Living with a teen can feel like you are constantly in a battle of control, control and more control. You notice that they grip on tightly to making decisions and they try to rule the household. From something as little as what time to go out to the restaurant for dinner to something as big as what activities they will engage in, they can reach an explosion point so quickly. What is this all about? Would you believe me if I told you, that, although this power struggle can be very uncomfortable and frustrating to live with, it’s actually a pretty awesome and positive experience your teen is going through?!
Teens are always walking the line between dependent and autonomous. It is one of their sole jobs to push up against these lines and see where they are able and allowed to be independent, as well as where they tread into the “absolutely not” zone. Unfortunately, you get the amazing task of being this gate keeper and that comes with a lot of confusion and conflict. “When should I hold the line?” “When do I back off and let them take the reigns a bit more?” “When do I let them fall and deal with a consequence?”
It’s totally gut-wrenching, I get it. Here’s a vision for you. Think of cows in a field. When you have a large open field of cattle and you first build a fence, their first instinct is to live along the line of that fence. They will literally push up against the fence and spend the majority of their time there. Even if there’s about 10,000 acres of open green in the middle. Why would they do this? Well, they’re establishing their relationship with the boundary. They need to know where that fence stands and they need to understand just how firm that boundary fence is. They peruse the line until they really understand whether or not this is a fence that can be broken through. Part of them probably wants to break through and roam, but a good part of them also comes to have a relationship with and feel a sense of ease in the security of being protected by that fence. When the fence is there, they know they are cared for. Eventually, they will back off the fence and live their life in the expansive open green in the middle – but this takes time.
Short of comparing your teen to cattle, keep this vision in mind the next time they push up against or override your boundary. This is right where they are supposed to be. Up against the fence line, pushing on it to see just how firm and sturdy it is. As much as they want to roam free, they also need to know that someone cares enough to build a fence that protects them from the wolves getting in.
The hard part about raising a teen is that you’re constantly building fences and also putting in some gates on the old ones. You come to see that in some areas of their lives, you really have to hold that boundary firm. Maybe you’re working to build that fence out of brick and mortar. While in other areas of their life where having a full fence once made sense, you find that it doesn’t quite work anymore. It’s time to put in a gate and let them take a little bit more responsibility. It tugs at your heart strings to pull back and let them embrace the consequence of failing an exam, as you no longer micromanage their homework load, or struggle in a friendship where it doesn’t make sense for you to play the mediator anymore.
You are doing the right thing. You are giving your teen an opportunity here. When they can experience some setbacks and consequences, in a safe and loving environment, where they still have a support network to fall into – this is when a teen really starts to grow. These are the teens that become well-rounded and confident adults.
Here are five tips to help you and your teen get moving in making the boundaries work for you and your family again
- Establish the No-Go Zones. Sit down and write down a short list of what is absolutely unacceptable in your family. What are the things that you really strive to protect your teen from. Maybe it’s substance use, underage drinking, toxic people or being away from the home and not texting updates for an extended amount of time. Let your teen see this list. Remind them now, “these are the core values of our family that I really expect you to uphold”. This is your attempt to show them the sturdy fences in their life. When we let them know the hard lines, they see the other areas where there may be room for them making their own decisions. Even if they reject these hard lines, it will help establish a sense of certainty and security for your teen that there is someone in their life, building a fence that keeps the wolves at bay.
- Ask your teen for input. Let them have some voice in this process. Be curious and accept their input, even if you don’t agree. Ask your teen, “In what areas of your life does it feel like the rules are too strict” or “Okay, what are some tasks or areas of your life that you’re ready to take more responsibility over?”. Keep them accountable that this is not a willy nilly, “we’re nixing all the rules!”, rather a time for them to identify where they can step up to the plate a little bit more, and that, if they responsibly take some ownership over these areas, they will also gain your trust and naturally a bit more freedom.
- Help your teen identify their strengths. Remind your teen that they can do this. Teens are resilient, creative and determined. Chances are, your teen also has some other strengths that could work in their favor. They might have some approaches or ideas that you’ve never considered.
- Meet in the middle. Compromise communicates to your teen that you are willing to let them take that reigns, while still having the supports in place to get them back to the stable. When we just say “no” as a knee jerk reaction, chances are that teen will push harder and harder to break through the fence. When we give them a bit of an input in how high or how firm the fence is built, they are much more willing to stay within the boundary because they were involved in the process. They come to understand and respect the boundary with much more ease.
- Remind your teen of the why’s behind building fences. Teens are at that prime age where they are really growing in to their own understanding of the world around them and developing their own beliefs about things. This can be so frustrating, but also so, so, cool. When they really understand the “why” behind a boundary, they stop feeling ruled and start understanding the whole system. You immediately get their buy in when they believe in the vision.
If your teen continues to live outside the boundary in ways that are counterproductive and destructive, it may be time for them to get more tools and support in their life. Call me today at (805)774-1449 and we can discuss ways to support you and your teen in getting them back on the right track.