Set realistic boundaries with your teenager

View from behind of group of friends walking down road

Boundary setting is an important part of helping your child gain independence, remain safe and make sound decisions. As adolescence is a time of new experiences for both of you, boundaries can help you and your child know what behaviour is ok and what’s not. We take a look at how to set boundaries that may work for you and your child.

The importance of boundaries

Boundaries are an important part of creating clarity between you and your child as you both navigate a time of great change. By setting and agreeing on boundaries together, you create a ‘contract’ of expected behaviour that can help avoid conflict. While boundaries help parents to feel more in control of their teenager’s behaviour they also help them by:

  • letting them know that you care about them, and you are concerned about what they’re doing even when you’re not together

  • making them feel safe and supported

  • helping them make informed and sound decisions

  • providing them a framework within which they have autonomy.

What are the most important boundaries for your family?

Prior to discussing boundaries with your child, first sit down with your partner and/or all of the important authority figures for your child and agree on what the most important boundaries are. It’s important that there is consensus amongst you so that you are giving clear and firm boundaries, not mixed messages.

Some potential items for discussion:

  • What are the most important boundaries?

  • What boundaries are negotiable, and which are not?

  • What kind of consequences are we comfortable with?

  • At what age do the boundaries change?

All of these questions can apply to a variety of teenage behaviour – some examples are things like going out with friends, going to parties, sexual experimentation, drinking, drug taking, and social media use.

When to have a discussion around boundaries

There are two different ways you can approach boundary setting with your child. You can choose to spontaneously sit down with them to discuss boundaries around a variety of issues; or you can choose to set boundaries as your child requests more freedom.

Regardless of which way you go, it’s important to choose a good time of day to have the discussion. Make sure you have plenty of time, that you’re both in a relatively good mood and there’s not been any recent conflict. Ideally have the discussion with the whole family present.

How to set boundaries

When setting boundaries with your child it’s important to get their feedback and input into the process. Young people are less likely to adhere to boundaries that have been dictated to them without any negotiation. You can choose to set boundaries about just one issue at a time, or perhaps you can cover a few issues at once. Some things to consider when boundary setting:

  • try to set a tone of friendly cooperation throughout the conversation

  • make sure to listen and respond to your child’s concerns

  • be very clear and precise when setting boundaries to ensure that there’s no miscommunication

  • avoid being dictatorial

  • try to negotiate points that you disagree on, but stand firm and state your case if there’s something that is just non-negotiable in your view

  • remind your child why you’re making the boundaries – reiterate your care and concern for them

  • discuss what the consequences will be if the boundaries are ignored or flouted.

If the conversation is leading to conflict, suggest taking a break and follow-up when things have cooled down a bit. Also, try not to overload the conversation with too many boundaries at once, suggest a follow-up talk to cover other things that come up.

A good way to finish up a boundary setting conversation is to ask them what boundaries they’d like you as a parent to stick to. This conversation can be very illuminating and can help to bring mutual understanding and respect between you. Like the boundaries that you provide for them, it’s important that you stick to those that are imposed on you.

Evolving boundaries

The process of setting boundaries is one that will need to be repeated fairly often during the teenage years. As young people grow the boundaries that we place around their behaviour need to change to reflect their maturity. It’s important to explain to younger siblings the reasons why there are different boundaries for them and their older brothers or sisters.

Boundaries may also need to be shifted if your child exhibits untrustworthy behaviour. Shifting the boundaries to be more restrictive can be a consequence of ignoring or flouting boundaries.


Testing boundaries is normal teenage behaviour. No matter how good your relationship is with your child, they may still flout the boundaries. Impulsive behaviour, the influence of their peers, and poor decision-making often lead to boundary-testing behaviour. If this happens it’s important to:

  • reiterate your previous discussion where boundaries were set

  • ask them to identify how their behaviour didn’t meet the agreed rules

  • cooperatively decide on a consequence that fits the behaviour

  • follow through with the agreed consequence

  • provide positive reinforcement when your child does behave within the agreed boundaries.

The process of boundary setting will be an ongoing part of the adolescent period. Try to think of it as an evolving project, not a magic formula that will ensure your child always behaves the way that you want them to. Over time, the process of setting boundaries helps to guide teenagers toward responsible behaviour and lays the foundations for them to become self-regulating adults.