Who is in Charge?

Navigating Parenthood: Setting Up Boundaries and Limits for Your Children

Not long ago, I was at the mall where I witnessed an exchange between a mom and her teen daughter. The daughter wanted to purchase something, and the mother told her no. What happened next amazed me.

The daughter proceeded to let her mother have it. Cuss words were flying and arms were waving as the girl told her mother off. The entire time the mother just stood there. Honestly, it took everything in me to keep my mouth shut. The sad thing is this isn’t unusual. In talking with pediatricians and other parenting experts, many of them express concern about how children, at a very young age, “rule the roost” – and it continues through the teenage years.

In my own experience as a parent, the thing that I am constantly aware of is how much time and energy it takes to be an engaged parent. Trying to stay one step ahead, while thinking on your feet and being prepared for the unexpected, can be flat exhausting, which is why I think, as parents, it is easy to fall into the trap of basically handing the reins over to your children.

For example, you have just walked in the door from work and your daughter wants to watch television instead of doing her chores. You turn off the television and remind her about her chores. She throws a fit. You are tired and trying to get something ready for dinner. Instead of dealing with her, you let it ride because you are tired and don’t feel like dealing with it.

The reality is that what you do – or don’t do – during these early years as a parent sets the stage for the teen years.

mother and daughter smiling in a photo together

Fast Forward to the Teen Years

The teen years sometimes feel like a push-me-pull-you period of time. One minute your teen is calling you “Mommy” and asking for help with something; the next minute he is looking at you like you are from another planet and he doesn’t want to have anything to do with you – except for you to give him the car keys.

As children get older, it is appropriate for them to want more independence from their parents. While some parents might find this behavior amusing and attribute it to part of growing up, the truth is, young people still need to understand that parents are in charge. Not only should parents be engaged in every aspect of their teen’s life, they should expect that their child will treat them respectfully.

Recent research has shown that the adolescent brain is still under significant development into the early twenties. This is a key reason why parents should not abdicate parenting responsibilities just because their child has reached middle or high school. It is a parent’s responsibility to set limits and boundaries. Children aren’t born knowing how to live by boundaries and within limits.

Who’s in Charge in Your Home?

How does a parent know if a child is in charge at home? If any of the following scenarios apply in your home, you may need to reevaluate what is taking place:

  • If you think it is OK for your child to tell you what to do
  • If you get intimidated by your child’s behavior
  • If your child throws a tantrum, pouts or withdraws and you change your response because of that
  • If you change the way you handle something because you are afraid of your child’s response
  • If you allow emotions such as guilt or fear that your child won’t love you or won’t be happy with you to dictate the decision you make, rather than answering the question, “What is in the best interest of my child?”

As comedian Bill Engvall says, “Here’s your sign” – you are probably letting your child run the show at home. So, what do you do to prevent this from occurring, or stop it if it is already in progress?

Parents should expect their children to do what is asked of them. Hopefully, there is an environment in the home where parents are in healthy authority over their children. They are willing to listen and take into account the opinions of their adolescent, but parents make the final decisions. Make sure you have clear, consistent and fair rules and limits. Keep in mind that you don’t need rules where there are no problems. Put your expectations in writing so there are no misunderstandings about what you mean. Be specific. Your teen should be able to tell you what the rules are and what the natural and logical consequences are for not following the rules.

Parents must follow through on consequences – every time. For example, if you have a rule that your teen must call you whenever he is hitting the highway, but he just forgets to call, then losing driving privileges and possibly the phone for a day or two will most likely help him remember to do what has been requested of him. Even if he is doing a lot of ranting and raving, you should stay calm and simply enforce the consequence.

What I see and hear from many parents is that they are turning a blind eye to the behavior, making excuses for their teen’s behavior or acting as if they are helpless when it comes to dealing with these behaviors, instead of understanding that teens will push to see how far you will let them go. The real world is full of consequences when we don’t stay within the boundaries. Our homes should be a safe place where children learn how to live within the limits and that there are consequences when they don’t.

Clearly, the world your teen is growing up in is very different from when we were their age. From cell phones, Facebook and the Internet to sexting and texting instead of talking, it can be challenging for parents to be on top of our game. However, in spite of their yelling, eye rolling, huffing and puffing, moodiness, complaining … you get the picture … they really do want and need us to behave as parents – not their best friend.

If you have allowed your child to be in charge, breaking this cycle will be difficult, but not impossible. The key is for both parents to be on the same page, have a game plan, and when things heat up, stand firm and stick together. If you are a single parent, surround yourself with other parents who can support you in your efforts.

Research consistently shows that parents have the most influence in the lives of their children, which is why they have the ability to be the most effective teachers when it comes to teaching and enforcing limits and boundaries. You should not expect your child to thank you now for the time and energy you are investing in them. You do it because you love them and you want the best for them in the future.

You Are Not Alone

If you think you are the only one who is experiencing tough times with your teen, think again. I know very few people who have raised teens and said it was a cakewalk. I think the most important things we need to remember are: One, our job is to be the parent they need us to be, which sometimes means making unpopular decisions that they will not understand; and, two, this too shall pass – most of them do get beyond this stage and at some point acknowledge that you really do have wisdom to share. So, stay the course. Surround yourself with people who have walked this road before you, and remember that patience is a good thing during these years.

Julie Baumgardner

Julie Baumgardner is the Executive Director of First Things First, an organization dedicated to strengthening marriages and families through education, collaboration and mobilization. She can be reached at julieb@firstthings.org.

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