Setting your limits: When and how to give your teen freedom

Knowing what battles are worth fighting with your teenage children can be daunting. Here are seven key areas where setting limits can be effective, even when they think they're all grown up.

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  • Parenting teenagers can be quite a challenge. Gone are the days of simple guidance like, “Don’t touch that, it’s hot.” By their teen years, our children are starting to make a lot of their own big decisions. Our job as parents becomes knowing when and where to give our two cents. While we may be tempted to tightly control our child's circumstances in order to protect him, these are the years when we can start to see some of our investment pay off by allowing him to make good choices. “Parents who run their children’s lives and make most of their decisions discourage them from individual thinking,” says Dr. Tim Kimmel, author of Grace Based Parenting. So, how do we help teens to make wise decisions without cramping their individuality? Following are some key areas where we can still set limits for their overall well-being.

  • Internet use

  • Having a household Internet policy is a great way to show your kids that everyone follows the same rules. Giving out personal information, visiting pornographic or violent websites or engaging in social discourse with strangers may all be helpful items on the list. But, at the end of the day, trust is the best limit you can offer. “Yes, give your kids guidelines, but having positive expectations and trusting your son or daughter to do what is right will go further than any rules when it comes to Internet use,” says Dr. Kevin Leman, author of Have a New Teenager by Friday.

  • Video games

  • Kids of all ages can easily fall into the trap of spending hours a day playing video games and forget that “outside” even exists. This activity is an area where setting clear limits for our teens can be helpful. “Gaming once or twice a week for a few hours of needed relaxation is a good thing,” says Dr. Leman. Any more than that? “It can create an emotional rift in families and a psychological dependence on an unreal world.”

  • Parties

  • More than anything else, open and honest communication with your teenagers can help keep them inside safe limits at parties. The American Academy of Pediatrics noted that children who discussed the dangers of drug use regularly with their parents were 42 percent less likely to use drugs. We can also tell our teen that if she is ever at a party and feels uncomfortable or threatened, she can call us to pick her up, no questions asked.

  • Helping out around the house

  • It’s common for teenagers to be distracted by things outside the home and neglect household responsibilities. Here we are most certainly able to hold them accountable. “If your kid refuses to do anything at home, he shouldn’t receive any benefits of being a family member either. Give him the bread and water treatment,” says Dr. Lehman. Sometimes we can set limits for our kids by reminding them that life is not a free ride. Cell phones, brownies, rides to and from the mall all come as benefits to being part of a family unit, and they owe their contribution as well.

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  • Dating

  • Teens may want to start dating before they have the maturity to do so safely. Dr. Marilyn Maxwell, Professor of Pediatrics at St. Louis University, suggests that once a teen is ready to date, most of their initial dates should be incorporated with family time. She also recommends being candid with your children from a young age about sex. “Parents need to share their values and expectations with their children. It's not inevitable that a teen will become sexually active, particularly if you let her know how you expect her to act." Younger teenagers need more restrictions on their dating lives, including dating in groups, dating people their own age, and adhering to curfews.

  • Junk food

  • Setting this limit can fall entirely on our shoulders. It is tempting to fill the cupboards full of cram food for the bottomless pits that roam in and out of the kitchen. However, good nutrition is key to good mood, healthy sleep and participation in school. We can’t complain that they’re always eating junk food if we keep it in the house. Instead, buy fresh fruits and vegetables. Keep them washed and cut and ready to eat.

  • Sleep

  • As hormonal changes, social intrigues and academic demands all compete for the attention of our teens, good sleep habits can often take a backseat. Perhaps they don’t sleep enough on school nights and then sleep the days away on the weekends. The National Sleep Foundation sites teenagers as the highest risk group for sleep-deprived behaviors, including unsafe driving, and notes that the average teenager needs nine hours of sleep each night for optimum health. We can help our kids by enforcing healthy bedtimes. Don't forget to lead by example.

  • Raising teenagers isn’t for the faint of heart. They are becoming adults and facing real world issues. Beginning to let go a little at a time and trust our own investment in their values system can be very rewarding. However, it is important to stay involved, aware and continue to set limits in those areas where they still really do need our help.

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Margaret Crowe is a poet and mother of two from Charlotte, North Carolina. 

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