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How do you know if the boundaries you’ve set are reasonable? Your pediatrician may be a valuable source of advice on general age-appropriate ground rules. You might also try networking informally among other parents. Ask, “What time does Meredith go to bed on school nights?” Don’t be surprised if it’s not as late as your youngster led you to believe. But even if it is, the limits you set for your son or daughter must ultimately reflect your own values and priorities, no one else’s.

However, we do suggest consulting one other expert on what comprises sensible restrictions—namely, your teenager. Whenever possible, youngsters should have a say in developing the rules that they’re going to be expected to follow. You may be surprised how reasonable your son or daughter can be.

Always listen respectfully to your child’s point of view; kids have a right to vent frustration (“You’re always treating me like a baby!”), even anger (“You’re the meanest mom and dad in the world!”). But in the end, if you feel you must say no, don’t back down.

Other Suggestions for Setting Limits

Be specific. Again using curfew as an example: “You are to be home no later than eight o’clock on school nights.” Not: “I don’t want you out late during the week.”

Be concise. Setting a limit shouldn’t take more than a few sentences.

Put all important rules in writing, to counter selective memories. “But you never told me I’m not allowed to have friends in the car when I’m driving!”

“Oh yes we did. Remember this?”

An adolescent’s rights and responsibilities are subject to change. Standards of discipline must suit not only a youngster’s age, but her behavior, emotional maturity, capabilities and developmental understanding.

As she demonstrates increased responsibility, we grant her more freedom. If she shows bad judgment, however, or breaks the existing rules, we impose more restrictions until she regains our confidence and trust.

A parent’s expectations must be reasonable and achievable. Realistically, a chronically disorganized youngster who has always kept a messy room is not going to be instantly transformed. His improvement is likely to come in increments, which should then be the yardstick for praise. Perhaps the stack of comic books beneath his bed is still accumulating dust, but he did straighten out the bedcovers before leaving for school today, making this a milestone worthy of a compliment. And a snapshot?

What Are Fair and Reasonable Consequences?

Effective punishment is neither too lenient nor too harsh, but commensurate with the severity of the “crime.” To merely scold a teenager after he returns the car with empty beer cans stashed under the seat sends the message that you don’t truly take the infraction seriously, and neither should he. Conversely, to forbid a youngster from attending the big fall homecoming dance because she missed the due date for an important social-studies report will undoubtedly stir up resentment toward Mom and Dad—and school—more than it will impart a lesson about the importance of handing in work on time.


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Caring for Your Teenager (Copyright © 2003 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.