Creating boundaries and open communication when your child is going through puberty

Written by Nadine Chemali, parent of one pre-teen

Puberty can come as a bit of a surprise. For me, school pickup started to involve some serious pre-teen attitude, with my kid either inundating me with information or barely mumbling a few words.

At first I thought, ‘How can one person be two such different people?’ Then I realised: we had hit the start of puberty.

I found myself trawling the internet for articles on how to communicate effectively with my child, and about his new emotions and how to talk with him about setting boundaries. I realised that almost everyone with a kid aged between 8 and 14 was having similar concerns. How can we set boundaries effectively when our children are this age?

Why is it important to set boundaries?

By creating boundaries with our kids, they know what our limits are and in turn, they learn how to create limits of their own.

Gentle boundaries are sometimes hard to put into practice, but I persevere because I really want my small human to be independent, but safe. I want him safe at school, at social events and on social media.

Tips for having conversations about setting boundaries

Here are some tips for approaching the conversation with your child about boundaries, and how to get the best outcome for you both:

  • Ask your child what they think the rule or boundary should be, and listen to their reasons. Find a middle ground that you can both agree to.

  • Genuinely listen to their concerns. They’re more likely to stick to rules if they feel their voice has been heard and holds weight in the discussion.

  • Encourage them to talk about their feelings without shame. They’re allowed to feel angry or emotional, but remind them that you can talk it through together and that you’re there to hear them out and help them find a solution.

  • Communicate with your child that boundaries can always change and evolve as they get older. But also make it clear if you feel that some boundaries are non-negotiable for you.

  • Be open about why you want to set boundaries and rules, and help them to understand your reasoning. For example, you might want certain rules in place to make sure your child is physically safe.

  • Give your child the confidence to come to you at any time if they feel unsafe or if they can’t stick to the boundaries you’ve set. You can do this by reassuring them that what’s most important is that they’re safe and well. Demonstrate that they won’t get in trouble and that they have your support.

  • Set a good example by showing them, rather than just telling them, what healthy boundaries and communication look like.

You can learn more about how to set healthy and realistic boundaries here.

How can I set boundaries while still letting my child be independent?

Set aside time to chat freely My suggestion is to create a set period of time, perhaps daily or weekly, when you can chat freely to each other – a safe and comfortable space where they know they can talk to you about absolutely anything.

Each night before bed, my child and I have a cuddle and a chat, and they know they always have my full, undivided attention. They know that during this time, they can talk about whatever is on their mind or ask about anything, and there won’t ever be any judgement from me. Some days, they might want to talk about their frustration with school crushes, or they have questions about their body, or about how the dog really got pregnant.

By creating this boundary of a safe time and space, my child knows that we have trust in each other to be honest and to communicate openly, no matter what.

Learn together When my child has questions, we also often Google things together to find a kid-friendly YouTube video to answer questions they have.

I’ll always be honest if I don’t know the answer to something. By creating this sort of communication around discovering answers together, it helps my child to know that it’s perfectly normal to not know everything, and reassures them that it’s okay to ask for help when you need it.

Create boundaries together When my son was 11, he wanted to play video games online, but I was concerned that he’d be playing and chatting with strangers. We had a chat and I listened to his point of view: his friends at school were playing with each other online and he felt excluded.

We came to an agreement that he could play certain age-appropriate games and that I would approve his friend requests, to make sure that he was only interacting with people he knew in real life. We agreed that as he got older and more experienced with being online, we would revisit the rules.

I’ve found that because of this conversation, he now feels comfortable coming to me when he wants to try something new that he might need permission for. We’re able to chat about it and reach a middle ground. I’m really glad we’re able to have these conversations and to establish these mutual boundaries together – it has helped to instil trust in one another.

You can learn more about how to build trust to support your child’s independence here.

How to cope with anger and frustration

Sometimes your child might be hurting about something that’s happened in their life, and they could lash out at you. This can be a difficult experience to navigate, but it can be a really pivotal moment in their development and their understanding of the importance of boundaries, open communication and empathy.

I’ve learnt that the best way to deal with this is to just ask them. It can help to teach them that being open about emotions such as anger or sadness is okay, and that communicating openly during difficult times can help them to manage their feelings in a healthy way. It sounds so simple, but being patient and treating them with empathy and care in these moments, rather than with reactive anger or judgement, is key. Instead of saying, ‘Why are you being so rude to me?’, you could say, ‘Hey, that’s not how you normally behave with me. Is something going on?’ This can open the door to a conversation and remind them that you care about them and how they are feeling.

Even if they don’t want to talk, you’re reinforcing that you’re always there if they need you. It shows them that you will always love them and be there for them, and that you respect the boundary they’ve set. This is excellent role modelling for not pushing or hurting another person with your own needs.

Tips for when they lash out

  • Learn as much as you can about why teenagers experience and express their emotions in the ways they do. Check out our factsheet about puberty for more information on the emotional changes that teens go through during adolescence.

  • Remind them that anger is okay and a typical human emotion – it’s the way they express it that you're concerned about. By reminding them it’s okay to be angry, it can open the door to better communication about emotions and feelings.

  • If things get heated (and this happens sometimes in every parent/child relationship!), it’s okay to say ‘Let’s press pause on this and take a break’ and come back to the conversation when you’re both feeling calmer. You can find more tips on de-escalating arguments here.

  • Make sure your teen has practical strategies for managing their emotions in a healthy way, and things to try out for themselves. Encourage them to try some self-care strategies – you can link them to ReachOut’s guide to self-care for young people for ideas.

If you’re concerned that your teen’s anger is more than just average teenage emotions, check out this guide on getting professional help and knowing when to do so.

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