Balancing Rules and Independence With Your Teen



In many ways, adolescence is like taking adulthood for a test drive. Teenagers start to earn more freedom from their parents, but their developing brains bounce between taking risks and respecting boundaries.  This learning curve may cause anxiety for parents who might not be sure when to allow space for freedom and the mistakes that often accompany it, and when to lay down the law.

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With the right planning and consideration, you can provide both the rules and the independence that will help your teen transition well into the adult world.  Here are a few helpful guidelines for achieving the right balance.


Match freedom with responsibilities. Often young people can equate being on their own as an escape from the expectations and tasks set by their parents.  But you don’t have to wait until the college years for your child to learn that there are many responsibilities that accompany independence.


For example, if your daughter wants to borrow the car regularly to see friends, you could ask her to think about all the responsibilities that accompany owning a car. Maybe she can help fill the gas tank with her own money, keep the interior clean, or learn how to check the tire pressure. Matching this privilege with the tasks that accompany it can teach her that owning a car is much more than just a free ride.


Set a daily routine to earn privileges. Sometimes teens will offer to do extra work around the house to earn a special privilege. But you don’t have to wait for a big occasion to incorporate responsibility with privileges. Your teen can have a daily routine that he or she is expected to follow in order to earn or maintain certain freedoms.


Perhaps your teen wants to stay out later on the weekends. Connecting this privilege with daily expectations like making the bed, finishing homework, or emptying the dishwasher can motivate your teen to earn privileges. They will understand that if they can be trusted to be responsible at home, then that trust will accompany them out into the world when they are with their peers.  


Involve teens in the decision process.  Providing structure isn’t just about keeping your teen safe and healthy. Parenting is also about teaching your children how to make decisions once they have flown the nest.  You can have your teen take an active role in deciding how to balance structure and freedom.


Of course parents will get the final say, but your decision can be well informed if you take the time to listen to your children. They know what motivates them better than anyone, and they can give you feedback about whether expectations are clear, consistent, and fair.  They can also help to come up with consequences for when they do not follow those expectations. Not only will these consequences often be more restrictive that what you may have come up with your own, but your teen will be more bought in since they created the consequence.


Make consequences consistent and clear. Parents are human too, and sometimes they don’t have the energy or the memory to recall what rules and consequences they’ve established. If you’ve had a rough day, you might be tempted to let your teen’s behavior slide or to impose a harsher punishment than normal. But if your teen doesn’t know what to expect from you, he or she may choose to roll the dice and break the rules.


Consequences work best when they are determined ahead of time so your teen knows what to expect.  They should be based on the facts of the situation and not your own emotions. You can be consistent and clear with consequences while still allowing for flexibility depending on the circumstances of the behavior. For example, you can be forgiving when your daughter is thirty minutes past her curfew because a friend’s mother forgot to pick them up, but not because you just watched a funny movie and feel relaxed or because your daughter is begging you not to implement the consequence.


Set realistic expectations. Parents model for their children how to set attainable goals and reach them. So your own expectations for their choices and successes in life should be realistic as well. If you set the bar too high, then your son or daughter might not see the point in even trying to reach it.


If your son is struggling in math at school, then connecting his curfew with the expectation that he get all A’s is not realistic. He will be more likely to rebel and even potentially lose motivation to do well in other subjects.  If you’re unsure of what’s realistic, don’t feel like you have to be a mind reader. Talking to your kids about their own goals is a great starting point for setting ground rules for earning privileges and freedoms.


Expect rebellion and allow room for mistakes. Teenagers are designed to test the limits of rules and boundaries.  Even if they know that there will be consequences, rebellion will occur and mistakes will happen. Preparing yourself ahead of time can make all the difference in how you choose to respond to it.  


Your actions communicate more to your children than words ever will, so staying calm and listening to your teen when they rebel is essential. You can follow through with consequences and still make space for your teen to explain the thinking and motivation behind their behavior. Giving them the opportunity to think through their mistakes without shouting or lecturing is key in helping your teen develop the ability to learn from their mistakes and avoid repeating them in the future.   


Teaching your teen to make good decisions is a lot like teaching them how to drive.  All the best instruction in the world won’t replace the necessity of getting behind the wheel, sooner or later.  The more you include them in your decision making process, the more teens will be able to have these conversations with themselves when they launch into adulthood.  


Lindsay Smith is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and the founder of I Am LVC. The mission of I Am LVC is to empower people to know they are lovable, valuable, and capable and to treat themselves and others as lovable, valuable, and capable. If you would like support in knowing that you are lovable, valuable, and capable, or if you are interested in supporting this mission, visit  Lindsday is a contributor to Lose The Cape!: Ain’t Nothing But a Teen Thing, available June 26th. 


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