Boundaries protect your teen’s right to feel safe, respected and validated. They help teens create a strong sense of identity, and they’re a part of every healthy relationship. But setting boundaries is not easy, even for many adults. Here are five steps to help you teach your teen how to set boundaries skillfully.


Boundaries are often misunderstood, so teach your teen the basics. “Boundaries are respectful guidelines that establish how others behave around you,” says Dr. Tracy Hutchinson. “It is essential to have personal boundaries to have healthy relationships. Personal boundaries are important because you set basic guidelines of how you want to be treated. It is your job to teach (others) about your boundaries for your own mental health and wellness.” As teens become more independent and self-responsible, knowing that they’re the ones in charge of their personal boundaries helps them advocate for themselves with confidence.


Without practice identifying emotions, teens may miss out on important internal cues that tell them when a situation is not safe. Teach teens to monitor the physical sensations accompanying their emotions to recognize when a boundary is needed. Feelings of hesitation, discomfort and uncertainty – like a nervous, churning stomach or a prickly feeling on the back of the neck – tell teens there’s something not-quite-right and they should say “no way.” In other situations – like when a friend says something mean – emotional awareness helps teens set boundaries by clearly stating why a behavior is unacceptable: “Please don’t say that because it hurts my feelings.”


Remember the old expression about sticks and stones? Now we know that words can hurt. Boundaries help teens protect themselves from physical, mental and emotional harm. Teens need to know that they are in charge of deciding what feels safe for them, and boundaries may change in different situations and with different people. Physical boundaries include their bodies and personal space. Psychological boundaries protect teens from things like bullying and peer pressure. Emotional boundaries should be established when, for example, someone dismisses or criticizes their feelings. 


To become their own advocates, teens need to get comfortable with being both authentic and assertive. Authenticity means they know it’s ok to be themselves, including feeling all their feelings. Assertiveness means they can stand up for themselves with confidence. Most parents say they want their teens to be authentic and assertive, but the behavior teens learn at home may not always support those traits. For example, if parents are people-pleasers, teens may learn to put others’ wants and needs ahead of their own well-being – increasing the likelihood of being bullied. Make it a point to model authenticity and assertiveness at home. Celebrate when you see your teen speaking from the heart, being vulnerable, taking a stand, or doing something unpopular because it’s the right thing to do.


Setting boundaries takes a lot of practice. It’s often called for intense, emotional or confusing situations, like when a teen’s friend pressures them to do something they don’t want to do. Teens may know it’s ok to be authentic and assertive but still need time to think about their response. In those cases, it’s helpful to have a few ready phrases like, “I need to check with my parents, but I’ll let you know after I talk to them,” or, “Let me think about that and get back to you.” Other key phrases include “Please stop,” “I’m not feeling that right now,” “No thanks,” and even just “No.” Parents can help teens practice lots of responses to different scenarios, so speaking up for themselves becomes second nature.

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