Setting Boundaries with Children & Teens

Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D., author of Suffer the Children, shared tips for dealing with conflict with your children.
1. Even the happiest of families must deal with some conflict at home.
     TV, video games, homework, bedtime, and mealtime are hot subjects for disagreement between parents and younger children. For older children and teens, these topics expand to include cell phone use, texting, curfew, friends, appropriate dress, and chores. These days, the amount of time a teen spends on social networking sites like Face Book is a major concern for parents, and most parents make rules around social networking.
     There is no one rule that fits every child, so parents have to spend some time together discussing what the rules will be. 1) Parents should discuss the rules privately and come to agreement between themselves. 2) Then parents should listen carefully to their kid’s concerns and make the child feel heard. This is especially important with teens. 3) Finally, try negotiation: for example, no cell phone use or online social networking until homework and chores are done.
     Parents also must decide about the consequences for breaking the rules, and also about rewards for when a child does something especially well.
2. Parents, too, may have conflicts with each other.
     Parents are not always on the same page about discipline, since their attitudes toward discipline is not usually something a couple discusses before they get married. One parent may be more soft- hearted and have trouble enforcing rules and consequences, while the other parent sees the importance of consistency and strict discipline. When parents feel differently about rules, rewards and consequences, it is essential that they discuss their differences in private and come to agreement. They each may have to make some compromises to reach a middle ground. For the sake of their child, parents need to get on the same page about discipline.
     One consistent set of rules, with parents backing each other up, makes a child or teen feel safe and cared for. If parents disagree in front of their child, the child will have behavior problems. In Suffer the Children, I talk about the case of a little boy named Jarrod who was about to be kicked out of school because his behavior was so bad. The root cause of his acting out was that his parents argued and disagreed in his hearing. One his parents stopped arguing in front of him, Jarrod’s problems disappeared.
     It’s also important to keep marital arguments away from children. Little ears and little imaginations tend to make mountains out of molehills. A child who hears parents arguing can even become distracted with worry or develop anxiety. In my book, I discuss the story of an 11-year-old-boy named Drake who became very depressed when he heard his parents constantly arguing about money.
3. Resolving power struggles.
     Parent-child power struggles fall into three categories:
1) Battles parents must win (issues involving a child’s physical safety, health, or hygiene)
2) Battles on which you are willing to compromise (You can stay out late on Saturday night if you clean your room first.)
3) Battles you are willing to let your child win (O.K. you can wear your purple pajamas to school as long as it’s all right with the school.)
     Decide into which of these three categories the conflict falls, and then pick your battles. After you have listened to your kid, calmly state your decision. Don’t yell or lose your cool, even if your child continues to argue with you. Teenagers, especially, are expert button-pushers. They can get a parent to regress emotionally to an age younger than the teen’s. If you notice your emotional age decreasing (i.e. you have become screaming and irrational), leave the battlefield until you have calmed down. This is called the “Exit and Wait” technique.
4. Teach your child the art of negotiation and compromise.
     Nobody gets their own way all of the time. Although it is not good for a child to hear her parents argue, parents who disagree with one another respectfully and come to a compromise in a calm way provide a good role model for their child.
5. What rules aren’t fair to a kid?
     When a parent makes a rule out of anger or frustration, the rule is often unfair to the child. Some examples are, “You are grounded for the rest of the year,” or “no more sleepovers ever.” It’s best for parents to cool off and make decisions rationally rather than from a place of anger or frustration. If you have made a rule in anger that you don’t think is fair, explain to your child that you were angry and that you have reconsidered.


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