By Susan Friese, mother of twins, passionate teacher and counsellor with a post-graduate degree in Clinical Psychology. She has Springbok colours in Martial arts, teaches Kung Fu in her spare time and runs a study centre for Cambridge students called To Educate Academics Visit her website.
People think I’m joking when I tell them I have 10 teenagers, but the kids at my study centre are often my inspiration and my motivation. They have taught me as much, if not more, than I have taught them. But one thing they do battle with, especially those with unstable family lives, are boundaries. Their own and others. But boundaries are important for everyone. They give us a safe physical and the psychological space in which to function where we know our limits and those of others. This provides each individual with a comfort zone and the knowledge that others have their own. It’s when boundaries collapse or a person is pushed beyond the limit of their own that one experiences feeling of discontent or suffering. So whether its teaching teens or dealing with your own teens, here are some hints:
- Make your boundaries known:
If others do not know what your boundaries are, how can you expect them to respect your boundaries? Encourage your teens to express their boundaries to their friends and to tell them about the restrictions (another way of saying boundaries) you have placed on them too such as curfews or pocket money. Kids often appreciate being able to use their folks as a scapegoat in order to not do something they were not comfortable anyway. It’s much easier for a kid to tell their friends that they don’t want to smoke (for example) because their parents would kill them, than to admit that they just don’t want to do it. Also be aware that some people have great boundaries for themselves but are willing to push others’, and visa versa.
- The time/space continuum: When someone asks for space, give it to them. This could be either physical or emotional space. Some people need more time alone to recharge and work through their feelings, often emotions are running high when talking about school work or dating. So if your teen asks for space, allow them to have control over at least that. It gives them time to regulate their emotions and should lead to a more calm dialogue eventually. You could set a reasonable time, say 30 minutes, and then start the negotiation process again. Later you can always ask for permission to give them support.
- Between a rock and a hard place: Enforcing boundaries is hard – but worth it. If people understand what you are not one to be pushed beyond your limit they are less likely to try. People who cave easily are often led astray, and this can lead to trouble. When dealing with a pushy individual (or someone who takes liberties) encourage your teen to speak up calmly but firmly. They should explain that they don’t want to or are not allowed to do whatever it is that is asked and that there is no compromise here. If a child can enforce his own boundaries (even if those are set by parents) he has learnt an invaluable life skill. No one wants to feel stuck and powerless.
- Lose the users. It starts with the little things:
Telling a schoolmate that they cannot have half your lunch or tuck money shows people that you mean business. If someone won’t cave to that peer pressure they certainly won’t cave to drug, alcohol or sex pressure. If you can enforce the little things then people will learn to respect you and your boundaries. And if our boundaries are strong then we can be more comfortable with our lives and limitations. It also means that no one ends up feeling used by another. You cannot use/abuse an unwilling participant with strong boundaries. Teens also need to know that they are not entitled to push other people beyond their limits, it leaves them feeling used and bitter.
- Ditch the danger:
If a person does not respect these boundaries your child should walk away or call an adult. In extreme situations this may involve screaming or calling for the police. Boundaries don’t just apply to curfews or not sharing special clothes, it also applies to teens setting the limits of their relationships sexually and emotionally. This practise of enforcing boundaries can prevent abuse in all forms and that is important into adulthood and beyond. Learning when to fight for your rights and when to just walk away from someone who is not listening or respecting you, is the best lesson for life. Staying and arguing about your boundaries is a useless time-waster. If people are not willing to respect them then they cannot be a prat of your immediate existence. This is not to say that one should be completely inflexible, just that the limit is the limit and that is not negotiable.
- Be a model:
It is important for parents to model boundary setting. As well as teaching your children how to enforce their boundaries you definitely need to let your kids know about your own. If, for example, you need time to reflect before making an important decision let the kids know that you need time and ask them to respect it. Show them too that other people cannot push you beyond your limits and that saying no to some things is an important part of growing up. No, you will not take on the extra work that will compromise your family life. No, you will not pay for an incorrect bill at a restaurant. No, you will not be a pushover. If your children see that your life has only benefitted from setting your limits then they will learn to do the same.
If we, as the adults, can show our kids the power of boundary-setting then we are giving our children a wonderful gift and sense of stability. Show them how empowering it is to say no and set limits and encourage them to do the same. You may also need to explain to your teens that as their parents you do have a bit more access to their lives than others may have and that they can’t claim total privacy (in the form of boundaries) from you. And of course boundaries may be adjusted as and when necessary, curfews change and new lines may be drawn. But be sure to explain the new rules and the new limits and make everyone understand that this new boundary is for everybody’s greater good.