learning how to set limits as a parent of a teenager

I’m sharing some life lessons as a mom of a teen.  Let’s talk about the importance of setting clear, firm, loving limits.

Stand strong

We can talk about the importance of giving our teens space to be themselves, have their own ideas and even differ with us.  The question comes up, “What about limits?”  Giving our teens room to breathe and the freedom to think their own thoughts isn’t license for them to buck all reasonable rules and expectations. 

Over these past few years, I’ve learned more than ever that a limit is a limit, especially if it is a moral limit.


Why All This Testing?

Teenagers test everything.  Part of what they have to do in order to grow up involves sorting through all that has been poured into them over the years.  They have observed our words, instruction and example.  They are literally deciding which values and worldviews they will keep and which they will toss. 

Do you remember doing this as a teen?  It probably wasn’t as cerebral as it sounds.  It goes more like, “Um. no,” or “Mom and Dad are so off base about that,” or “Actually, I think I agree with this.” 

Sometimes another adult in their life – a teacher, youth leader or coach – repeats what we’ve been emphasizing and they absorb it deeply because they heard it somewhere other than from us.  Though we continue to pour into them through their teen years {and we should}, they aren’t the sponges they used to be.  

Deciding What Matters

As parents we have to decide what our “go to the wall” issues are, or, as I like to say, “which hills I’m willing to die on.” 

Here’s my short list: purity, devotion to God and relational integrity. 

In our home we have decided certain things are critical.  More than anything, we want our teen to know the love God has for him beyond a shadow of a doubt and to grow into loving Jesus through personal devotion and outward service.  We can’t control that outcome, but we can provide an atmosphere that encourages a positive relationship with God.  

We also want our son to live a life of integrity and purity.  That means he will extend love and respect to people around him.  It also means we expect him do everything in his power and through dependence on God to avoid sin.

We can’t force or control him and we don’t try to.  {Well, on my better days I don’t}. 

We have told him that when he chooses to walk in righteousness we will bless, fund and resource his choices to the best of our ability.  On the other hand, if he chooses to walk in ways that are not God honoring, we will remove anything we are doing to bless, fund or resource those poor choices.

fork in road

Remember, You Do Still Have Authority:

When I became a teen, my parents lost sight of their authority and threw their hands up as to what to do with me.  I knew other parents who figured their son or daughter was surely going to have sex, smoke pot and break family rules.  The way they dealt with this “inevitable” participation in darkness was to allow and condone it. 

They would say things like, “If you are going to smoke pot anyway, do it here so at least I know you are not going to get caught,” or “You can have your girlfriend over in your room, at least we know where you are.” 

By surrendering their authority, these parents opened the floodgates for promiscuity and drug use right under their own roofs.  

You Can’t Control, but You Can Influence

Don’t fall into the common idea that somehow you have no way to stop your teens from derailing.  You may feel hopeless and helpless, but you are not.  You can do much and your intervention can actually turn the course of a situation if it is done in the right spirit.  At the very least, you are sending a message as to which way they should go.  

You can’t control the choices your teen will make, but you can do your best to facilitate their healthy choices and remove all support for their poor choices.  Remember you are on their team and you need to show them love regardless of their choices. 

train rails

Limits Need to be Clear: 

If you have a teen, you know.  They are masters at the art of fine lines.  Good limit setting becomes essential.  Always state the limit with as many details as needed.  Have them repeat it back to you so both of you know they understood what was said.  Write the limit down if that will help avoid confusion. 

State the consequences in advance – this helps you and them know what will happen and protects you from reacting in the heat of your emotions when they do cross a line. 

An example of this in our home has been the “chores and screen-use list” which is on our pantry wall.  If my son doesn’t do a chore, he loses a dollar out of his allowance.  If the chore had to be done for our home to function well that day, I’ll do it.  Not only does he lose a dollar, he pays me for my services. 

No yelling, nagging, reminding – simply implement the consequence.  You might feel like adding a word or two as you dole out the consequence.  Nope.  Stop.  Don’t even.  Just be quiet. 

It’s so tempting to keep at our teens to make a point and drive the lesson home.  Your added words will only make room for a fight to ensue – take it from wordy-girl over here who has learned this parenting lesson the hard way.  {If you want, check out this about avoiding power struggles}. 

boxing gloves

Limits need to be kind and firm

The limit you set needs to be stated and enforced both kindly and firmly.  This parenting principle is true at all ages, but with teens, it’s crucial. 

Everything is lost when you get emotional and dramatic.  You must remain kind while holding the limit.  Show your love for them in your voice tone and facial expressions. Use words like, “I love you, and the answer is still ‘no.'” 

Hold that limit like a rock star.  Here’s why: Your teens will test boundaries and push up against them with pleas for leniency.  They have 1000 reasons why things didn’t go as they should and an equal number of ready attempts to negotiate different outcomes. 

When you hold limits, it reinforces to your teen that the values behind those limits are worth standing for.  You are teaching them volumes as you calmly and lovingly stand for what is right. 

It goes without saying that you have to be consistent about this.  You can’t take away the phone for one infraction, give it back and then let the same infraction go without consequences the next time. 

There is no magic wand to keep your children on the straight line.  You may not prevent them from making radically regrettable mistakes as they grow.  If you stay engaged, show your love daily in tangible ways and set clear, loving, firm limits, you will have done all you can to set up the boundaries they need to choose well. 

Oh, and pray, sweet mama.  Pray like never before.  God stands with you as you parent your teens. 

From me to you:

If you are parenting teenagers, please share how you hold limits or challenges you’ve faced in your family.  If your children aren’t teens yet, please let posts like this prepare you instead of scaring the dickens out of you. 

Live where you are as a mom and glean wisdom for the road ahead.  Much of what you are doing now will help prepare you and your children for this stage of their lives.

You may want to read the letter I wrote to teen girls about purity, or the one I wrote to teen boys.  









Print Friendly, PDF & Email

You Might Also Like


  • Reply
    June 16, 2016 at 1:57 AM

    These are so great, Patty! Right there alongside you in this journey. 🙂

    • Reply
      June 16, 2016 at 8:36 AM

      Thanks, Shannon. You are a kindred and I love the thought in my heart that we are in this together, though miles away. You are in almost EVERY stage of parenthood, aren’t you! That’s a glorious thing about your open hand towards our good God. Even after writing this post, my dear son had a rough “teen moment” last night (as in light and momentary, which always seem misnamed at the time). In retrospect, I know more than ever that the joy of parenthood comes in loving well regardless of outcomes, and in standing (or kneeling) nearer and nearer to Jesus in deep dependence upon Him as I go. Parenting has been God’s tool of refinement and a beacon to call me back to Him like nothing else on earth.

    Leave a Reply