Making Rules Teens Will Follow

All About Rules

It may seem surprising, but teens want parents to establish boundaries. They recognize parents play an important role in regulating certain parts of their lives. At the same time, they feel strongly that they deserve the freedom to dictate other parts of their lives. The way in which parents frame rules makes a difference in how teens react to them.

Don’t Make it About Control

These beliefs make sense when you consider the developmental process teens must go through on their journey towards an independent adulthood. Young people need to separate themselves from parents so they can learn to navigate the world on their own. Parents are the guides along the journey — but our guidance must not be about control. Rather, it must be about keeping teens safe and helping them get their bearings so they can ultimately find their own way. Conflict often occurs when parents try to control an area their teen feels is off limits. The key is to learn which aspects teens feel we do and do not have a say in. Then, we can create rules they’ll more likely follow and less likely rebel against.

Maximize Influence

Dr. Judith Smetana’s research helps us learn to set boundaries so teens will listen. Her work reveals the areas teens believe parents should have a say in — issues related to safety, values, and how to behave in society. On the other hand, teens are clear they do not believe parents have the right to interfere when it comes to their personal territory. This includes things like friendships, romantic relationships, clothing, hairstyle, or choice of music. The tricky part is parents and teens do not always agree on what does and does not qualify as personal. To maximize your influence, maintain open communication about why your rules exist. And, clearly link the rules to one of the three areas teens consider to be in your scope of authority.

Teens are more likely to accept a rule if they understand it’s there to keep them out of harm’s way.

1) Make Rules About Safety

Teens are more likely to accept a rule if they understand it’s there to keep them out of harm’s way. When possible, make rules about safety. For example, you might establish the rule that your newly licensed teen cannot drive with friends in the car. This is a safety issue for you as new drivers are at a higher risk of crashing when peers are in the car. But unless this connection is explicitly made, your teen might assume the rule is a personal attack against their friends (i.e. “Why do you hate my friends?”). To avoid misunderstandings, make it clear that your rule is in place (i.e. “You cannot drive with friends in the car…”) out of a concern to keep them safe (i.e. “…because the risk of crashing is too high and it is my job to keep you safe.”)

2) Make Rules About Values

Teens see parents as sources of support as they discover what it means to be a good person in a complex world. Parents play an important role in helping teens figure out what values are most important to them. Consider framing rules around your duty of ensuring that your teens develop character virtues like honesty, empathy, and integrity. Each family has their own unique set of values. It will be up to you to determine when, where, and how you apply rules that support your own family beliefs.

3) Make Rules About How to Act in Society

According to teens, parents are also responsible for teaching them about how to navigate social situations. Whenever possible, make it clear that rules are in place in order to prepare your teen to be successful in the future. This means following certain societal conventions. For example, you might exert your authority when it comes to choice of clothing for a job interview: “I want to help your chances of getting hired. Employers have certain expectations for what makes an outfit appropriate. I suggest you wear dress pants to the interview instead of  jeans. It sends the message that you take their workplace seriously.” Their outfit choice for a night out with friends? Find your inner Elsa and let it go.

If it Really is Personal

If you can’t fairly frame a rule around one of those three areas, consider whether your concern is really in “personal territory.” Take a breath and remember that entering this area might backfire. Your teen may view your concern as an effort to control them or interfere with their growing independence. This could push them into rebellion or make them less inclined to listen to you in areas they’d otherwise have welcomed your input. After you exhale, if the topic still remains critical to you, share your thoughts clearly and honestly. Make it about caring, not control. Open and straightforward communication is always a good thing.

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About Elyse Salek

Elyse Salek, M.S.Ed. is an Administrative Director of Research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Her degrees are in Psychology and Human Development from Middlebury College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Education. She is the proud mother of two children.

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