Setting Boundaries with Teens: Sticking to "No"

By Your Teen Magazine for Parents

Last winter, Tracy Jenkins begged her mother, Patty, for a new pair of Sorel winter boots. They were expensive, but Patty found a pair on sale and brought them home for her daughter, who was very excited to have them … for about three months.

This year, Patty bought a pair of winter boots for herself. When she put them on, her daughter declared them “way cuter” than her own boots, and asked: “Can I have them?”

“No,” Patty said—a response that did not sit very well with Tracy. For several days now, Patty has listened to her daughter beg, cajole, and bargain for possession of the boots, and she can slowly feel herself capitulating.

“By March, they most likely will be hers,” Patty acknowledges with a sigh.

This sort of scene repeats itself in thousands of houses every day. Often when teenagers get an answer they don’t like — NO — they will ask again and again and again. And in the process, they can wear down their parents’ resolve and end up getting what they want. So how to set boundaries with teens and stick with your “No”?

“As a parent of three, I know that life is often crazy and stressful, and the last thing you want to do is make more waves for yourself,” says Dr. Jerry Weichman, an adolescent psychologist at the Hoag Neurosciences Institute in Newport Beach, California and author of the teen survival guide, How to Deal. “But many parents fall into this pitfall of choosing the short-term gain of giving their kids what they want over the long-term consequences of the behavior repeating itself. I try to work with parents on understanding how detrimental this can be in the long run.”

Setting Boundaries with Teens: An Important Life Lesson

In the short term, it may not seem harmful to gift your child a pair of boots (At least her feet will be warm! And she’ll stop bothering me!), but constantly giving in to teenagers—without them providing ample reasoning for their requests—does not prepare them for life. It’s important for teens to understand early on that they can’t always get what they want—and that their parents’ words have teeth, says Dr. Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist in Westchester County, New York.

“If you want a job and you don’t get it, are you going to call up the employer every single day and badger them to change their mind? They’re going to turn around and call the police,” says Powell-Lunder.

But how to set boundaries with teens who push back no matter how many times you’ve given an answer? Staying strong is no easy task—and your teenagers know this. “Kids are extremely smart—they’ve got a spinning hard drive in their brain that sees where the loopholes are,” says Weichman.

Patience helps in these situations. “The good thing is that behavior is very, very predictable,” Powell-Lunder explains. “It kind of works like a mountain. Once you hit the peak, it comes down. So if you can sit through the ‘no, no, no’s, the relentless badgering eventually goes away.”

And the more you practice standing firm when it comes to boundaries with teens, the shorter the tirades will be. “They will see that you mean business and that no is always no,” Powell-Lunder explains.

That said, it is important that “No” does not simply become your default response to every request. If you are on the fence about a decision—or if your teen is particularly persistant about a certain topic—a good response is to say, “Convince me,” Weichman says. The process helps teenagers sharpen their negotiating skills and begin to understand what sorts of arguments hold sway. Your answer still might be no—in which case, Weichman says, you really need to explain your reasoning to them. But “it gives them information to chew on.”

In the end, these negotiations are often really conversations about power and control. “Either you are going to train your kids, or your kids are going to train you,” Weichman says. “It’s an everyday battle.”