It is super important and powerful to focus on solutions with your teens! During this process, you will offer choices and invite them to be an active part of the process. Specifically, you will create agreements together— doing life with your teen, not to them.
I see you working hard to do this, and I’m cheering you on as you dismantle systems of rewards and punishment. Congratulations on stepping up! You’re doing it! You are a kind and loving parent!
The next crucial layer of this process is maintaining limits, and that’s what we are here to discuss today.
What are Limits?
After all of the hard work you have been doing to get rid of irrelevant consequences that push your teens away, some of what I share here might feel contradictory at first. This is totally normal! You’ve learned to be kind and collaborative, and limits might not feel in alignment with everything you’ve been practicing. But here’s the thing:
Limits don’t negate choices. Limits aren’t consequences or punishment.
Instead, limits help young people understand boundaries— their own and other people’s. Additionally, limits support young people in containing their energy, thoughts, behavior, and emotions. Limits offer firmness and structure to your kind and loving parenting.
Furthermore, if you and your family have made an agreement, and that agreement is not being met, it’s important that you (the parent or caregiver) show up with consistency. If you don’t bring everyone back to the agreement by holding the limit, your teen won’t be able to feel the boundary. When boundaries aren’t upheld, the container lacks shape and teenagers will default to thinking the limit never had merit to begin with. In some cases, a lack of limits or boundaries results in teens feeling out of control. Thus, young people need (and want!) external support to learn their own limits and the boundaries of the people and world around them.
The teenage brain doesn’t have a fully developed prefrontal cortex, which means that complex problem-solving and rational thinking can be hard to access, particularly in times when the teenager is feeling big emotions about something they are experiencing. Thus, your job of holding a limit is really important.
Sometimes, limits will be directly related to agreements you and your family have already made. Other times, you will notice that your teen is struggling to understand their own edge or requests to do something that you highly disagree with or consider harmful or dangerous.
All of this said, it’s imperative that limits are not your go-to or primary parenting technique, and if you find yourself saying “no” more than “yes” or “let’s talk about this,” I’d love to support you in getting started with a collaborative approach.
5 Steps to Limit-Setting
- Prepare yourself emotionally. As you go into a limit-setting conversation, it can be helpful to imagine how your teenager will react– some of the emotions they might feel, so of the words they might say, or some of the counterarguments they might respond with. Notice how all of this feels in your body; you are anticipating their reaction. Prepare yourself to be calm and centered as you enter the conversation; this will help you refrain from taking your teen’s reaction personally.
- Repeat back what you heard. Begin by acknowledging your teen and their request. This is a specific way to connect with your teen in a tense moment. Admittedly, this step can take some practice; at first, you might feel silly or awkward or even insincere as you repeat your teen’s words. Stick with it, and keep the intention to offer support top of mind. For example: “I understand you were hoping to extend your curfew tonight” or “I really care about you and admire your dedication to your friends.”
- Empathize with your teen’s feelings. Get very human with your teen and make an empathy guess about what they might be feeling. (Remember those years?! They can be so tough, and it’s helpful to be compassionate with your teen and yourself!) This step helps your teen feel seen and heard; we all want our feelings to be validated! Example: “I can see why you’re feeling disappointed” or “I see that you are really angry about missing the party.”
- Explain the limit briefly. Here, it’s important to be direct and concise. Name the limit clearly. If it is relevant and truly possible, you might offer the consideration of a different outcome next time or an alternative plan. Example: “It’s important that you’re home early tonight because we have commitments tomorrow morning. Next time we can try to plan ahead” or “I don’t know the parents of ____ and can’t get a hold of them to confirm they’ll be around. This is our agreement. If you’d like to invite a few friends over that would work though!”
- Follow up. Later that day or in a day or so, check in with your teenager about the limit you set. See how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking. This can be a good time to review an agreement, come back to the drawing board to revise an agreement, or to simply listen to your teen’s experience of the limit.
You can (and may need to) repeat steps 2-4 a few times. Alternatively, you can try this economical way to respond to counterarguments or big reaction: “I love you, and the answer is no.”
As parents and caregivers of teens, you are doing hard work, and I see it every day! You want to offer your teenagers space and independence, and it’s paramount that you provide supportive boundaries.
Because this work is detailed, nuanced, and requires a lot of energy on your part, I invite you and your family to enjoy less-structured, quality time, too. And, yes, pausing to rest and practice self-care is essential, too. If something about this process stands out, I’d love to hear from you!