundaries are important. But teens are still prone to test them in every possible way.  So, as you develop and enforce healthy boundaries it is important to spend time with your child on a regularly scheduled basis to discuss them. This makes it clear to them that no matter what decisions they make; your relationship will not be affected. Set up a weekly breakfast or dinner where you can talk, one to one. Avoid rehashing past mistakes but talk about better choices that can be made in the future and how those will positively impact your teen's life. Help them begin to set goals and think about their purpose in life.  And be sure to begin and end your discussion with making sure your child understands that there is nothing they can do to make you love them more, and there's nothing they can do to make you love them less.

January 15, 2010

Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling program for struggling adolescents located in East Texas.