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How To Set Effective Boundaries With Defiant Teens

As a youngster grows into an adolescent, parents often discover that their usual disciplinary methods are no longer effective. Many parents come to realize that they are no longer “in charge” – and that positive change needs to happen soon as their teenager is seemingly on a course of self-destruction.

When old disciplinary techniques no longer work, the parent may be tempted to try and be her teen's “friend” in a last ditch effort to maintain the peace. But, even when teens are rebelling, they still need the parent to be the parent (not a “buddy”) and let them know what the rules and boundaries are. Adolescents need to figure out what being a young adult means for them, and this will inevitably lead to some clashes with the parent.

If the parent’s way of setting boundaries used to be to “lay down the law” with her children (e.g., to insist, “Because I said so!”), she may find it more difficult now with her teenagers. It's much easier to exert pressure on youngsters who look up to the parent than it is over adolescents who are seeking their autonomy. Younger kids have a vested interest in maintaining the security that comes from them feeling that the parent knows best. Adolescents are not like that!

One of the major tasks of adolescence is to learn to “take control” and to decide what is right and wrong. One of the first things adolescents may discover is that the sanctions that the parent can impose are not that powerful. Teens may be the parent’s size – or bigger. What keeps teenagers in the house when they're grounded is mutual consent and mutual respect – not pressure tactics from the parent.

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

The only thing that might (emphasis on “might”) make teens do what the parent says is the thought of what it may do to the parent-child relationship afterwards if they defy the parent. But if the relationship is already going downhill, and if the sense of defiance is greater than the need for parental approval, then the “parent-child relationship” takes a back seat (in the mind of the teenager).

So what can parents do in this situation? While boundaries are important, parents will find that it's much more effective to enforce them by considering the various needs being expressed when they clash with their teenager. This may mean swallowing their pride and need to be in control. A younger kid needs parental approval. An adolescent wants parental approval too, but he or she wants “respect” even more!

The physical, mental, emotional and social changes that happen to an adolescent can have a profound effect on the entire family. As the mom or dad, it may feel important to keep things the same (e.g., the parent being the one giving the orders). But at a time when adolescents are developing and looking to a new self, having the parent give the orders and trying to put the brakes on the change often provokes even more rebellion than they might have shown anyway. Thus, when adolescents defy the parent, she will do well to reach for a new way of exerting discipline. 

Discipline is something parents do to help their teens learn (the original meaning of the word is “to teach”). The best way to get adolescents to behave in ways that please the parent is to help them understand what they actually want and need, and to see how they can get those needs met in ways that don’t disrespect the parent.

Parental punishment and control is not what adolescents need when struggling with their conflicting emotions. When adolescents act up, they are often fighting to get parental attention, acceptance and appreciation – as well as independence. The parent can help her teens by talking openly about the changes they are going through, helping them express their feelings, giving them plenty of time and attention, as well as providing love, reassurance and support.

Boundaries work far better if they are made and agreed together with adolescents. When adolescents understand the reasons behind the parent’s decision, and see that she has taken their opinions into account, they may be more motivated to co-operate.

Boundaries help the parent to keep her children safe. But as they get older, the parent will need to negotiate and let them take more responsibility for their own safety. There may be times when the parent’s values conflict with the values that her teens are learning from other people and the media. This may be when she finds herself negotiating.

The parent should talk to her adolescents and let them know what is important to her and why, then give them a chance to respond – and really listen to what they have to say. When the parent is genuinely willing to compromise, she may find that the conversation is much more effective, as her adolescents gain a sense of responsibility. Parents need to figure out what is really important, and what could be let go of. Too many rules cause resentment and are impossible to maintain. Thus, striking a balance and being prepared to re-negotiate is crucial to the success of raising teenagers.


==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

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