I (Dr. Townsend) remember overhearing my kids and their friends making plans to go to a movie. It was one of those last-minute decisions that teens often make. None of them were of driving age yet, so they were trying to solve that first obstacle.
One boy, Ted, said, “How are we going to get there? The movie starts in fifteen minutes.” His friend said, “Call your mom; she’s easy.”
It was true. Ted’s mom, Andrea, is easy. She is a loving and easygoing person who also lets herself be taken advantage of by her teens. I have seen her interrupt plans that she has had in place for weeks in order to take her kids somewhere they decided to go at the last minute.
When I told Andrea that she was known as the “easy mom,” she realized that her kids needed to learn to plan ahead. Now when they ask her to do something for them at the last minute, she tells them, “Sorry, I wish you had told me earlier, but I’m doing something else. Good luck.”
Andrea does more than talk the talk; she walks the walk. She models the boundaries with teens that they need to develop, and she helps them experience the limits they need to face.
Andrea understands the bottom line of good parenting: teens will develop self-control and responsibility to the extent that their parents have healthy boundaries. When it comes to good parenting, who you are is more important than what you say.
All parents have at one time or another warned and threatened their teens with some consequence, only to let it go when they didn’t respond. But kids learn more from what they experience than from what they hear.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t teach and talk about boundaries with teens and house rules. They are very important. But those rules will hold little meaning unless you stand behind them and make them real. Your teen needs to internalize your boundaries. That is, she needs to make them part of her own internal world. She will learn a powerful lesson when she loses something she loves because of a choice she has made. The more teens experience the negative consequences of their poor choices, the more internal structure and self-control they will develop.
Every time your teen experiences your external structure, you are providing something for your teen that she cannot provide for herself. Each time you go through this process, she becomes a little more aware, a little less impulsive, a little more responsible, and a little more mindful that she will control what her future looks like.
Read more about how to help your teens mature and maintain your sanity in Boundaries With Teens.