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Setting Healthy Rules and Consequences for Teenagers

Logan Tucker had agreed to check in with her mom or dad, Amy and Steven, at the end of each school day. Yet, every afternoon, Amy would return home from work to an empty house—no note and no phone call.

“We told her a hundred times to check in with a phone call or a note,” remembers Amy, looking back on the years when Logan was a teen. “We should have imposed consequence the first time Logan ignored our rules.”

Like many parents of teenagers, Amy and Steven wish that they had been clearer with their expectations and more consistent with imposing consequences.

The shift into adolescence is a good opportunity to change the rules and consequences for your teenagers. The system that operated with young children will likely no longer work for teens.

If you chose a permissive style prior to adolescence and now want to impose some restrictions, it’s not too late.

In fact, regardless of prior style, parents should seize the opportunity during this transitional stage to impose limits for a teenager. According to Neil Bernstein, author of How To Keep Your Teenager Out Of Trouble And What To Do If You Can’t, “Limits are the pathway to self-control. The absence of rules can create impulsive kids who lack self-discipline.”

You might want to adopt change, but don’t know where to begin. Suzanne Schnepps, a psychologist who specializes in children and families, suggests that parents speak with their teens, acknowledging that the rules are about to change.

“When parents are proactive and clear about the rules and consequences, teens will understand the expectations, thereby creating the best chance for success,” says Schneps.

Including teenagers in the discussion can be effective parenting. Your teenagers will know that they will have a voice in the creation of the rulebook.

7 Steps for Setting Rules for Your Teenager

1. Start the conversation.

Begin to establish limits with your teens by identifying what is REALLY important, separating the non-negotiables from the negotiables. Have another meeting with your teenager so that you can air the issues without an expectation of resolution. Everyone will leave to think about the issues. Reconvene to discuss, with each party having considered where they can be flexible.

These discussions yield more than the ultimate goal of setting limits. They create a healthy system of effective communication and send your teens a powerful message that their input is valuable. They will also help your teenager to take ownership, thereby increasing the likelihood of adhering to the limits.

“Imposing rules and consequences without acceptance by your teen will likely be ignored,” says Bernstein.

2. Open the floor to negotiations.

Teens must feel like they have a choice. Parents of younger children can issue a command like, “No dessert until you finish your dinner” or “Go clean your room now.” As children get older, they need a different approach, like “You can make certain that you are in our house by 11 p.m., or I can pick you up at 10:30 p.m. Which do you prefer?”

According to Dr. Lisa Damour, a clinician in private practice and co-director of the Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls in Shaker Heights Ohio, the best case scenario is when “parents script the options, but teens get to choose. Through their behavior, teens select their own outcomes. Most importantly, though, parents must script options that they can live with.”

For instance, do not offer to pick up your teens at 10:30 p.m. if you are not going to be available.

3. Understand that excessive rules may backfire.

“Teens are in search of autonomy,” Damour says. “As a parent, your best chance for success is to support their quest for autonomy.”

Parents who impose excessive rules may be surprised by the end result. Bernstein shares a common scenario: Parents impose a 9:30 p.m. curfew on their 16-year-old son, with no flexibility whatsoever. The parents check their son’s emails, Instagram account, and cell phone messages. They interrogate him (without provocation) on almost everything he does. Even the slightest violation of a limit is met with excessive restrictions. The teenager grows increasingly angry and becomes sneakier.

“Often, kids tell me it doesn’t matter what they do because they’ll be punished anyway—so they might as well break the rules,” Bernstein says.

He calls it an escalating cycle of control and rebellion. The more the parent tries to control, the more the teen rebels.

4. Recognize that tension is unavoidable.

For many parents, tension with their teenager is unbearable. Some may want to back down on a rule to help mitigate their teenager’s anger, while others can tolerate being momentarily disliked because they can focus on the long-term goal.

Sandy Laserson of University Heights, Ohio, suffers when her teens are angry with her; yet, she feels strongly that she must protect her children. So, she gave an emphatic “No” when her daughter wanted to sleep over a friend’s house while the parents were out-of-town. She stood firm against her daughter’s anger.

“I had no choice. My answer was unpopular, but it felt right,” Laserson admits.

Schneps advises, “Daily parenting decisions may be very unpopular, resulting in tension in the parent/child relationship, but to accomplish the long-term goal, tension is unavoidable.”

Also, consider that even though your teen may negotiate to the point of exhaustion, they may still want you to say no. Rules and consequences for teenagers can provide a good scapegoat out of peer pressure, allowing teens to blame good behavior on parents and escape teasing from their friends.

5. Focus on limits that make a difference.

Family dinners

Family dinner is a powerful tool. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University reported that teens who regularly participated in family dinners (five or more per week) were less likely to report risky behavior. Amy and Steve Tucker regret that their family did not designate certain days of the week as family meal times. Scheduling family dinners would have been an indication that each member placed the family above all else. “To know that dinner time has been carved out of everyone’s calendar, to spend time together talking and sharing, that would have been a tremendously positive and powerful force,” Steve says.

Adult supervision

Adult supervision of teens during after-school hours reduces the likelihood of risky behavior. Supervision doesn’t mean chaining a teen to an adult, but rather placing the teen under the awareness of an adult. “Supervision should be commensurate with past behavior,” Bernstein advises.

6. Establish and enforce consequences.

Consequences imply a different parenting approach than punishments. When parents punish, they are often angry and want their teens to suffer for their wrongdoing.

Consequences, when relevant and appropriate, are a learning opportunity.

“Good consequences increase the likelihood that bad behavior won’t be repeated,” Bernstein says. Parents should consider including the “offender” in the discussion about appropriate consequences. Frequently, parents find that teens impose creative and appropriate sentences on themselves, and if your teenager offers less appealing suggestions, you can reject them. Either way, your teens will appreciate their inclusion in the process.

Consequences should match the gravity of the offense, but before you impose a consequence, be certain that it works for you as well.

You must be able to follow through. For example, you can’t take away the keys to the car if you need your teen to drive the siblings to school. Exercise caution in taking away life events. The infraction should be egregious before you take away something like Prom. Lastly, consider whether society has already imposed a consequence, like getting kicked off the sports team for cheating on a test. That message may be the most effective and completely adequate.

In an ideal world, parents establish the rules and consequences and clearly articulate both to their teens. However, even the best plans will not cover every scenario. Expect surprises.

“The nature of adolescence is to strive for shock value,” Schneps says. “So be prepared to not be prepared.”

In these instances, it’s best to acknowledge that you were caught off guard and need to think about the consequences before you get back to your teenager.

Even the best-laid consequences should include a chance for reprieve. If you sense that your teenager has absorbed your message and has shown remorse, effective parenting can involve renegotiating the terms.

7. Dedicate yourself to follow-through.

Parents must follow through with the imposed consequences. The primary reason parents cave on follow-through is because they can’t tolerate their children being mad at them. So be prepared to acknowledge your fear when they tell you they hate you, and then use the following resources to help you deal with it:

  • Create a support group for yourself
  • Call a friend
  • Seek professional counsel
  • Talk to your spouse
  • Read self-help books for validation
  • Know yourself; model good coping skills for your teens
  • Keep in mind that everyone’s feelings will change and change and change

The most important lesson we can teach our children is to how to develop into healthy, self-confident, independent, happy adults. According to Schneps, “When they struggle, we need to give them the tools for when we are not there. In high school, our kids have a safety net that disappears upon graduation. Mistakes in high school become an opportunity to prepare for life.”

Susan Borison, mother of five, is the founder and editor of Your Teen Media. Because parenting teenagers is humbling and shouldn’t be tackled alone.

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