Setting Effective Boundaries for Teens


Has your son become defiant? Do you fear he’s on the edge of rebelling? Perhaps he’s already in full blown rebellion and you are on the edge of despair. Your teen needs you. That is why you have to set boundaries for teens.

Illustration depicting a green chalkboard with a teen issues concept written on it.

Maybe you’ve heard well-meant (or self-righteous) advice from people who say, “You need to get tough with that boy.” “I wouldn’t put up with that kind of behavior.” “Just tell him no. Don’t let him do it.” You may agree outright or think the person speaking is totally clueless. Regardless, there’s a big gap between a vague maxim and the reality of moment by moment parenting. We can help close that gap.

We can teach you how to set boundaries. Boundaries for teens is a powerful word and a concept that can protect your son and your entire family. Perhaps your first thought is, “Not my kid. He’s already blown past every boundary we’ve set and there isn’t anything we’ve been able to do about it.”

Or maybe the word ‘Boundaries’ sounds uncaring to your way of thinking. Perhaps you’re focused on understanding how he thinks and feels. You just want to keep loving him and hope time and maturity will work it all out.

Typically, one parent takes a gentle approach while the other pushes for the opposite plan of attack. The result is not only are the parents battling with their son, they’re at war with each other.

If the word boundaries makes you uncomfortable, think of boundaries as built-in protections. When your son was a toddler, you had no problem setting physical boundaries. If he ran for the road, you headed him off with no internal angst about whether or not you were infringing on his personal freedoms. You didn’t pause because he might throw a temper-tantrum. You needed to keep him safe and you did it.

Boundaries for a teen look different but they are just as crucial. No matter how self-sufficient he may look or think he is, he still needs your protection. It’s tough, perhaps the hardest thing you have ever done or will do but you cannot throw your hands up and step back. Your son needs you to love him enough to do the hard stuff. For his sake, you must love him enough to stay engaged.

Boundaries For a Teenage Son

Setting boundaries is one way to stay engaged. You are capable of doing this. Here’s how:

First, effective boundaries are forged out of love. “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.” – Psalm 103:13, NIV

The command to love your son can sound like a worthless cliché. Of course, you love your son. You’d give your life for him—even at moments when you’d like to string him up yourself. The question is what does loving a rebellious son look like. Certainly not the ooey, gooey delight of preschool years. Loving a sullen, rebellious 16 year old looks very different than loving a joyful, inquisitive four year old. When your son rolls his eyes at you or slams the door in your face, you’re probably not thinking, “Gosh, parenting is fun!”

Think through why you love your child. What qualities make him different from anyone else? What have you enjoyed about him in the past? Make a list. Physically write it down. Think in terms of his character strengths, abilities, little and big things you love about his personality. List as many examples as you can—emotional, intellectual, physical, both large and small details, present and past. Be specific. “I love seeing how focused you are when ….” “I love the way you come up with ideas I never would have thought of.” “I love the way your eyes light up when .…”  “I appreciate how you helped your little sister when ….”

It’s important to write them in present tense. “I love it when you say thank you for dinner.” Not “I loved it when you said thank you.” Past tense implies it’s no longer truth. He may not have said thank you in three years but if he says it tonight, you’ll still love it.

Come up with at least 50 items. You can do this. If life is really rough right now, you might need to work on it over a week.

Once you’ve completed the list, regularly take it out and review it, possibly daily, conceivably hourly. Intentionally remind yourself why you love him. Keep those thoughts close to the surface and they will influence your spur of the moment responses to him—both word choices and actions.

Then, this is even harder, but do it.  Write him a letter. Specifically, write, “Dear __(son,) I realize we’ve been going through a rough time lately. I want you to always remember that I love you. That’s unchangeable. This is why” (Number and bullet point the reasons on your list.) End the letter with “We’ll get through this. Always love, Mom”  Don’t add anything else to it. No other comments at all.

Do NOT hand him the letter. Instead, put it in an envelope. Seal it. Put it somewhere he will definitely see it and in a place where he can read it in private when you’re not around. e.g. his desk, pillow, on top of his school books, dashboard of his car.)

He may not say anything about it. That’s okay. This is not an instant miracle cure but it is a powerful tool for loving your child.

On rare occasion, a teenager may test the love you proclaim by blowing up at you. If he does, fight the impulse to react negatively or respond as a victim. Stay calm and reply in an even tone, “These are my thoughts and feelings.” Then physically walk away (even if you’re thinking, “You ungrateful brat.”)

Regardless of the immediate response or lack of one, this gift to your son will do good. Trust the power of love.

Two, effective boundaries have to be clear to your son and to you. “Don’t come in late” is a worthless warning if late to you means midnight and he’s thinking late is 1:00 pm when his friends call it a night.

Parents of rebellious children often subconsciously set vague boundaries. Giving a son vague limits is more comfortable because it’s not confrontational. That’s temping if you have an explosive child. Also, vague limits provide the parent with a quick “out” from having to respond to the disobedience. You can always tell yourself, “Well, it wasn’t clear.” Or, “he misunderstood.” That releases you from having to take action when a boundary is breached. Whew! Sidestepped that one! Very tempting.

You’ve heard the phrase “man up.” Well, “parent up.” Have courage! (Have courage! is the most frequent command in the Bible and always given at times when the natural impulse is to run for the hills and not come out until the struggle is over.) Be strong and courageous! Deuteronomy 31:6.

Three, boundaries have an impact when they are breeched. Even if boundaries don’t prevent a behavior, they must still have consequences. Otherwise, they aren’t really boundaries. They’re just feeble suggestions. Suggestions your rebellious son will not heed regardless of how wise they are or how well meant.

Decide ahead of time what will happen if (or when) the boundary is breached. Be realistic. What is within your power to make happen? Choose something you have control over without his agreement. Don’t say you have no control. You always have options. Take time to identify them.

If possible, select a consequence that is naturally connected. e.g. Drunk driving should result in loss of car privileges.

If you think he’ll take the car anyway, take away access to the key. If you bought the car for him and it’s the only way to keep him safe, sell the car. Be realistic with yourself in acknowledging what could happen if you don’t take action. He won’t need the car if he’s dead from an accident or if he’s in prison because he killed someone.

By the same token, consequences should be based on the seriousness of the offence not the extent of your anger. Grounding him for three months because he won’t stop back-talking makes it about you. This isn’t about you. This is about letting him feel the heat of consequences at a lower level so, hopefully, he won’t choose actions that lead to damaging ramifications outside of your (or his) control.

Setting boundaries is probably the most difficult part of parenting but you cannot be a good parent without setting them. Be willing to do the hard stuff of parenting. Set clear boundaries in love and follow up with appropriate consequences. You love your son. Love him well.

Don’t give up! You’re in this parenting journey for the long haul.

If you are physically afraid to enforce any consequences then it is already time to get outside help. Consider Gateway Academy for Boys. Call us at 850–547–9011. We exist to help families through these difficult times.Establishing family boundaries for your sons

2 thoughts on “Setting Effective Boundaries for Teens

    • Hi Rick, do you enforce consistent consequences for your son? Understandably, it is hard to do so with all your other family responsibilities, but it is a must when you have a rebellious son. If you are not able to do so, it maybe time to consider outside professional help.

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