“I decided it wasn’t for me, Mom.” My 13-year-old daughter Nandini’s group of friends wanted to venture off on their own during an outing at an outdoor mall. My daughter made the choice to stay back near the parents who were chaperoning. When I asked later whether it was difficult to make that decision, she said, “I just didn’t think it was a safe option and I let my friends know I wasn’t comfortable participating.” I was relieved, because several not-so-good scenarios popped up in my mind of all the things that could have gone wrong if she had gone along with the group.
This particular situation ended well, but teens are often caught in difficult situations in which they don’t know what their personal boundaries are or how to articulate them. Even when their gut tells them to draw a line, an inability to explain their feelings can lead to difficulties with a parent, teacher, coach, or friend.
For example, what if my daughter’s group had decided to drop her as a friend based on her unwillingness to go along? Or, what if a teen ignores their gut feeling and goes along with something that makes them uncomfortable, rather than risk offending someone?
How to Help Teenagers Establish Boundaries
Boundaries are different for everyone, but the common thread is drawing a line to protect the self. “Children as young as 3 years old are capable of setting boundaries when someone is in their space by saying ‘no’ or ‘please move’ to classmates,” says Emily King, Ph.D., a psychologist in North Carolina. When a child reaches adolescence, those calls might become more difficult. For instance, resolving a difficulty with a particular teacher or deciding whether to quit a sport that has become all-consuming. Socially, it might be a difficulty with a friend who tends to make decisions for both themselves and your teenager without your teen’s input.
When a teen has a dilemma that might benefit from them drawing a line, “parents can begin discussions with their teens about what they have noticed,” King says, especially if they are hearing the same complaint over and over again. She suggests explicitly talking about finding and setting boundaries and about what is healthy and unhealthy.
“[Setting] boundaries means being clear with what is okay—and not okay—for us,” says Laurie Warren, wellness consultant and the author of the book, Wild World, Joyful Heart: Unlock Your Power to Create Health and Joy. What may work for one teen may not work for another. One teen may want to draw a line because they feel uncomfortable dancing to a video while their peers are looking. Or maybe they are hesitant to share private feelings in a big crowd. Another teen may eagerly say yes to everything without realizing consequences—and without consideration for their own desires or safety. It is crucial for parents to have a constant dialogue about how boundaries change and evolve depending on the teen’s age, personality, and situation.
When to Set Boundaries
Discomfort often accompanies unhealthy boundaries, such as going along with providing a friend the homework answers “just this once,” even though she has repeatedly asked for the answers before. It might even occur with a parent. For example, when the parent pushes the teen to join student council to boost their resume, and the teenager says yes to please them even though it conflicts with the art club that the teen is passionate about.
To sort through where the healthy line lies, King suggests explicitly discussing the following questions with teens:
- Do they feel safe?
- Do they feel respected?
- Do they feel heard? If not, are they confident enough to take a stand?
- Do they need support in speaking up?
It’s crucial to “pay attention to your child’s feelings and ask them to put their emotions into words,” says Warren. Regular conversations about emotions and mental health remind teens that their feelings and health matter. This provides a critical foundation for teens to understand that they can set boundaries against things that are unhealthy for them.
Strategies for Teens to Try
With peers, teens can employ boundary-setting phrases to help define limits, says King. Parents can suggest responses such as, “No thanks, I’m not comfortable with that,” “I don’t feel good about this situation. I’m going to talk this over with my parents and get back to you,” and “I need to think more about my decision and let you know tomorrow.” This practice can prepare teens for what to say without succumbing to the chaos of the moment.
Parents can also help teens negotiate dilemmas with adults. If your teen is struggling with a particular skill in a sport and feels embarrassed by how the coach responds, they might be nervous to discuss this face-to-face. King says that helping teens write emails to teachers and coaches can be good boundary-setting practice. “Crafting an email together can help parents [and teens] talk through the issue and wording of a respectful message to state the discomfort, ask for help, and create a plan for the solution.”
Ultimately, parents and teens may disagree on what needs to be done. “But teens need to feel heard by their parents. Feeling validated is the foundation of a dialogue to problem-solve uncomfortable situations together,” says King.
Sometimes these conversations become heated, but that is part of the process, says Warren. “Parents need to be willing to step outside themselves, not take it personally, and take a breather.”