Boundaries for teens – a balancing act

“Everyone is else is doing it…everyone else’s parents let them”

What parent of a teen hasn’t heard this before? The adolescent years are a time of experimenting and experiencing, growth and development, all with the goal of moving toward independence and being prepared for the “real world.” So how does a parent decide what to allow a teen to do and where to draw the boundaries?  By Carrie Jones, LCSW


It’s no simple job no matter wherever you live, but for those of us living overseas in an international city like Shanghai, it can be even more challenging. Teens quickly pick up on the fact that their friends’ families often come from different cultures and have different values, expectations, and rules. Parents don’t have the laws and norms of the home culture to guide them in quite the same way they would if they were living back home. 

Clearly, there are no simple answers, but here are a few guidelines to help you as you try to manage this balancing act. And balancing act is exactly what it is – teens do need room to test and try out new things, but they also still need rules and structure to protect them and guide them in the right direction.


  • Do listen to, consider, and respect what your teen has to say, whether it is a request, idea, argument, or just basic chatting. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with what they are saying; the key is just letting your teen know you are listening with an open mind.
  • Don’t compromise on issues that involve your core values.
  • Do respond with empathy. Even if you don’t agree with what your teen is telling you or trying to convince you to let him do, respond to the feeling they are expressing. You might say, “It sounds like you really want to be included in what your friends are doing,” or “It sounds like you are really curious about ______.”  You can even grant their desires in fantasy, for example, “I wish I could let you ________, but I can’t because _________.”
  • Don’t Lecture and nag. 
  • Do Have hard conversations early on. Begin having open conversations long before puberty hits.
  • Don’t Wait until your child is too old to begin talking about sensitive topics like sex and drugs. Don’t have topics that are taboo and cannot be discussed. If teens don’t get the information from you, they will get it elsewhere and it may not be accurate. You wouldn’t believe some of the creative (but ineffective!) birth control methods and ways to cheat a drug test kids have informed me of that they heard from their friends or found on the Internet.
  • Do Share some of your own experiences as a teen with your adolescent. Teens like to know that their parents are human too.
  • Don’t Feel like you have to share every mistake or bad choice you made. Also don’t feel like just because you did something as a teen you can’t ask your adolescent not to do the same. I meet lots of parents who are afraid to set firm rules, especially regarding alcohol and drug use, because they feel like hypocrites since they experimented when they were young. 
  • Do Have clearly defined rules and expectations for your teen with clearly defined and enforced consequences when these rules are broken.
  • Don’t Make empty threats where you say you will do such and such if your teen misbehaves, but then not follow through when your teen does get in trouble. Teens are smart and will take full advantage of parents who don’t follow enforce rules!
  • Do Expect your child to make mistakes – we all do! Often, it is from our mistakes that we learn and grow the most.
  • Don’t Over-react, panic, or have a huge emotional outburst as soon as you learn your child has made a bad choice or is in trouble. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to listen and understand first and then respond.
  • Finding the right balance requires practice and patience. Good parenting is a skill. As you work to develop this skill, keep in mind the great paradox to parenting teens: to gain control you have to release control. Teens who are given few choices or no say in important matters are those who tend to feel resentful and rebel. Teens who feel listened to and respected tend to push the boundaries much less.



This article first appeared in the CARE magazine published by Community Center Shanghai, and permission was given to ShanghaiMamas to reprint.

Community Center Shanghai (CCS) is a non-profit organization, with Centers strategically situated within Shanghai’s international communities in Hongqiao, Minhang and Pudong.CCS responds to the ever-changing needs of the community by providing relevant programming that equips individuals and families to maximize their potential while in China. CCS bridges the cultural gap by offering opportunities to give and serve through our charitable programs, providing useful and enriching classes, practical and educational tours, essential orientations, professional counseling, and volunteer opportunities.