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How To Set Limits with Teens

My 16 year old son has been on his computer gaming so much it’s taken over his life.  When I take it away, he threatens to move to his grandparents which he knows would devastate me.  He never gets off when I tell him he has to. Last night I told him he had to take out his trash, he wouldn’t stop his game to do it and this is a very regular thing.  I don’t know how to get him off of it, he never listens to me about it then we end up fighting and I just hate that. I tell him when he has to be off his game, but he usually gets off at like 11:00pm.  I don’t think I am doing any discipline because I don’t want him to move out.”

It’s frustrating and even scary when kids are older and parents realize their kids are now too physically big to make them do something the want.  It can also be heart breaking when teens threaten to do things like move out. When parents yell, nag, threaten, it pushes the adolescent further away.  When the teen threatens the parent back and the parent retreats because they are afraid, the child learns they have power over the parent and are in control.

With that disconnect, the teen (and parent) feel more isolated, less trusting, less understood, and less likely to be willing to cooperate.

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It’s easy to look at your teen through the lens that they are disrespectful, lazy, etc.  And while this could be true, it could also be true that they, like any individual, wants some control over their life and are finding new ways to exert this.  It could be true, that just like toddlers, teens continue to test limits to find where those limits are to feel secure. With the absence of limits, they truly do feel a sense of dysregulation.

First, let’s talk about setting limits with teens.

  1. Connect.  If you’ve read my other blog posts, you already know that connecting with your child is one of the most important things you can do not only for your relationship, but also to improve behavior.  When kids of any age feel connected to you, they feel secure, they trust, and in general are more likely to cooperate. Set aside time, even if it’s only 10-20 minutes a day to have 1-1, uninterrupted, time to connect.  Sit and talk about what they want to talk about, play a card game, take a bike ride, play catch, whatever it is they want to do with you.

  2. Set the limit/boundary/expectation.  Be firm about the limit, and make an agreement.  Involve your child in this discussion. During the day, when everyone is calm, and the issue (i.e. gaming) is not present, let your child know what the expectation is and explain why. Use curiosity questions instead of demands.

I know in the past I’ve let you stay up late playing video games, but I know that it’s not good for your brain and you are not getting enough sleep.  What do you think is a reasonable amount of time to play video games every day? You do need to be in bed by What time do you need to stop playing in order to make sure that happens?  What’s your plan for making sure the trash is taken out BEFORE you start playing your game?

3. Validate their feelings and empathize.  Although you make think what they want is ridiculous or unreasonable, to them it is important.  If you brush it off or assert that you’re right and they’re wrong, they’re not going to listen to you.  Instead, if you listen and validate their feelings, they’re less likely to resist.

I know how much fun you have playing your game.  I hear you, sometimes I want to stay up late reading my books!  

Using this approach does take more time, but it’s more effective than threatening or nagging.  It also teaches teens to problem solve WITH you, rather than teaching them that yelling and nagging and refusing is how to get what you want.  Your teen will also be more likely to see that you respect and understand them, and build trust and mutual respect.

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Initially, you can expect some additional push back and limit testing because they are used to getting their way after pushing and refusing.  Adjusting to having limits is hard for everyone involved; be ready for frustration, anger, and some tears. It will get harder before it gets easier. Eventually, with consistent respect and firm limits, they will learn that your No means No and your Yes means Yes.  They will know where those limits stand and what is expected.

Second, let’s talk about screen time addiction.

There’s plenty of research that shows screen time is addictive for people of all ages.  In developing children and adolescents, it can actually alter their brain structure. I’m not suggesting that you have to eliminate all screen time, but it’s definitely something that should have limits.

Here’s how to reduce screen time in your family:

  1. Have a family meeting or conversation with your child.  Let them know WHY you need to make changes. Come up with ideas of things they can do and enjoy instead of unlimited screen time.

  2. Create a tech “parking lot.”  This is a place where video game controllers, tablets, smart phones, computer power cords, etc. will go when it is not screen time.

  3. Start small.  If your child (or you) is constantly glued to any type of screen all day, it could be hard to cut it all out at once.  Instead, you might want to consider taking small achievable steps. Ie. week 1 - no screens during dinner. Week 2 - add on no screens for one hour before bed.  Week 3- add in no screens one hour after waking. Etc.

  4. Stick to your limits and remember to validate how your child is feeling during this process.  It can be difficult, but it will be worth it.