What Teens Hear When Parents Set Rules

Communicating Rules: What Parents Say and What Teens May Hear

Rule-setting and monitoring is more than a necessary task of parenting. It is essential to raising children to thrive far into the future. While we may feel we’re communicating effectively, there’s a chance our teens are not hearing the boundaries we’re setting exactly as we intended. You may need to use a different communication strategy altogether; it could make all the difference.

Rules Must Have Reasons

Rules only count if they are followed. Young people only willingly follow rules they know benefit them, and tend to rebel against or ignore those they resent or see as meaningless. We must strategically communicate with our tweens and teens so they clearly understand the meaning behind the boundaries we set.

We have to be clear that we set rules for two key reasons:

1) To keep them safe

2) To prepare them to navigate a world full of rules.

Above all, we want our teens to understand we set limits because we care for and about them. We want them to grasp that rules are designed to protect them and that we monitor them because we love them.

Rules are Not Restrictions

Rules shouldn’t stifle creativity and innovative thinking. There is room for both. Following rules shouldn’t diminish happiness. It should reinforce how much we care about safety. Clear boundaries shouldn’t eliminate new experiences. They should create room for healthy risk-taking within safe borders.

When we set rules, and monitor those we have put in place, we communicate consistency and that the rules are important and must be followed.

When teens understand why we put rules into place, they are more likely to both follow and appreciate them. Really. Young people want to be safe and to do the right thing.

When Rules Don’t Work

If we do not clearly lay out why our rules exist, our tweens and teens are likely to see rules as efforts to control them. Adolescents must expand their horizons in their quest for independence. For this reason, they have a heightened sensitivity to anything that disrupts their need to gain increasing responsibilities and opportunities. They may mistakenly see our rules as an effort to keep them from growing. If they do see limits this way, they may naturally rebel against them.

When we present rules without any surrounding explanation, they interpret our motives through any lens they choose. Worse still, if we demand they follow our rules, using phrases such as, “You’ll do what I say. Why? Because I said so!” ,“My house, my rules,” or “Which part of the word ‘No!’ do you not understand?”, they will think rules exist to control them.

Remember, our intent is not what matters. Our teens’ reaction is what matters. The likelihood of them following versus rebelling against rules, is determined by whether they interpret limits as controlling them OR as supportive of safe and healthy development.


Make Sure Teens Understand Why We Set Rules

Young people need to understand that we are selective in choosing our rules and that we draw limits because we love them. They are not random efforts to control them or take away pleasure. They should  know our rules exist to ensure they live within safe and moral boundaries. When teens understand why we put rules into place, they are more likely to both follow and appreciate them. Really. Young people want to be safe and to do the right thing.

The key to our children following our rules is that they understand why they exist. They will know we support their healthy development when they know that we set rules only around issues that affect safety and morality. For other issues, we consistently model good behaviors and offer guidance when asked. We allow room for failure and make it clear we are there to support their recovery. Consider these words as a way to express why you set rules, and find your own way to personalize them for your tween/teen:

“I love you so much. But, I’m not your friend, I am your parent. That’s even better because you can always count on me. I’m going to try to always model for you how to do the right thing. But I’m sure I’ll make mistakes, we all do. I’m going to let you make mistakes too, and grow from them — I’m going to let you have fun and I’ll celebrate your joy. But for things that really matter to your future well-being or that could harm your safety or that are immoral, you’ll do as I say. It is my job to raise you to be a strong, healthy, safe, good person.”


Set Clear Expectations for These Risky Behaviors

It’s essential for parents to establish clear and consistent expectations to keep teens safe. Click here to learn which behaviors require clear boundaries.


Substance Use

Parents should establish firm expectations about substance use. Discussions should address topics like legality, safety, and potential consequences for using different substances.


Sexual or Romantic Relationships

As uncomfortable as it may be to talk about sex with teens, it’s necessary. Parents who talk openly to their teens about sex have greater influence over their teen’s sexual behaviors.



Teens must be aware of parental expectations about driving. It’s a matter of safety. Topics to address include wearing a seatbelt, prohibiting driving while under the influence, banning texting while driving, and understanding what to do if stopped by the police.


Determine Non-Negotiables

Come up with a list of your family’s non-negotiables. Make sure you clearly communicate them to your teen. Teens should know what you expect and what consequences they face for breaking rules.

Rules Can Actually Mean More Freedom

Young people must test their limits, and we should celebrate when they do so safely. It is only through taking certain risks that they are going to learn their strengths, their challenges, and how to overcome personal limitations. It is only through making mistakes, even failing, that they will learn to recover, and to rebound even stronger.

It’s important to help young people understand that well-placed boundaries actually give them more — not fewer — freedoms. When we set clear boundaries, they know precisely what they can push against. And we let them know that as long as they are safe and moral, we’ll get out of the way so they can test limits within those boundaries.

About Ken Ginsburg

Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is Founding Director of CPTC and Professor of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He travels the world speaking to parent, professional, and youth audiences and is the author of 5 award-winning parenting books including a multimedia professional toolkit on “Reaching Teens.” CPTC follows his strength-based philosophy and resilience-building model. For more on Dr. Ginsburg visit www.fosteringresilience.com.

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