Firm Expectations About Risky Behaviors

Set Firm, Clear Expectations When It Comes to Risky Behaviors

When it comes to risky behaviors, as parents and caregivers, we must stand firm and hold our children to high expectations. If a behavior threatens safety, they need to know that we would say, “Don’t do it.” If a situation compromises morality, the line must be drawn. Adolescents thrive and survive when adults in their lives establish very clear expectations about behaviors that are not allowed.

Finding a Balance is Challenging

Our challenge? We want to protect our children as they grow. But we also know if we overprotect them, that can be potentially harmful as well. Why? Because children of all ages need chances to maneuver through real-life challenges in order to learn to succeed and fail. So, as parents we need to strike a balance. Adolescence is a time in which tweens and teens must test boundaries and as parents we are potentially the biggest influence on their behavior and choices.

It is your role to have clearly established and firm expectations regarding safety issues.

There Are Some Limits You Never Go Beyond

Here at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, you’ll find plenty of material and resources teaching flexibility and explaining why teens need to test limits. But here is where we say, “There are some limits you never go beyond.”

Think about a time when your children were younger. A time when you allowed for more trial and error. It was okay for your children to spill flour on the floor as you showed them how to make chocolate chip cookies. You didn’t mind if they splattered egg on the counter when they mixed ingredients together. But it was not okay for them to put their hands on the hot oven rack, or to retrieve finished cookie pans without using a potholder. Now that they are older, ask yourself, what are the “hot oven” issues they face today?

Your Role in Establishing Firm Expectations

It is your role to have clearly established and firm expectations regarding safety issues. We all want to be safe, and drawing boundaries allows adolescents to feel that way. When you give teens clear borders that they can’t stray beyond you are also giving them a defined space they can take chances within.

There’s another way in which these defined rules and expectations keep teens safe. They give teens the ability to blame parents or caregivers to get out of uncomfortable situations. They allow teens to be certain (and vocal) about consequences. Using a code word strategy in which teens can blame parents gives them an “out.” “Are you kidding? My mother would ground me for the rest of the year if I were to _________ (fill in the blank here)!”

Areas in Which You Must Establish Expectations

We don’t know your neighborhood, your household or the unique circumstances you and your family face every day. But we do know that to ensure your expectations are met you must communicate with your tweens and teens in three key areas. You must make clear and firm statements about:

  1. Substance use (including drugs and alcohol)
  2. Protecting and cherishing their bodies as well as respecting others (in particular, the importance of protecting themselves both physically and emotionally in any type of sexual or romantic situation)
  3. Driving (wearing a seatbelt, understanding dangerous consequences when using drugs and alcohol combined with driving, what to do if they are stopped by the police)

Of course, this is not a complete list. You and your family may have other important issues deserving of conversations in which you set up clear expectations.

Take a Moment for Reflection

Take some time for personal reflection before having these serious discussions. Think about why you do and say certain things. Allow yourself to gain awareness about the messages you want to convey. That may mean taking some extra time for example, to do some research on the topic you wish to discuss, or talking with a professional or trusted member of your community, or even practicing what you want to say. Then find a good time and appropriate place to talk with your teen about these boundaries and your expectations.

By establishing firm expectations for teens to live up to, we send them a positive message. We let them know that we see the best they have to offer. We trust them to take certain risks. And we understand it’s those opportunities and challenges that will help them further learn to become loving, productive, successful adults who will give back to their own families and larger communities.

Image by: Samantha Lee/Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia


Setting Boundaries

Adolescence is a time to test limits. Parents should set boundaries that permit exploration, but that also keep children safe. Click through to discover ways you can effectively create limits for teens.



Begin by reminding teens how much they are loved. When children know parents are on their side, they are less likely to feel as though you’re out to stop them from having fun and more likely to understand you’re preparing them for a successful future.



Point out that rules are a fact of life for everyone. Doing so helps teens understand living within certain limits is a normal part of life.



Make expectations clear. Talk with teens when emotions aren’t running high. Review established limits as well as the consequences of ignoring them.


Be Consistent

Young people should be aware that boundaries for keeping them safe won’t change. Other limits are flexible, expanding as they demonstrate trustworthiness.

About Eden Pontz

Eden Pontz is Executive Producer and Director of Digital Content for CPTC. She oversees digital media content development and production for She also writes, copyedits, and produces articles, podcasts, and videos for the site. Her pieces cover a range of topics including teen development, peer pressure, and mentoring. Eden brings years of experience as a former Executive Producer of Newsgathering at CNN, as well as a field producer, writer, and reporter for CNN and other news organizations.

Read more articles by this author

Get our weekly newsletter for practical tips to strengthen family connections.