How to set clear boundaries for your teenWritten by Mark Gregston
What's inside this article
It is never an easy "enlightenment" to find out that your teen has been doing things that are hardly acceptable, and it can be completely devastating when the truth comes out. Most parents are appalled. They just "can’t believe" that their child would "ever do such a thing."
Consider the letter I received just the other day . . .
Saturday night our 15-year old son informed us he felt guilty because he has been smoking pot and lying about it for the last six months. He confessed to our Assistant Pastor, whom he respects, and who encouraged our son to tell us. As you can well imagine, this has been quite a blow. My heart has been broken. I can't stop crying. I never, ever thought I'd go down this road with him. We agree our son needs discipline, but I fear my husband will be too harsh, and it will cause my son to further rebel. What is the right thing to do here?
Troubled . . . – California
My response . . .
You might be dealing with just an ice cube, or you might have just touched on the tip of the iceberg. Until you dive in, you won’t be able to tell the difference between the two. In the first place, try to remain calm. You have many things working in your favour in dealing with your son, such as:
- He confessed, so you didn’t have to "find it out" or make any "new discoveries."
- He said he feels guilty about what he was doing.
- He respects someone outside the family and felt comfortable telling them, and then you.
- He’s been grounded in scriptural principles regarding his character.
Discipline is only half the solution
It is good that you are trying to get a handle on the issue. And you are wise to carefully consider the discipline that you are about to take. But, before you take the plunge, here’s something to think about. Sometimes parents are quick to hand out discipline or punishment — like grounding, extraction from social interaction, or taking away privileges or possessions. Discipline is good, but taking away something won’t always solve the problem entirely. It is only half of the solution for a teenager, who wants to also be treated more like an adult, not a child.
Remember that smoking pot may be an attempt to numb the hurt he feels. When he is using such drugs, the hurt temporarily goes away. Don’t add to those hurts by going "overboard" with the disciplines you hand down or by telling him how disappointed you are in him. Fortifying your household boundaries, adding some new healthy boundaries, and strengthening your relationship will provide better results.
Boundaries are simply limits set around behaviour to try to change the direction a child is going. They define what you will and won't accept, and should come from what you believe is right for your teen at this stage in his life and for your family.
Childhood vs. lifelong boundaries
Boundaries include what your son already knows, what you’ve taught him all his life, and they are why he is feeling guilty about smoking pot. But sometimes teens get confused by which boundaries are "childhood" boundaries and which are lifelong boundaries. For instance, holding mom’s hand as you walk across the street is a childhood boundary. Avoiding illegal or immoral activity is a lifelong boundary. The goal, then, is to make it clear to your teen which boundaries are now appropriate for him, according to the values you hold dear and just common sense (you may have noticed that teens don’t always have a lot of common sense).
Some healthy new boundaries could also include requiring your son to meet regularly with your assistant pastor, the one that he respects. Call and ask if that person is willing to meet your son for the next six weeks in order to talk through any underlying issues that are fueling his behaviour or the feelings that led him to try pot in the first place. Tell your son you expect him to participate fully, and that during this time you will limit his other activities and contact with friends, specifically those that encouraged smoking pot.
Another positive boundary is to tell him that you will be testing him for drug use at home, using simple urine tests that you can buy at your local pharmacy. Tell him that any positive signs of drug use will result in a further plan of action. Knowing you’ll test him for drugs periodically will help him avoid the pressure of using pot (or worse) when he is with friends or at school. In other words, he’ll be able to say to them, "I can’t, because my parents are testing me and I’ll be in real trouble if the test comes out positive."
Establish healthy communication with your teen
As you develop healthy boundaries, make it a point for both you and your husband to spend time with your son on a regularly scheduled basis. Set up a weekly breakfast or dinner with just him. Be sure to mostly listen, not talk. Begin and end your discussion with making sure he understand that there is nothing he can do to make you love him more, and there’s nothing he can do to make you love him less. Don’t be afraid to ask him the hard questions.
Your goal should be to establish a solid relationship, encourage ongoing discussions, and as a result, other things he is struggling with will be revealed. Often a teen is acting out due to deeper issues. Is he struggling with his sexuality, or are bullies threatening him at school, or does he feel intimidated by his peers into doing the same wrong things they are doing, or could he be struggling with depression or low self-esteem? Ask him if he needs your help, or the help of anyone else. Seek professional help if needed.
Avoid lecturing, begin listening and observing
The bottom line is to avoid lecturing and begin listening and observing. Teenagers simply don’t respond to lecturing and it may take awhile for them to open up to you, but keep trying. And don’t let the disappointment you feel cause you to pass judgment or condemn him, because he probably already feels badly enough, even if he doesn’t outwardly show it. Remember, this isn’t about you, your reputation, or your parenting skills. It is about him.
Move from disappointment and judgment to compassion, but make it clear what the boundaries are.
Take advantage of the opportunity before you to keep the relationship open and alive. Stand your ground concerning the boundaries, and add some new boundaries, but strive to get through it all with your relationship intact. Then your son will learn to respect the healthy boundaries you’ve put into place in his life, and in the future will continue to come to you whenever he is struggling.
Mark Gregston is founder of Heartlight residential counselling centre for teens in East Texas and the radio broadcast Parenting Today's Teens. Learn more about his ministry at Heartlightministries.org.
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