Dear Your Teen,
I have a 15-year-old son who has a strong group of five or six friends (all boys). We live in a small safe town where teens ride their bikes everywhere, go to the skatepark, store, hang out at the high school on weekends, etc. While we encourage our son’s social life, to a degree, he and his friends now want to wander around town at night on their bikes and are having more and more sleepovers. It is making me very nervous, in part, because I lost a brother to addiction and suicide many years ago. While I know my son is a very different kid and had very different parents, I’m still a nervous wreck. When he is out and about, I track him on an app, text him periodically, and give him a time when he needs to get to the sleepover house instead of wandering around town with his friends. But he keeps pushing this time later and later. I am having trouble setting boundaries on this one. I can’t decide whether I’m overreacting based on my past with my brother or whether my expectations are reasonable. My husband is having trouble with this one too.
How do I set boundaries and rules for my teenager? And how do I keep my own parenting anxiety from my past from turning me into an overprotective controlling parent?
ANSWER FROM OUR EXPERT | Tori Cordiano, Ph.D.
Setting limits with adolescents is difficult, in part because the situations are often fluid and in part because their desire for autonomy and independence becomes (appropriately) stronger as they age. Much of the decision-making around granting teenagers increased freedom should connect back to how they handle the freedoms they currently have.
Create boundaries by communicating limits and expectations with your teenagers.
If your son is generally responsible when he is out of the house and is honest about where he’s going and what he’s doing with his friends, it may make sense to allow him to spend more time with friends or to sleep at a friend’s house.
However, even with responsible teenagers, it is necessary to set limits and communicate parent expectations before they leave the house. For example, if you are permitting your son to sleepover at a friend’s house, you might require that he check in with you by a designated time to ensure that he is actually at the friend’s house.
It’s fair to talk with your son before he leaves for the evening to outline these limits and the consequences for not adhering to them. For example, you might let him know that if he does not check in with you or pushes the designated time later than feels safe, he will not be permitted to sleep at a friend’s house next time.
“A reasonable guideline for parenting adolescents is that with increased responsibility comes increased opportunities, but the inverse is also true.” ~ Tori Cordiano, Ph.D.
If your son acts impulsively or routinely finds himself in risky or unsafe situations, it makes sense to set stricter limits around a nighttime curfew or how far he can venture from home on his bike. For example, you could allow your son to spend time with friends but designate a certain time by which he needs to arrive at someone’s house, rather than “wandering around.” You might also decide to limit sleepovers to friends’ houses where you know the parents well or to eliminate sleepovers in favor of spending time with friends but coming home at a designated time.
Share safety concerns with your teenager and ask them to help brainstorm solutions.
There are also safety factors to consider, which your son may not be accurately assessing. Many teenagers interpret limits as a lack of trust in their behavior. Instead, sharing your safety concerns with your son may open the conversation to practical solutions to keep him safe. For example, safely riding a bike at night requires a helmet, a light, and reflective clothing. In addition, most cities have curfews in place for unsupervised minors, allowing you to point to the rules of your town, rather than your lack of trust in him, as an explanation for why your son needs to be home by a certain time.
Different families have different rules, but it’s reasonable to expect that if your son is sleeping at another person’s house, you know enough about where he is and who he is with to feel comfortable with the arrangement. Though we have the capability to track teenagers through their phones, talking through these situations and setting clear expectations in advance often does more to keep kids safe than following their movements remotely.
Separate your past from your child’s present moment.
You recognize that you come to this situation with fears based on your family of origin’s experience, which puts you in a good starting point. As parents, we’re not always aware of how our background affects our judgment of a situation with our own children. With an awareness that your history makes this issue more difficult for you to judge, you can start the work of separating your past from your son’s present experience.
Considering your son’s level of responsibility and decision-making capabilities, separate from who your brother was as a teenager, is a good place to start. Weighing these decisions with a co-parent is helpful because it can focus the conversation on your son’s current experience, rather than your experience growing up.
Getting to know your son’s friends might also help put your mind at ease. Inviting his friends to spend an evening at your house or offering to take them to a movie or another event, gives you a chance to see firsthand what your son’s relationships with his friends are like. If you find yourself unable to separate your past from the present moment to clearly set boundaries for your son, it might also be helpful to talk with a therapist or counselor to process your history and address your anxiety. Raising adolescents is a tough job, and parents deserve a high level of support in making decisions to keep kids safe.