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We have all seen the terrible two child throwing a tantrum and alarming their parent who is left helpless to know what to do (I have been there many a time!). They kick, they scream, they shout and to keep the peace, a piece of food is put into their mouth to keep them quiet in order to save the day. We have also witnessed the three year old who has hit another child and then told that if they do it again they will be denied another ride on the swing. The child immediately lashes out again, hitting the other child even harder than the first time, and the parent whilst saying no gives them another ride!

The same can be said of the teenager who has been given a set time for bed but appears often out of their room asking first ‘for a drink of water’, then mentioning ‘they are too hot’, followed by ‘I need a cuddle’. Each time the parent gives them what they need they are unknowingly playing into the teen learning manipulative behaviour, so that the next day when the parent asks them to clear the table, they answer back with a ‘no’ - and the parent wonders where they have gone wrong.

What the child is learning at either age is that a yes is not necessarily a yes and a no is not necessarily a no, and that a ‘reward’ can follow negative behaviour. In essence it is learning that it has a far greater authority than their parent, and at a deep psychological level discovers their own ability to manipulate the parent to have their needs met.

So what correlation is there between what is happening with the small child and with the teen? The answer is that both are learning ‘separation’ and both need the same security and stability of boundaries in order to feel safe. The small child is learning that it is now a separate entity from its mother and can use behaviour as a means to get what it needs, whilst the teen is learning a similar philosophy as it emerges from childhood and into its early adult life. With a lack of distinct boundaries the child learns they are able to push the limits, and as a consequence the power of control shifts from parent to child. When this happens not only is respect lost for the parent but an inappropriate use of power and control leaves a family in chaos.

Setting limits is key to the prevention of serious behaviour problems and the earlier we can start as parents the better. Good boundaries are often established with routines so that a teen feels safe in the security of knowing of what happens ahead; sitting and eating at the meal table, clearing aways one’s own plate, a bath or shower time before bed, no devices in bedrooms (a big one to save family life!), helping out around the house - all help teach children to have their own healthy boundaries and limits as they mature.

Scientific studies repeatedly reveal that parenting with a sense of authority (‘authoritative’, as opposed to ‘authoritarian or ‘permissive’ parenting) whilst emphasising reasoning, setting limits and boundaries, - very clearly results in teenagers who are more likely to become independent, well-behaved, successful, self-reliant and socially accepted. They are less likely to report anxiety and depression, and less likely to engage in antisocial behaviour such as drug use.

The following are helpful in understanding a successful parenting style regarding boundaries:

  • Having a clear set of boundaries and expectations.

  • Discussing a reward system for respecting healthy boundaries.

  • Discussing reasons for expectations.

  • Role modelling expectations (telling a child they have limited device time but having a parent unable to remove themselves from their own device is not healthy in terms of role modelling!)

  • Not partnering with manipulative behaviour (especially at bedtime).

Less constructive are the following:

  • Letting a child get away with leaving chores unfinished.

  • Bribing a child to get him to comply with your wishes.

  • Exploding in anger towards a child.

  • Punishing a child by withdrawing communication or affection.

  • Partnering with any form of manipulative behaviour.

  • Shifting boundaries because it’s easier than dealing with conflict.

Believe it or not, the more the boundaries are pushed THE MORE the teen is seeking the security and stability of you remaining strong and authoritative as a parent. When boundaries are too loose in a family, the children have inappropriate power and control. They call the shots, but deep down are terrified of the power they hold over their parents. Even when the children are not exhibiting serious behavior problems, loose boundaries are seen in parent-child relationships that place too much of the adult world in the child's hands.

Shifting boundaries do not hold any child safe, but much LOVE and a good safety net to hold and value them are key tools that will enable your teen to thrive.

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