All About Rules
It may seem surprising but teens want parents to make rules and set boundaries. And if established effectively, they are more likely to follow them. Teens recognize that parents play an important role in regulating certain parts of their lives. At the same time, teens feel strongly that they deserve the freedom to dictate other parts of their lives. The way in which parents structure and frame rules makes the difference in how teens react to them.
It’s Not About Control
These beliefs make perfect sense when you consider the developmental process teens must go through on their journey towards independence. During adolescence, teens need to separate themselves from parents so they can learn to navigate the world on their own. To respect this, parents must learn to balance their own need to monitor and protect with teens’ desire to have a life separate from parents. Parents are the guides along the journey. But their guidance must not be about control — rather it is to help teens get their bearings so they can ultimately find their own way.
Conflict often occurs when parents try to control areas of a teen’s life that the teen feels are out of the parents’ scope. The key is for parents to understand which aspects teens feel their parents do and do not have the right to control. Then, parents can frame their rules so that teens will be more likely to follow them and less likely to rebel.
Maximize Your Influence
Dr. Judith Smetana’s research helps parents learn to set rules and boundaries teens will listen to. It reveals that the areas teens believe parents should have a say in are issues related to safety, values, and how to behave in society. On the other hand, teens are clear that 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 that parents and teens do not always agree on what does and does not qualify as personal. To maximize your influence on your teens’ behavior, maintain open communication about the why behind a rule. And clearly link the rule to one of the three areas teens consider to be in your scope of authority.
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. Whenever possible, parents should make rules about safety. For example, a parent might establish the rule that their newly licensed teen cannot drive with friends in the car. This is a safety issue for the parent because it is known that new drivers are at a higher risk of crashing when peers are in the car. To the parent this is clearly about safety. But unless this connection is explicitly made, the teen might incorrectly assume the rule is a personal attack against his friends (i.e. “Why do you hate my friends?”). Instead, the parent should make it clear that the rule is in place (i.e. you cannot drive with friends in the car) out of a concern to keep the teen safe (i.e. because the risk of crashing is too high and it is my job to keep you safe).
Make Rules About Values
Teens see parents as sources of support and advice as they discover right from wrong. 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 values like honesty and integrity. Each family has their own unique set of values, and it will be up to you as a parent to determine when, where, and how you apply rules that support your values.
Make Rules About How to Act in Society
According to teens, parents are also responsible for teaching them about how to behave in society and to find their way in social situations. Whenever possible, parents should make it clear that certain rules are in place in order to prepare their teens to be successful in the future. That often involves following certain societal expectations and conventions. For example, parents might exert their authority when it comes to their teens’ choice of clothing for a job interview by saying, “I want to help your chances of getting hired. Employers have certain expectations for what makes an outfit appropriate for the workplace. I strongly suggest you wear your dress pants to the interview instead of your jeans. It sends the message that you take their workplace seriously.”
If it Really is Personal
If you can’t fairly frame a rule to be about values, safety, or behaving appropriately in society, consider whether your concern is really in “personal territory.” Sometimes the best thing you can do, in this case, is to take a breath and let it go. Entering this area might backfire. Your teens might 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 thoughts.
If something is in “gray” territory, try to frame it in one of the “acceptable” areas discussed above. If that feels like too much of a stretch, and the topic remains critical to you, just share your thoughts clearly and honestly. Make it about caring, not control. Open and straightforward communication is always a good thing. Just as you are asking your teens to be flexible enough to hear your concerns, be open to hearing theirs.
Meet Teens Where They’re At
The above strategies meet teens where they are at in terms of their development. It can be challenging for teens to make the connection between a rule and a long-term, uncertain outcome. This is especially true if the rule you suggest interferes with an immediate pleasure. It may make them mistakenly think this is about your controlling them or trying to “ruin” their personal life.
Parents can help teens see that rules and boundaries exist to guide and protect them. We must support their future development by putting rules in place that keep them safe, moral and successful in society. Explaining your role in this way helps teens understand the purpose behind the boundary and increases the likelihood they’ll accept and follow the rules.