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Christian Parenting Advice

Teaching Teens Boundaries and Self-Control

By Mark Gregston
Contributing Writer I hear this all the time from young people…“I want to make decisions for myself. I want to be in control of my own life.” My first thought is, “Hallelujah! Your parents want the same thing – but like everything else in life, it must be within certain boundaries.”

Boundaries aren’t handcuffs; they free teenagers to make decisions since they know how far they can go. For instance, I’ve always thought that a teen wearing one fashion or another should be their own choice. They can dress how they want, but as soon as that clothing becomes immodest, they are stepping over a boundary, the modesty boundary. If what they wear breaks the school’s dress code, they are stepping over the school’s boundaries. Likewise, when a teen is allowed to drive the car, perhaps they are told they must be home by dark, not have any other teens in the car, and they must not drive any further than a certain distance away from home. Those qualifications for the use of the car are boundaries. How and where the teen drives within those boundaries is up to them, as long as they follow other imposed boundaries, such as traffic laws.

We all have boundaries in our lives, so teens need to get accustomed to them. As adults, we can’t just haul off and whack someone over the head if we don’t like them. We can’t take a week off from work without asking our boss. And we can’t spend our mortgage payment money on new sporting gear instead. Well, we can, but should we do so, we will face consequences.

Boundaries are only effective if they are known in advance. Responsibility and a feeling of self-control begin with a child knowing and understanding the breadth of their choices within those boundaries. The kids I’ve met with the lowest self-esteem and the least self-control are those who either have never experienced boundaries or whose parents use punishment as the only means of communicating boundaries. Such parents tend to shift their punishment (and the boundaries) based on how their own day is going or how frustrated they are with life, their spouse, or their children. So, the kids in those families don’t really know where the boundaries are any given day. Like landing in a mine field, they don’t know what step to take for fear it will set off their parents. So here’s what happens: they either get totally frustrated and decide to go ahead and set off as many “mines” as they can or they hide, keep their distance, and try not to upset the apple cart. They stay away from home as much as possible, become strangers, and turn into prolific liars.

Boundaries don’t encumber your child; they free them and they boost confidence and self-control. It’s like the difference between keeping a horse on a lead rope and letting him run freely in a fenced pasture. Within the safety of the fences, the horse has the freedom to roam and even push up against the fences. What they choose to do is in their control. Thank goodness teens are learning how to reason, so establishing boundaries and consequences will help them make better choices, versus the need for parental hovering, hand-holding, or physical barriers.

Setting Up a System for Behaviors in Your Family

As you develop boundaries, I encourage you to make it a family project. First, outline what you believe the behavior in your home should be — your “beliefs.” Then, determine what rules are needed to support those beliefs. You can develop behavioral beliefs and rules for any number of things, but I prefer to major on the majors, not the minors, so focus on areas such as modesty, honesty, respect, family contribution, curfew, use of the car, dating, substance abuse, church activities, abiding by the law, and education. Within each category you may have several related rules, but keeping it simple will help your children remember them better.

When you develop this belief system for your home, insure that everything is age-appropriate (boundaries for younger kids are usually not the same for older kids), clearly understood, and mutually supported by both parents and everyone else involved, including your teenager. Let your children help you establish the belief system and even the consequences. This will give them “ownership” for it. You’ll find them to be harder on themselves and suggest harsher consequences than you might have, so you’ll have to moderate those. Then, when they break the rules, you as a parent aren’t the heavy. They chose in advance to accept the consequences since they also knew in advance what consequences they would have to face.

It works well to graph out what you want in spreadsheet form, so that each belief has a rule and each rule has consequences that can be clearly seen. Here’s how one of your beliefs in the system spreadsheet could look for a 13-year-old child.

Belief – At age 13, we believe nothing good can happen after 11 p.m., and that on weekdays kids should be home earlier to encourage a good night’s rest for school.

Rule – Curfew is 9 p.m. weekdays and 11 p.m. weekends.

Consequence –
1st Violation: Curfew will be an hour earlier for one week.
2nd Violation: You’re grounded Friday and Saturday night for two weeks.
3rd Violation: Curfew will be 8:00 pm every night for a month.

When they learn that you are serious about enforcing the consequences, they’ll become serious about maturing. After all, what is maturity? It is simply knowing how to live successfully within the boundaries we all have in life.

Once your belief system is set, don’t undermine it by making exceptions. Nothing can be more damaging to your ability to enforce rules than to cave in and arbitrarily reduce or waive the consequences. In fact, tell your kids in advance that there will be no leniency, since they now know exactly what consequences are in store. It is your duty to enforce consequences without wavering, but it is also important to express your sadness when your teen experiences consequences. Help them know you are on their side and rooting for them. In other words, don’t rub their noses in it.

Will teenagers like consequences? No. Who does? Remember to let them experience the pain of their choices so that they learn “to not go there again”. It’s OK to let them “sit in it”. But don’t pull back your relationship when they suffer consequences. In fact, move toward them.

Just as a policy manual dictates conduct at a company, your belief system will determine the way everyone in your home will live together, because the decisions have already been made and everyone has signed off on it. Your beliefs won’t change, but your kids will mature over time, so be sure to review your rules about every six months (again, doing so with the whole family) to determine if they are still age-appropriate.

Discipline is hard work. It is strategic work. It takes a lot of work to formulate, communicate, and implement a plan to help a child get to where he wants to be and to keep him from going to a place where he doesn’t want to be. But that work is worth it! Teens have a hard time seeing the “big picture” and thinking about long-term implications. Putting boundaries and rules in place with consequences that they have agreed to will help keep them on track. And they’ll help you maintain discipline without destroying your relationship.

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Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, national radio host, and the founder of the Heartlight therapeutic boarding school, a residential counseling opportunity for struggling adolescents, which houses 50 teenagers. Learn more at

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