Setting Boundaries With and For the Teenager in Your Life

Parenting teenagers is hard, huh? As their parent, teacher, mentor, or boss your role is to guide them into adulthood. We do that in so many ways. We implement curfews, screen time limits, chore requirements, etc. Those are rules negotiated by teens and their guardians. But there are other types of rules that young people must learn and practice in order to protect and honor their emotional selves, as well as others they encounter. These are called boundaries.

What are boundaries?

The concept of setting boundaries is best understood by imagining yourself drawing a line in the sand. (No really. Go on.) On one side of the line is you, on the other side is your teenager*. The line you drew symbolizes the rule you’ve set in place and will not budge on.

But it’s drawn in sand, you say incredulously. A wave, a slight wind, or even a tiny shore crab could mar the line. Shouldn’t setting a boundary look more like writing in stone?

Actually no. Boundaries aren’t made to be scattered with the wind, but they are malleable in a way. I’ll explain in a moment.

Let’s say you’re a guidance counselor at a high school where students come to you for help in building college application packets, discuss career options post-graduation, and request mental health resources. Your job is important to you because it’s your paycheck and your life’s work, and it’s important for the teens because it’s what helps them bridge high school to “whatever’s next”.

You noticed a trend of students gripping their phones when in your office, outside the rules of their teachers. They check notifications, shoot off texts, and otherwise fiddle with their device while in your office. You hate the omnipresence of cell phones because they distract teens from the conversation and pull you off topic to the point where you don’t even want to help the students anymore. You recognize your feelings and don’t like the way you feel, so you decide to set a boundary which you explain to every student as they enter your office: “If you consult your phone for any reason during your time in here, our session is over and you must return to class. Our time here is limited and I won’t have you distracted, nor will I allow myself to feel ignored because of an inanimate object.”

Naturally a student forgets the boundary within minutes of sitting in the chair across from yours. You say, “I thought we agreed that we won’t have phones in our hands when we’re having a conversation. When you look at it, I feel like you’re not being an active participant in the conversation. Please return to class and feel free to make an appointment with me when you can respect my wishes.”

The teen might huff and say something that begins with “I’m just—“. But whatever their reasoning is – unless it’s “I’m waiting to hear from my parent or sibling who’s in the hospital” – isn’t acceptable. They’ve breached your boundary of not using phones while working with you.

Your response to them breaking the boundary really counts here. If you brush it off, you’re showing them that your boundaries are simply suggestions, and not meant to be taken seriously when they – the teen – don’t want to. The teen learns they only need to abide by your boundaries when they feel like it. When their whims of checking their phone overtake your feelings, they’ve officially lost respect for you.

Sticking to the Boundary

Sticking to the boundary is extremely challenging for both parties in the beginning. You might second-guess yourself, and wonder if you’re being silly. But if you let it slide once, it will continue. The first time you exercise your boundary the teen might huff or “whatever” you, but keep doing it and they’ll understand that you are serious. Tell them, “I would never disrespect you by choosing to read a text while we’re working together. I feel like when you look at your phone, you’re hoping for something that’s more interesting than our conversation.”

An aside: setting boundaries works in all relationships, not only the ones where you have the proverbial upper-hand (age, professional seniority, parent/child, etc). Married couples benefit significantly from this, because coming from two distinctly different families of origins can naturally cause rifts and misunderstandings. Those misunderstandings can uncover buried feelings, and the repressed anger can be targeted towards the wrong person. An example, “Partner, my opinion in big decisions wasn’t valued when I was growing up because my parents told me I wasn’t a contributing member of the household. When you book a family vacation without me I feel that same sense of helplessness. Going forward, I ask that family vacations and where we spend holidays are planned together so we can both be fulfilled by our time away from work and home.”

Colleagues and supervisor/employee relationships work better with boundary setting because it helps ensure no one is taken advantage of. An example of this is an employee (politely) refusing to work after their shift ends (or their salaried hours are met). The employee is declaring that they have pride in their work and require payment for said work. An employer who tries to take advantage of that is breaking professional boundaries.

How are boundaries different from rules?

Rules are set in stone. They can’t be negotiated after they’ve been set. And boundaries are different from rules because they’re based off a person’s needs. For example, feeling ignored by someone who’s using their cell phone is different than the dishes not being done. One affects a person’s emotional health, which can have disastrous effects. The other affects the cleanliness of the home, which is definitely important, but can be done at any time. Once the damage of breaking a boundary is done, it’s difficult to bounce back.

By instituting boundaries you’re showing your teen what it means to care for your emotional well-being and that you won’t accept less. You’re showing them that you know your worth and will stand up for it. You’re also showing them that they are worthy of setting boundaries. This is the crucial part. As you’re ensuring your own emotional sanity, your helping them figure out what their boundaries are. And maybe they don’t have any today, but when they do decide on them they will be emphatic and courageous in sticking to them.

How are boundaries malleable?

Boundaries are malleable only when the person setting the boundary has deemed it so. For example, your teen says, “Serena is emailing the homework assignment to me. Do you mind if I check my phone as we talk?” The boundary-setter gets to decide, and the other person can choose to abide or not, but risks harming the relationship if they choose “not”.

Boundaries are also malleable in that they can change over time. As the boundary-setter grows stronger in their emotional health (say, after a traumatic situation, after time in therapy, etc) they might not need others in their lives to adhere to certain practices. But again, this only comes once the boundary setter has deemed so. Bullying someone into bending their boundaries is damaging and inappropriate in any relationship.

Remember that with any new practice or habit, setting boundaries is going to take time. The boundary-setter might be lacking in confidence and falter when enforcing them. The boundary-pusher might not like the feeling of limitations and act out. As the mature adult who has been a teenager before, you get to guide the teen through this new practice. Consider them a student who needs help, just like when they were a toddler learning to play with a new toy. You wouldn’t demean a frustrated toddler, so don’t demean the teenager. Stay calm through their frustration, but don’t back down.

Homework: How have you set boundaries with others in your life? Were you decisive in sticking to them, or were they run over when you didn’t enforce them?

*For the sake of this blog, “your teenager” or “the teenager in your life” can mean many things: your bio/adopted/foster child or other adolescent family member, your child’s friends, your students, Girl/Boy Scout troop members, athletes you coach, youth you lead in a house of worship, youth who visit your place of business, etc. You do not need to be a parent of a teenager to care about and for teenagers.

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