How to Draw the Line
Counselors know that when parents set clear boundaries, they take care of their teens and themselves. An earlier version of this article first appeared in the counseling magazine, Adolescence (March 1994), to support the work of counselors and therapists working with parents and families.
Talk to the parents of any teenager and this is what you’re likely to hear: concern, frustration, anger, anguish, sadness, fear. Previously cooperative kids suddenly become rebellious and rude. Once accessible children now seem remote. In some instances, you’ll hear about kids who were once easy to control but are now taking the upper hand.
What’s wrong here? These parents love their kids and want healthy, functional relationships with them. Why do so many parents dread this time in their children’s lives? And why do so many parent-child relationships falter at this stage of the game?
… boundaries are what we use to take care of ourselves in relationships with others…
Counselors know that boundary issues can interfere with relationships. Sometimes called contingencies, sometimes called limits (or even rules), boundaries are what we use to take care of ourselves in relationships with others, tools we use to maintain some order and sanity in our lives. They represent the conditions under which we will participate, or continue to participate, in some activity: “I will drive you to the mall as soon as your room is clean.” Or they may represent the conditions under which we will allow, to the degree that we are able, some activity to occur or continue: “You can have the car again next weekend as long as you return it by the time we agreed on.”
In many of the examples of conflict that parents have shared with me, we’ve traced the source of the conflict to a lack of boundaries somewhere. Either the parent failed to set boundaries, didn’t maintain or enforce boundaries that had been expressed, or violated a child’s boundaries in some way. But when we talk about the need for boundaries, the parents, educators, and even the counselors frequently aren’t sure what we’re talking about.
Children need limits so that they can feel safe and secure; and they are able to grow and learn by testing these limits.
Because boundaries are so emphatically about self-care, and because self-care is often a foreign concept in our culture, this basic relationship skill tends to fall by the wayside in our individual growth and development. If a parent doesn’t have much experience setting boundaries before they have children, becoming a parent will not automatically endow them with that ability. And yet it quickly becomes obvious that all families need boundaries in order to operate. Children need limits so that they can feel safe and secure; and they are able to grow and learn by testing these limits.
As for boundary-setting skills, parents tend to imitate their own models—usually their own parents, despite their best intentions. Sure, they probably don’t have a problem being a win-win, even-handed, democratic parent when the kids are doing what the parents want. But it’s a sure bet that these same adults will become the worst of both their parents the first time junior loses it in the grocery store.
The teen years offer terrific opportunities for relationships between parents and their adolescents to deepen and grow in some wonderful ways. Understandably, many parents exhibit a tendency to become the exact opposite of the adults they were surrounded with as a child, although this tendency is usually just as destructive.
The difference is boundaries: loving behavior requires them, permissiveness ignores them.
For example, parents who grew up with too many limits, who remember the pain of feeling disempowered, deprived, or simply smothered, may go to the opposite extreme and impose too few limits. These parents confuse loving behavior with permissiveness. The difference is boundaries: loving behavior requires them, permissiveness ignores them.
More often than not, these parents tend to swing between the two extremes—too many boundaries or not nearly enough—which is crazy-making for all concerned. One mother shared her resistance to setting any boundaries with her kids: “I feel like I’m cramping their self-expression and creativity when I say ‘no.’ I love these kids and want them to be happy, to have things I never had. So I have a tendency to overindulge. And yet at the first sign of misbehavior, I lash out because I resent the fact that they don’t appreciate all I’ve done for them.” Indeed, finding some sanity in the territory between parents’ needs and their children’s needs is one of the greatest challenges for developing a healthy, positive, and effective adult-child relationship.
Children’s needs change as they grow. It’s developmentally normal for kids to attempt to separate from their parents at various stages in their growth. Parental control naturally diminishes as children get older, as the limits that are necessary to keep young kids’ safe and secure become less restrictive as they become more self-managing and independent. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up, especially during adolescence, when a teen can be adult-like one minute and infantile the next.
Conflicts often arise because kid’s boundaries keep shifting. Where it may once have been necessary and appreciated, a parent’s involvement and advice—or even their mere existence—may suddenly be perceived as intrusive. Kids are now drawing lines where none existed before, and parents may find themselves in a constant game of “catch-up” while still needing to reexamine, reestablish, and reassert boundaries of their own.
Because their kids keep changing, parenting strategies that once worked beautifully can suddenly be ineffective. Kids who once thrived on their parents’ approval are now far more interested in the approval of their peers. All their limits, values, and opinions that have normally been respected will now be challenged, even in the healthiest families.
It’s not fair to let kids do what they want and then suddenly snap because their behavior has crossed some undeclared line.
In win-lose relationships, this will be even more obvious. For example, if their relationship has been fairly authoritarian (win-lose, with the child on the losing end), as an adolescent the child has the resources, and even the physical size, to turn that dynamic around. The same is true of permissiveness: If they’ve been operating without limits, parents are due for a break in their tolerance by the time their children hit adolescence, if they haven’t already had several. (It’s not fair to let kids do what they want and then suddenly snap because their behavior has crossed some undeclared line.)
Kids do what works. If whining, pouting, tantrums, or similar behaviors have inspired parents to cave in on their boundaries, change their mind about the limits they’ve set, or quit bothering altogether, it’s likely that these tactics will only become more extreme and sophisticated as time goes on. If you’re looking to change some of the patterns you see happening in your relationship with your children, there are a few points to consider.
Expectations are a part of the picture, especially when the reality of a child’s behavior doesn’t match the picture parents have of how the teen should be acting. Suddenly they see their child in a much more grown-up body and imagine that emotional growth has naturally followed suit. Unfortunately, sensibility and maturity rarely emerge automatically with all those adolescent hormones, and all the shoulds in the world won’t change that. Furthermore, adolescent behavior can be remarkably inconsistent, and a moment’s lapse into apparent responsibility doesn’t necessarily portend instant adulthood.
If parents’ expectations simply reflect their value system, they may get into trouble because the picture they have of who their kids should be is probably different from the reality of how their children see themselves. Expecting a child to make the football team, the dean’s list, and the country’s best law school can create a lot of conflict and stress with a kid who hates sports, is satisfied with academic survival, and aspires to a career on Instagram.
This brings up the issue of enmeshment: it’s hard to set boundaries with people if you can’t separate yourself from them. Are parents reasonably clear about where they end and where their children begin? To what degree do they see their children as individuals, separate from themselves? How much of their serenity, sense of adequacy, and feelings of worth depend on their children’s behavior, appearance, or achievement? Can these parents appreciate the possibility that some area of their kids’ lives may be unrelated to them, different from them, or even (gulp!) none of their business? Would the teens rate their parents’ level of involvement in their lives as uncomfortable and inappropriate? In what instances might they be right?
Although we’ve probably all met some truly amazing young people, there is a widely held belief that teens are generally jerks. Fortunately some parents would disagree, but if a kid ever has a tendency toward “jerkiness,” chances are it will be during this time.
If raising children has always been a challenge as the kids were growing up, the parents might indeed be in for a rough few years now. As the children struggle to manage the physical and social changes they are going through, they will probably go through some phases of strangeness. Perhaps parents need to examine their intolerance for the changes they see, talk it over with other parents, or get outside advice.
Kids need help, not judgment, at this crucial stage of development and occasional “jerk” behavior is normal and perhaps even healthy as they explore ways to become an adult. What feels like antisocial, oppositional, or obnoxious behavior will certainly challenge parents to strengthen their resolve, from refusing to continue conversations until the kids drop the unpleasant tone or behavior to insisting that their kids earn the privileges they receive.
The teen years offer terrific opportunities for relationships between parents and their adolescents to deepen and grow in some wonderful ways. But as in any relationship, an essential enhancement tool is the boundary.
One of the greatest obstacles to effective parenting—and indeed to personal growth in general—is a nasty little habit called “all-or-nothing thinking” (sometimes called black-and-white thinking). This tendency probably surfaces most frequently in relation to issues of power dynamics and children’s behavior.
For example, the parents I’ve worked with have been unanimous in not wanting their kids to vulnerable to peer pressure, especially when someone entices them to do something illegal or potentially dangerous. Although they want cooperative kids at home, they know that people-pleasers simply can’t “just say no.” But there is a certain amount of apprehension in admitting this. The reason: all-or-nothing thinking. Parents may worry about their kids becoming people-pleasers around pushy friends or dangerous strangers, but they also wonder whether that leaves them with having to chose between raising Mother Teresa or Jack the Ripper.
Not hardly. Unfortunately, if parents’ perceptions of their teens—and their roles as parents—are colored by all-or-nothing thinking, they may believe that their options are limited to either encouraging compliance or tolerating rebelliousness. The same is true of control and power, basic needs all human beings begin to crave very early in life.
Parents who look for ways to assert their authority by, say, setting limits and conditions, and who invite their children’s autonomy with options within those limits, tend to have far fewer power struggles than those parents who insist on being in charge to the exclusion of their children’s input or choice, or those whose faith in their own power depends on disempowering the others in their lives.
But many parents panic at the thought of their children’s very natural need for autonomy. Why? Because in an all-or-nothing world, either parents are in charge or the kids are running the show. The good news is that the world is not black and white. There are perfectly effective win-win options between the extremes. Parents who look for ways to assert their authority by, say, setting limits and conditions, and who invite their children’s autonomy with options within those limits, tend to have far fewer power struggles than those parents who insist on being in charge to the exclusion of their children’s input or choice, or those whose faith in their own power depends on disempowering the others in their lives.
What Do Parents Want?
Most of the parents I’ve encountered in my work want pretty much the same things from and for their children. In general they hope to have children who are cooperative, responsible, contributing members of the family, kids who are able to think and function independently, and kids who are, for the most part, decent, considerate human beings.
How these desires are expressed differs from one family to the next. Responsible behavior in one family may simply involve doing the dishes on occasion; in another, it means something along the lines of winning a Nobel Prize. The point is, most people who live in families want to do so with a maximum of cooperation and a minimum of conflict. And parents want to know that at some point their children will be able to function as happy, productive members of the world at large, without them at their sides.
The “Ideal Child”
What do ideal children look like in a parent’s mind? How would parents describe the best of all possible relationships with a teen? What kind of parents would they like to be? These questions are very important because parents need to keep looking at how their behaviors either reinforce or undermine these goals.
Another very important question is: Are the models parents have for parenting getting them the results they want? If their kids are less than cooperative, are vulnerable to peer pressure and other people’s approval, and their kids have a hard time functioning independently in healthy, constructive ways, then maybe the models need changing. For the most part, what parents have learned and what they do in their relationships with their kids can actually sabotage their parenting goals and encourage the exact opposite behaviors.
Kids generally don’t change until the parents change their approach to parenting…
Kids generally don’t change until the parents change their approach to parenting and interacting with their children. If things are going well and parents are pretty happy with how their kids behave, then there’s probably no reason for major changes. But if parents spend a large part of their time in conflict, if they go to bed stressed, angry, or worried about where their kids are headed, or if they feel frustrated that their children don’t take them seriously or treat them with respect, then perhaps a bit of an overhaul to parenting skills is in order.
Bottom line: What are the parents willing to do differently to get different results?
Trusting the Process
In the short run, restructuring relationships can indeed create conflict and confusion. While some techniques can inspire immediate positive change (with some children, some of the time), others require more time, persistence, and patience. If the relationship is in serious trouble, it will take a while to rebuild trust—on all sides. Quick fixes rarely gain much ground. Improving relationships is an investment of time, energy, thought, and faith. Trust the process and the desired outcome is likely.
Over time, developing healthy relationships with kids can pay off handsomely for all concerned. These relationships form the foundation from which children learn to solve problems and express feelings without hurting others. Healthy relationships reduce the potential for addictive, compulsive, and destructive behaviors; they provide the groundwork for long-term caring, relationships with parents and others in their lives.
The process of building relationships is a journey. Wherever parents are in their relationships with their kids, they didn’t get there by accident and they didn’t get there overnight. Whether the road’s been smooth or bumpy, they now have the opportunity to develop new skills that will make their journey more pleasant for all. If they’ve come this far, it’s obvious they have a pretty strong commitment to creating, or strengthening, the relationship they have with their children.
Obstacles to Success
I personally applaud whatever excitement and enthusiasm the parent carries into this journey and offer a few hints for avoiding the inevitable potholes they will encounter. These include:
One of the greatest obstacles parents may face is their own impatience. Let’s face it, they’ve probably tried at least a few of these ideas at some point or another. If their past efforts didn’t payoff the way they’d hoped, it may be because they didn’t maintain the changes long enough.
Remember, relationship-building takes time, especially in a relationship that’s been plagued by conflict, misunderstanding, and mistrust. Perhaps their greatest challenge will be trusting the process long enough to stick it out. Nothing will undermine their goals faster than the need for a quick fix.
How long will it take before parents may start seeing healthier and more loving behaviors? It’s hard to say. Sometimes the simplest changes can produce dramatic results. On the other hand, it may take their kids a while to trust their parents’ commitment. Most parents report that their best results came when they were able to keep their focus on long-term goals and when they restrained the impulse to eliminate everyone’s bad habits before lunch.
Problem of Perfectionism
Perfectionism will also derail their efforts, especially if initial changes don’t end up being as permanent as they’d like. Relationships require continued effort and attention, but even well-tended relationships experience setbacks and trying times. A lapse into old patterns doesn’t mean the process isn’t working. Keep in mind that the process can be remarkably inconsistent. some days parents will feel as if they’re sliding back two steps for each step they take forward. Be careful that they don’t give up on the entire journey just because they’ve stumbled along the way.
Feeling It’s Too Late
Another obstacle may be the feeling that they’ve waited too long. If they’re having serious problems with their kids, parents may have read through some of this article thinking, “Well, this may work for some families, but it’s probably too late for us.” Don’t let them despair.
If their relationship is in serious trouble, start by having them identify their needs, resources, and if necessary, their legal rights and responsibilities. Have them focus on building a strong support network of people who have information they need, who are emotionally available, who have been where they are, and who can accept and love them unconditionally.
Have them take action: Establish and communicate their boundaries and follow through. Create opportunities for the kids to make choices and leave the door open for the kids to change their minds. Help them let go. And in the meantime, take care of themselves. This, too, shall pass.
Lack of Support
A lack of support from a spouse or parenting partner, other family members, neighbors, or the school can erode parents’ efforts as well. However, they can improve their chances for getting support when they specify their goals and needs. But even if all else fails, they can continue to move forward on their path regardless of how other people in their children’s lives behave.
They need to maintain their boundaries, their commitment, sobriety, and integrity—after all, this is their responsibility, although they don’t have to do it alone. If their family won’t support them, encourage them to find people who will.
Finally, there are the more subtle obstacles that come in the form of distractions in daily life that can push relationship-building to the tail end of their priority list. Help parents keep in touch with their commitment through journaling, inspirational literature, tapes, affirmations, people, or whatever little reminders that work for them. (One parent took a few index cards and drew a big plus sign on each one. He put one in his wallet, one in the car, one on the bathroom mirror and so on, just to remind himself to focus on the positive).
Help parents to enjoy the journey. Encourage them to laugh, play, and have fun together along the way. Remind them that although this may be the most important journey they will ever make, they needn’t forget to stop and smell the roses from time to time.
© Dr. Jane Bluestein, 1994, 2010, 2012, 2022
Click here for more information about Dr. Bluestein’s Parent Tapes on CD or mp3 download.
The Challenge of Setting Boundaries
Characteristics of a Good Boundary
9 Things to Remember when Setting a Boundary
11 Reasons to Use Boundaries
6 Reasons to Not Ask for Excuses
What’s Wrong with I-Messages
Rules & Boundaries (for educators)
Podcast: Is Control the Goal?
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