Help your teenager develop boundaries

mother talking to daughter

Good boundaries are essential for healthy and respectful relationships. By knowing how to help your teenager set good relationship boundaries with romantic partners, you can equip them to have healthy and safe relationships. It’s also a great way to open up an ongoing dialogue with your teenager, so they feel more comfortable talking to you about their relationships in the future.

This article will explain how to talk to your teenager about:

  • what boundaries are

  • figuring out where their boundaries lie

  • communicating those boundaries to a partner

  • how to healthily manage and resolve conflict in a relationship.

You can help your teenager understand boundaries and healthy relationships by being a good role model. Teenagers subconsciously look to adults for models on how to behave in relationships. By modelling what you talk about, you will help them.

How to help your teenager work out their boundaries

A good place to start is to ask your teenager to think about what they are comfortable with in a romantic relationship. Not just in terms of sex, but also in terms of how independent they want to be, displays of affection, what they would want to share with a partner. You could also give them some examples of healthy boundaries in a romantic relationship, such as:

  • It’s okay to spend time with friends outside of the relationship. Your teenager (and their partner) should feel able to hang out with friends, and people of the same or opposite sex, without having to ask permission.

  • It’s okay to spend time apart from each other. Your teenager should be able to tell their romantic partner when they need to do things on their own, and not feel like they need to spend all of their time together.

  • It’s okay to set boundaries on what you can share about each other and your relationship online. Is it okay for them or their partner to follow their friends on social media? Is it okay to use each other’s devices? Is it okay to post about their relationship?

Setting boundaries around sex and intimacy

Sex is something your teenager will likely want to try at some point, especially if they are in a romantic relationship. Talking about consent can feel awkward or uncomfortable, but remember that these conversations will help your teen go on to have safe, healthy and respectful sexual experiences when they are ready. For more information, you can read our article on how to talk to your teenager about sex and healthy relationships and how to teach your teenager about consent.

You can help your teenager prepare for conversations about sexual boundaries by talking about some of these topics:

  • What sexual boundaries are. Tell your teenager that it is important to talk about sex with their partner. This includes what they are comfortable doing, and what they do not want to do.

  • That sexual boundaries can change. Let them know that it’s okay to change your mind if you are no longer comfortable doing something that you’ve done before. Reiterate that they always have the right to decide when (and whether) they will have sex, and what sex acts they are comfortable with.

  • That everyone must freely and enthusiastically consent to whatever sexual activity you are doing. Talk about consent, and the importance of both people feeling safe and being in full agreement. Emphasise to your teenager that it’s ok to change your mind, even during sex, and that if this happens the sex has to immediatey stop, or it could be considered assault.

  • That sex isn’t currency. For example, saying ‘I love you’ or giving gifts does not obligate them to have sex or do anything in response.

  • What kinds of questions they can ask themself to know that they are ready to have sex. Encourage them to ask themselves questions like why do they want to have sex, do they feel safe, are they more anxious than excited, do they feel pressured? This will help them know if they are ready and what they are comfortable doing.

  • How to have safe sex. Make sure your teenager knows about safe sex, contraception, and sexually transmitted infections. Encourage them to talk to their partner about how they will protect themselves if they are considering having sex.

How to communicate boundaries in a relationship

Remind your teenager that good relationships come from good communication. You might want to point out that the only way they will know what their own boundaries are, and what their partner is or isn’t comfortable with, is by asking and talking. Encourage your teenager to have open, transparent conversations with their partner about what they like or don’t like in a relationship.

They can write down their thoughts first so they feel clear about what they want to say. It can also help if they tell their partner why these boundaries are important to them.

Respect is a two way street, so you can remind your teenager that they also need to listen to and respect their partner’s boundaries. By doing so, they are also modelling the behaviour that they want to see from their partner.

How to manage difficulties in a relationship

Every relationship has some difficulties, and sometimes boundaries can be crossed. In some cases, we don’t always know where the line is until we cross it. If this happens, you can advise your teen to:

  • Recognise the real source of conflict. This is the first step – because often it is not what they are arguing about. For example, they could be arguing because their partner is upset that they hung out with a friend of the opposite sex without telling them first. But the real issue there could be a fear they have that they will be cheated on, perhaps because that has happened to them in the past. Encourage your teenager to think about how they feel when they are arguing, to help find out what is really wrong.

  • Talk about what’s going on. Your partner can’t know what is wrong if you don’t tell them. Encourage your teenager to stay calm, and collected, and lay out what is bothering them. Suggest they don’t try and talk about it when they or their partner is angry. You can also point them to our youth fact sheet on tips for communicating.

  • Make compromises where they can. A healthy relationship is a balance between the needs of all people involved. Encourage them to chat and figure out what is important to each of them, and what they can let go of if they need to.

How to spot an unhealthy relationship

Not every relationship is a good one, and sometimes people don’t respect boundaries, no matter how well they are communicated. Talk to your teenager about the non-negotiable things that they should never put up with in a relationship. These should include their partner:

  • making them feel disrespected

  • not being open and honest

  • disregarding what is important to them

  • inflicting verbal and emotional abuse

  • inflicting physical violence and abuse

  • controlling what they do and whom they see

  • not respecting what they are comfortable doing sexually.

Stress to your teenager that if a person is crossing these non-negotiable boundaries, something needs to change, and you can help if they need it. While breakups can feel scary and painful, reassure them that having no relationship is better than having a bad relationship and that it will allow them to find someone who does respect them. If they can’t work through problems without these things happening, they should end it.

If you are worried that your child is in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, you can ask your child to call 1800RESPECT to ask for advice from an expert. You can also call 1800RESPECT to seek support for yourself as the parent or carer of someone in a suspected abusive relationship. You can also read up on the signs of an abusive relationship.