Boundaries 5– Teens

I have already said that if a child is given healthy boundaries early in his life, then the adolescent years will be easier. Those clear boundaries help a child not only to know what he must not do and that he is separate from his parents but that he also has his own mind, likes, dislikes, abilities, interests and talents. The more complete a picture that a child can draw of who he is, the less he will have to struggle to find out—and the struggle in the teen years is invariably with parents and authority figures.

A “well-bounded” child still has issues in adolescence because as his or her body begins to change and as hormone levels change, and as they suddenly grow tall in a very short time, their lives seem unpredictable and out of control. Suddenly her blouse is looking different on her and perhaps her new curves feel embarrassing in the beginning. Suddenly when he tries to talk, he is not sure which voice will appear. Worse, all of their friends are going though the same thing, so there is nothing stable to hold onto outside of themselves except their parents and teachers.

Therefore, the parents’ job becomes difficult, because as the parents must hold the boundaries and remain steady, the teens often engage in verbal and physical behaviors that infuriate and enrage parents. When the teenage daughter appears in an outfit usually only seen in the movies or in the redlight district, the parents’ first reaction could be to become angry, to “ground” her, to insist that she change immediately—who does she think she is? What would the neighbors say? The more visibly upset the parents become, the less likely it is that the girl will want to change. She now has power and better yet, she is able to define herself as not old and stodgy like her ancient 35-40 year old parents.

A while back when one of my daughters was a teen, she and I were shopping together and we came across a shirt that she desperately wanted. It was at a highly reduced price, but it was not a blouse that I would feel comfortable having her wear. She said to me that she always wanted to have a blouse like that, just to see how she looked in it. We bought the blouse with the understanding that she wear it only in the house and only when there were no males present. And that is what she did. I don’t know if she would have gone out and bought that type of blouse without me and worn it when I didn’t know. All I know is that it satisfied her need at that time in her life and she got over that phase painlessly.

Parents need to remain calm, but firm. The calmness is to allow the teen something solid to hold onto when everything is changing. The firmness is to allow him to know that there still are boundaries.

A teen can become totally single-minded in his or her quest for something. A boy may get it into his head that he must have a motor scooter and talk about it constantly. The parents will hear that everyone else has one, that they will save money on transportation, that they won’t have to ferry him from one activity to the next, and that he will even (gasp) run errands for them. Ah, these teens have the ability to persuade. But suppose you are parents who believe that motor scooters are dangerous and that no matter how safe a rider he may be, if he is hit by a careless driver, he could be seriously hurt or worse. If you believe that it is unsafe, then you need to maintain that boundary. “yes, I know you want it and yes, you have made excellent points, but I love you and care for you and I don’t want you to get hurt, so even though you believe that it would be safe, I cannot allow you to do this. When you are older and responsible for yourself completely and have more experience in life, then you might make a different decision, but for now, I need to protect you.”

About 15 years ago, one of our sons was at home for the weekend and had told one of his friends that he could drive him back to college on Saturday night. When Saturday night came around, there was a fog so thick that one could barely see five feet ahead. We told him that he could not drive back to school. He became indignant. How could we do this to him! He had promised his friend. Worse yet, people in the dorm were making his friend a surprise birthday party and unless our son took him, he would miss it. We looked out the window, listened to the traffic reports, and responded that it would be better for his friend to miss his party than to miss the rest of his life. Was our son upset with us? And how! Did we do the right thing? I believe we did. The fog was treacherous and the drive would have been very dangerous. Several weeks later, our son told us that he thought we had done the right thing.

And that is the key. Often when teens are fighting for what they want, they know that really, the parent is right and they rely on the parent to protect them from themselves. We serve as the teen’s superego—that part of them that should protect them from destructive urges. During the teen years, they often need the parent to take that role for them. If we fold, we fail them. If we give in, then what is it we actually stand for? Can they really respect us?

Even in the teenage years we are called upon to provide what Winnicott termed the “holding environment,” the structure in which the child feels safe.

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