Setting limits

In a wink, hormones can shift your teen's emotions and behaviors into overdrive, sending her off into risky territory. While her judgment skills are developing, she needs you to keep her safe by setting clear limits backed up with firm consequences.

Balanced limits build trust between parents and teens.

Teens need limits to keep them safe and help them grow

Teens need limits to keep them safe and help them grow.

Lots of parents are afraid to set limits. They think it will build a wall between them and their teen. In truth, limits actually show your teen that you care. The tricky part is finding a balance between your need for control and your teen's need for independence. But it's totally worth the effort.

A University of California (Berkeley) study found that parents who set clear, consistent rules but also give their teens some freedom are definitely doing something right. Their teens score higher on tests; are more mature, positive, and skilled in social situations; and are much less likely to use alcohol and drugs than other teens.1

1 Diana Baumrind, "The Influence of Parenting Style on Adolescent Competence and Substance Use," Journal of Early Adolescence 11(1), 1991, 56-95

Every teen is different. Figure out where yours needs limits.

Some of our teens need a lot of structure to be successful; others don't. Depending on your teen's personality and routine, you might consider setting boundaries that spell out:

  • What she can and can't do during after school.*
  • When she has to do homework.
  • When she can use the computer and what she can use it for.
  • When and how long she can use the phone.
  • When she needs be home at night on weekends.
  • What kinds of parties she can go to and who she can go with.
  • When and why she can use a car and ride in one.

*This is prime time for experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Having an adult around during these hours is one of the most effective ways to keep kids clean.

Let your teen help create the rules. (They'll work better.)

Teens are much more likely to obey rules and limits that they help to create. Work with your teen to figure out what you both can live with. Be open-minded about her goals and needs — and crystal clear about yours.

Remember, each boundary has to:

  • Work for both of you. So if she works after school to pay for her guitar lessons, setting a rule that says her homework has to be done by dinnertime isn't practical. But if you want to check her work before she turns it in, it's not practical to give her until 8 a.m. the next day to finish. Find the middle ground.
  • Make your expectations clear. Saying "Be civil to people." is vague. Saying "Don't yell, swear, hit, or break things." spells out what you expect.

Work together on consequences, too.

There's got to be a price for stepping over the line. (Otherwise, why would a teen pay attention to limits?) Let your teen help you define the consequences. Here are a few questions to keep in mind as you go:

  • Does the punishment fit the crime? Grounding her for a week may be too harsh when she's 20 minutes late for dinner, but reasonable when she misses curfew by two hours.
  • Can you enforce the consequence? If your teen stays home alone while you work the night shift, a consequence that says she has to be in bed by 8 p.m. isn't practical. (Who would make sure she is?)
  • Is the consequence clear? Saying, "If you miss curfew, you can't use the car." is vague. Saying, "For every 30 minutes you're late, you lose your right to use the car for one day." makes the cost clear.

As a wrap up, make sure you're both on the same page. Ask your teen to say each limit and consequence out loud. You may even want to put the details in writing.


Here's a contract you can start with.

This contract spells out rules about using drugs and alcohol.1 You can it as-is or type in your own rules. (click and drag to edit text).

[ This section available online only. ]


1 Adapted from a pledge found at Mothers Against Drug Driving

Then prepare yourself. She will cross a line. It's only natural.

All teens make mistakes. That's how they learn. And when she does, you're bound to be mad. But keep your emotions in check. Avoid making empty threats or you'll lose credibility. Take time to cool off, then calmly tell her about your disappointment, anger, or frustration. (Your feelings can be a very powerful motivator for her.) And in the end, remember your agreement — only enforce the consequences you talked about, no surprises.

When things are going well — which will be most of the time — be sure to tell her you noticed. Everyone likes a pat on the back, a word of thanks, or a compliment. Who knows? She might do the same for you some day.

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