Setting Expectations And Rules For Your Teen

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As I thought about this post, I watched as four young teens, approximately 13 years of age, two boys and two girls, stood on the corner flirting for a second night past 10pm on a school night.

I started thinking that sooner or later, one or both of those young girls is bound to end up pregnant, and then I started thinking, where are there parents and why are they allowing their young teens to be out so late on a school night unsupervised.

Then I started thinking that there are probably no set rules or expectations in these teens households.

They are probably being raised with inconsistent and even contradictory messages. Yet, when one of these young girls ends up pregnant, their parents will be shocked and angry that these young teens “disappointed them”.

Rules and Expectations

Rules and expectations are two different things that together help guide your teen as they navigate through the murky waters of adolescence.

Expectations help you define the standards of behavior you expect from your teen such as being responsible and making responsible decisions.

Rules on the other hand help to bring your expectations to reality such as requiring your teen to finish their chores before going out with friends. Rules and the consequences of those rules help your child with both understanding your expectations and learning self-control.

As always with teens, communication is key. I am always amazed at parents who come to me disappointed in their teens behavior when they never actually sat down with their teen and discussed their expectations in the first place.

The teenager may have had some idea about how their parents felt about certain issues, but without a clear understanding of what the parents expect, they leave a gray area and teenagers typically don’t do well with gray areas. They like to know exactly where you stand.

Sitting down and speaking with your teenager about your expectations also opens up the door to talk about risky behaviors.

Clearly defined expectations about limits for risk-taking behavior helps your teen be prepared for temptations and challenges that will face them when confronted with risky decisions towards things such as alcohol, drugs and sex.

When you lay down clear expectations, you are letting your teenager know that they are responsible for their behavior.

This discussion also allows for you to hear what and how your teen thinks about certain issues and also gives you the opportunity to help them think more realistically.

A lot of teens think “this can’t happen to me” or that they are immune to many of the perils we as adults know are out there.   Talking to your teen will give you the opportunity to educate them on the possible consequences of their decisions and behaviors.

No matter how clear you think you have made your expectations, your teen may still feel unclear about them. Rules help to enforce your expectations.

Many parents are unsure about how to set rules and what rules are needed. Here is a good starting point.

Besides rules regarding substance use and other risky behaviors, you also want rules regarding:

  • curfew
  • unsupervised time
  • homework
  • chores
  • driving
  • cell phones
  • internet use
  • use of other media such as movies, television and video games

Naturally, most teens are going to try to push back against rules, but teens do want and expect limitations and boundaries.

Be respectful, listen to your teen and explain your reasons for having the rules you do. Some parents feel like they don’t have to explain any rules they set to their children, but children tend to follow rules better when they at least understand, even if they don’t agree with them.

Other tips include:

  • Focus on setting rules for safety based more on guidance than power, control or punishment.
  • Don’t be overly intrusive or restrictive, but still be firm.
  • Give your teen an opportunity to negotiate some of the rules, but remember that you have the final say
  • Be very specific when it comes to substance use. Such as letting your teen know that they are not allowed to use alcohol, tobacco, prescription medication or any other illicit drug at all.
  • You should set very fixed rules regarding health and safety, and then negotiate with your teen about other rules.
  • Be flexible with those other rules (outside of health and safety) and willing to renegotiate as your teen shows maturity and responsibility.

Along with clear rules and expectations, there should also be clear consequences for breaking the rules.

Consequences help teens slow down and think before they make a risky decision and also provides them with the perfect excuse to tell their friends if peer pressure is an issue.

Tips for setting consequences:

  • Consequences should be something the parent can follow through with consistently in order to be effective. Many parents are very inconsistent with following through with consequences which teens pick up on and it makes it more likely that they will disobey your rules. 
  • Consequences should be logical, and more about teaching than about punishing or retaliation.
  • Remember that consequences can be positive. Praise your teen when they are doing something right, when they are following the rules and they are more likely to continue.
  • Award your teen with special privileges or  some other type of award for following the rules.

Without rules and expectations, many teens are lost and parents feel as if they have out of control or disrespectful kids when in reality, the child never learned the rules, expectations or the consequences of breaking those rules and expectations.

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