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Setting Boundaries for Teen Behavior

By Charity Eames, LPC-S, LMFT-S
Read Time: 7 Minutes

Think back to all the choices you made in your high school years. You'll probably remember that it's not easy to be a teenager. And it's not easy to parent teens, either! Adolescence is a critical time when many teens become more independent and develop their own beliefs and opinions. For many parents, it seems like they are deliberately pushing boundaries. Many act out by talking back, eye rolling, and slamming doors - followed by gloomy silences.

Dealing with a disrespectful teen can make you feel awful and question your parenting skills. And it doesn't help that teens are often at their worst with the people they feel safest with - their family. The good news is that there are things you can do as a parent to help teenagers adjust to their changing world and surging hormones.

Teen daughter tells mom, talk to the hand!
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Putting the Brakes on Rude Teen Behavior

Take a deep breath. It's natural to get frustrated with your teen, but know that it's probably all going to be okay. With time and patience, you can help your teen navigate volatile moods and restore peace in your home.


Show respect.

You are your child's main role model for what it means to be a respectful adult. Don't be surprised if you hear your own words and phrases coming out of her (or his) mouth - your teen models her (or his) communication on yours. It's not helpful to interrupt, tease, or talk down to your teen. Even when you're hit with disrespectful teen attitude, try to be calm and remind her that rude behavior is not acceptable. When things get heated, remember that your teen is still a child and she still needs you.


Cool off.

If everyone's behavior is escalating, you may consider walking away to give everyone a chance to calm down. Going to separate rooms for 15 minutes can help everyone communicate more calmly and clearly. Make sure you actually finish the conversation and address behavior issues.


Set clear family rules and boundaries.

When teens are involved in setting up behavior guidelines they feel like their concerns are heard. This makes them more likely to follow the rules. Sit down as a family and talk about how you want to treat each other. Talk about what kinds of behaviors are acceptable. Discuss your expectations for each other and what the consequences should be for not meeting these expectations. Give your teen plenty of time to express concerns, even if you don't agree with all of them. Some families find it helpful to create a family behavior contract that everyone signs.


Focus on privileges, not punishments.

As they get older, teens care less about little rewards or punishments. Instead, focus on what motivates them - maybe it's using the car, a cell phone, playing video games, or hanging out with friends. Let your teen know that having access to these privileges depends on her showing responsibility and good behavior. This also helps you avoid power struggles. When bad behavior happens, some parents find that it's more effective to remove a favorite activity like using the phone or going to a friend's house.


Focus on the bigger picture.

Decide what's important to you and use those priorities to help guide your responses and reactions. Think about the life skills you want your teen to have as an adult - things like solving conflicts, showing kindness toward others, or critical thinking. Try not to get caught up in your teen's dramatic or emotional outbursts, and don't take them personally. Once you decide what's most important, try to overlook little things like eyerolls and annoyed sighs. Recognize that disrespectful teen behavior is often a sign that your child is feeling out of control. It's not a measure of your parenting.


Address rude teen behavior immediately.

When your teen is clearly out of line, stay calm. It isn't always easy. But do your best to use a normal tone. Know that yelling will only make things worse. Point out the inappropriate behavior and remind your teen that it's unacceptable. Don't wait until later to address the issue or enforce the consequences. It's much more effective to call out problems when they happen so that you can work together to correct them.


Remember, you're the parent.

It's your job to stay calm and in control, even if your teen is flying off the handle. Those outbursts are your teen's way of telling you that she feels out of control and needs your help. By keeping your cool, even when your teen is upset, you're showing her that you love her unconditionally and that you can help her process her strong feelings - and that you're not taking them personally.


Don't try to deal with a situation if you aren't able to control your emotions.

It's okay to walk away to gather your thoughts and calm down. Address the situation 15 or 30 minutes later, once you've had a chance to cool off.

mother and daughter angry at each other

Stay true to your word.

As a parent of a teen, your job is to be steady and consistent, even in the face of bad teen attitudes and misbehavior. By setting clear boundaries and consequences, your teen will learn that rules will be enforced and that you aren't a pushover. In many ways, it's like when your child was younger - giving in to whining, crying, pouting, or bad attitudes only leads to more whining in the future. Do your best to be firm but empathetic. And it's important not to say things you don't really mean or can't enforce, like banning something forever or telling your teen she is "grounded for life."


Build a strong relationship.

Dealing with hard times is easier if you have a good foundation with your teen. Chances are your teen is busier than ever with friends and school, and it's more of a challenge to find ways to spend time together. You don't have to make a day of it - just spending 30 minutes together several times a week can be a good way to check in and see how your teen is doing. Invite her to do yoga or go for a walk together, or to help you grocery shop or just run errands. This is a great time for both of you to put away your phones and be present for each other. If you do it enough, it will reinforce her trust in you and let her know she can come to you when things get hard.


Family time matters.

It's not just one-on-one time that's important - it's also important to take time to be together as a family. At least once a week, try to eat dinner together, play a board game, take a walk, or watch a movie. Setting up a family routine reinforces the idea that you're a team. It's a chance to talk, laugh, and remember all the things you have in common.

Good to Know

Don't try to make your kids think you're cool. Your job is to be the parent.

Mom and teen have a serious talk

Teen Behavior Starts in the Brain

Many parents find it reassuring to know that their teenager's irrational, impulsive behavior is all part of normal brain development. If it seems like your teen isn't thinking things through or considering consequences, it's because she isn't - and there's a biological reason.

Brain maps show that teen brains don't work the same way adult brains do. Teens rely more heavily on their amygdala. This is the part of the brain responsible for split-second decision-making. The amygdala develops more quickly than the frontal cortex - the part of the brain that controls reasoning. Teen brains are also still developing brain cells, neural pathways, and myelin, the layer of insulation that helps brain cells communicate. All of this means that teens are more likely to:

  • Act impulsively.
  • Get into accidents.
  • Choose dangerous or risky behavior.
  • Misunderstand social cues and emotions.

Keep Trying

Dealing with teen attitudes and bad behavior is exhausting, but this phase won't last forever. Your patience and understanding are helping teach your teen the skills she needs to make good choices and communicate clearly.

Remember, you don't have to do this by yourself. If you're feeling overwhelmed, get help from your partner, family, or a friend, or contact the Texas Youth Helpline at 1-800-989-6884.

Have a question about setting boundaries for your teen?

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Charity Eames

Charity Eames, LPC-S, LMFT-S

Charity Eames is the director of prevention and early intervention for DePelchin Children's Center in Houston, and has worked with children and families for more than 17 years.

Learn more about the author.

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