Five Ways to Set Boundaries With Kids and Teens

Without Yelling, Shaming, or Nagging

Parents and kids are spending a lot of time together right now. We typically share the role of creating structure and setting boundaries with extended family, educators, coaches, mentors, and other adults. During COVID, it’s more often an in-home job. This means that it is a lot easier to get stuck in negative ruts with our kids. Stress and exhaustion make it more likely for conflicts to flare up. It’s easy for us to resort to yelling, shaming or punishing. Some days, all we can muster is a loud and emphatic, “Just DO IT because I said so!!!!”

While we all have rough moments and bad days, we need to keep our eye on communication patterns that can erode the most important things our kids need to navigate this crisis: teamwork and connection. Whether you are worried about negative patterns or just need a discipline reset, try these five strategies to set boundaries and stay connected.

Pair of shoes stepping right up to a boundary illustrated by a yellow line painted on a sidewalk.

Use affirmative language.

It works a lot better when we tell our kids what we do want them to do as opposed to what we don’t want them to do. This is because young children are far more likely to understand and latch on to the main subject of the sentence. In other words, when we say, “Don’t throw the ball!” young children are more likely to picture and respond to the words, “Throw the ball.”

While older kids and teens are more able to understand and process whole sentences, the reality is that we all respond better to positive statements.

Instead of, “Don’t scream!” Try, “Let’s use our soft voices right now.”

Instead of, “Don’t leave your dishes everywhere!” Try, “Please take your dishes to the kitchen.”

When (expectation)… then (rewarding part of routine).

It is easy to get caught in a cycle of “taking away” privileges or delivering consequences at every turn. While consequences can be an effective way to teach kids and teens the impact of their choices, they lose their teaching power when we over use them. Try setting boundaries by forecasting and “stacking activities” instead.

Instead of, “If you don’t get your homework done, I will take away your video game time this afternoon!” Try,When your work is done, then you have your free time. You can choose to play video games during this time or do something else!”

Try,When you’ve cleaned up your blocks, then we can read a book together.”

Give choices.

We all like to have control and agency over our lives. Giving choices makes it less likely that kids and teens go into defensive mode and builds a sense of control over the path forward.

Instead of, “We need to go!!” Try, “Do you want to walk or do you want me to carry you?”

Instead of, “You need to get your work done!” Try, “Which assignment are you going to tackle first? Math or writing?”

Engage your child or teen as a problem solver.

It is tempting to set boundaries by launching into long lectures about everything your child did wrong and what they need to do to remedy the situation. Unfortunately, kids and teens alike aren’t likely to learn much from sitting on the receiving end of a long lectures. Putting them in the problem-solving mode is more likely to activate reflection, empathy, and planning.

Instead of, “I can’t believe you….And another thing….” Try, “I see you knocked over your brothers tower. What can you say to him now?”

Try, “What’s your plan today for getting your homework done and getting to work on time?”

Set boundaries with routines.

Parenting requires a lot of improvisation. It’s not easy to create and stick to routines – especially now. The benefit of routines is that kids know the expectations ahead of time and the consistency of the routine can hold boundaries instead of us. Try choosing a particularly challenging pattern and see if a consistent routine helps.

Try, “Remember, we always watch two shows. What should we do next?”

Try, “It’s hard to get started but we always do chores on Saturday mornings. When we are done, then the rest of the morning is up to you.”

The examples above are just that – examples. Parenting is not about reading from a script or setting unrealistic goals. It is not a pass or fail enterprise. Parenting is an opportunity for us to find the words and ways that don’t just get us through the day but communicate caring, creative problem solving, and respect. This is true even when we do the hard work of setting and holding boundaries. So when we find ourselves stuck in a negative rut? We find ways to get back on the same team.

Making these kinds of adjustments or changes can be hard to do in the heat of the moment. It takes practice. One way to start to integrate changes is to plan out your reactions in advance. It can be supportive to have your new “script” or response ready before a ball is flying at your face. Find a little bit of time with yourself or a parenting partner or friend to brainstorm some new ways of responding, choosing one or two of the suggestions from above.  That way, you will be ready when the conflict or challenging behavior comes flying at you!

Need more support on setting warm boundaries and moving away from yelling and nagging? We all do. Check out our self-paced online class Say Yes To No: Why Kids Need Loving Boundaries and How to Set Them