A Teen’s Guide to Establishing Boundaries with Parents

Reese Dembo, The Roar, Milken Community School


I manage to patiently call out my codeword at the dark shape lingering in my bedroom doorway, whom I expect to be my mother. As my door creaks shut, I take a deep breath and remember we’re all still learning.

A few months prior, I had orchestrated a conversation with my parents about my privacy, where they had agreed to set the boundary of knocking instead of barging into my room. Clearly, my mom has been having trouble adhering to this, but this one silly word will get my door shut faster than any ill-tempered conversation. To be honest, it sounds so ridiculous that our boundary-crossing codeword doesn’t only work, but gives us both a much-needed laugh. As simple as having a boundary like this may seem, with some parents it can be difficult to achieve. Lucky for you, a lifetime of precise trial and error (and research) has led me to the making of this 5-step-guide for setting lasting boundaries with parents.

I won’t deny that rules are important for parents to establish. But leaving room for us to grow is just as essential. Research tells us that to raise a self-reliant child, it is much more effective to be authoritative than authoritarian. One of the main causes we ‘rebel’ against our parents’ rules is because of how insane they feel to us. Having a healthy relationship with our parents and establishing rules together will not only show them we are responsible but help us gain independence and establish a stronger moral code. As simple as this may seem, it is hard to achieve. How do you execute this in a lasting and beneficial way?

As we continue to grow independently from our parent’s influence, we begin to establish a moral code separate from our parents. Throughout the process, finding the balance between staying true to yourself and satisfying your parents’ needs is one of the most trying tasks. Success in finding the balance will show your parents you are mature enough to understand their values and work with them (even if you don’t necessarily agree with them.) They’ve instilled their values into you throughout your childhood, and showing them you’ve taken in something from their parenting will please them (and help you establish what you want!).

Remember: there is no one right way to raise a child.

In the same way, there is no one right way to communicate with a parent. Use your best judgment, trust yourself, and let this article guide you in the right direction.

Step 1: What do you want to accomplish?

In our teen years, we commonly yearn for freedom. Whether in schoolwork, social life, or with a curfew, all of our goals have a single common thread. We crave independence. Our evolving, hormonal minds are racing with a newfound sense of self. We want to explore, try new things, and party into the early hours of the morning. Often, this thirst for independence comes out in acts of rebellion, causing parents to think we haven’t reached the maturity necessary to begin an independent, adult life. To show them we can handle it, we first have to hone in on exactly what we want. Specifics are key. Starting slow, decide what you most want, and potential boundaries your parents would agree to. Writing these down will show them your thought-out desire and maturity, making them more likely to re-evaluate their current standards with you.

Step 2: Execution

Listen carefully here. Execution is vital to achieving your goals. It may brink on manipulation, but hey, if it works it works. Below are multiple methods for success, all of which are highly recommended by professionals and teens alike.

Sandwich method:

So easy, yet so effective. The sandwich method is exactly what it sounds like…sandwiching your subject in between positive comments. When asked about this method, Milken’s 9-10 division Rabbi, David Saiger, had more than enough to share.  In his classes, Rabbi Saiger uses the term ‘tochecha sandwich’ which parallels exactly to the sandwich method, but with an enhanced Talmudic vocab to shake it up a little (tochecha = caring criticism). Saiger says, “Obviously one of the challenges of caring criticism is: How do you give it in a way that the person can actually hear it and want to take that criticism to heart?”

In this case, caring criticism might be substituted for successfully bringing up the topic of boundaries without ruining your parents’ mood. Saiger continues to site a study published in the Harvard Business Review on the ratio of positive to critical comments for almost every type of relationship, where they have performed studies showing that highest performance occurs with ‘nearly six positive comments for every negative one,” Saiger explains, “The sandwich is 2:1. That’s really what it’s saying. Give two positive comments for one critical comment and your parents are going to be much more likely to hear your critical comment.” Going even further, Saiger suggests thinking “on the line of  manipulation” to get the job done: “How are you couching [your request] in a number of positive things?”

Ex: “I know that you really care about how I succeed in school and I really appreciate that you care about my grades, but I want to talk to you about how I think I need to take some more responsibility for myself and I was wondering if you could take a step back from it. I only feel the need to say this because of how helpful you’ve been my whole life, and I’m afraid I won’t be successful on my own.”

Praise not Punishment: Parents often use this method on their children, so why not flip it? Slip in some subtle compliments towards them to boost their mood and raise their self-esteem in parenting.

Ex: “Mom, you’re such an efficient person, and I want to be like you in that way. I think the only way I will get to be as good at managing my time as you are is if I have some independence when it comes to my assignments and grades. I’m afraid without having to manage myself on my own, I won’t gain the skill of efficiency and time-management”.

Validate their feelings- Let them get it all out. Reassure them you understand where they are coming from, even if you’re exaggerating a bit. If they’re on a rampage, don’t interrupt. Letting them talk will make them feel heard, which will raise their inclination of setting a boundary with you.

Ex: (After parents finish talking) “I completely get where you’re coming from Dad…”

Step 3: The Approach

Bear in mind some factors to set yourself up for success:

  1. Approach your parent when they’re in a positive mood because they’ll be more willing to agree to your terms.
  2. Approach your parent when they have time to talk with you. If your parents are typically very busy, schedule/discuss a time to talk to them.
  3. Don’t rush into it. Start off slow and build up. You can start by bringing up a past or potential issue you’ve had with a lack of boundary before introducing the boundary you wish to establish.
  4. Make sure to start off by asking their opinion. From there, you can work around their point of view to sympathize and satisfy their needs.

Step 4: Gaining trust + fostering a relationship working with your parents

They might shut it down. An immediate no. When people, particularly parents, hold a fear of change, they often use their authority to dismiss the conversation entirely. Start off requesting baby steps to prove your responsibility and maturity.

Ex: “I think I’m at an age where I can start to stay out later. I understand why you don’t want me to and why it scares you, so I was thinking we could start out slow. What do you think about extending my curfew by 15 minutes? To show my responsibility, I can text you if I’m going to be using my additional 15 minutes so you don’t worry about me, and if I fail to uphold to this I completely understand why you won’t let me stay out later”.

Step 5: Holding each other accountable

Once a boundary is established, it’s important to stick by it. Otherwise, what’s the point? Accountability is a two-way street, where you not only have to work together but frequently check in with the other side. Before you end the discussion with your parents, clarify the way you will be keeping track of how well the boundary is kept and make sure both parties are on board. Some ideas:

1. Monthly/Weekly Check-Ins

Ex: The first Saturday of every month re-evaluate how well the boundary is being kept and how it is affecting both parties. At this point, you can extend or decrease the boundary, alter how you keep the boundary, and share how you feel the boundary has benefited you (to show your parents the success in communication and teamwork with you!!)

2. Sharing your feelings

If the boundary is broken, acknowledge it! Own up to your actions. Share what you did wrong and why you won’t do it in the future instead of sliding around it and averting the conversation.

3. Consequences for Actions

If the boundary is bent/broken, uphold the previously discussed consequence (for either party…but maybe don’t use the word consequence towards your parents)

4. Constant reminders

If someone breaks the boundary, calmly and subtly remind them.

Ex: Your mom asks you if you’ve finished your homework and studied for the retake she noticed you had to take on MyMilken. Remind her that you’ve created a boundary of managing your work and reassure her that you are responsible for yourself and can manage your time on your own.

The process of establishing boundaries with your parents is strenuous and almost guaranteed to test your personal boundaries. However, success will prove not only rewarding in terms of results, but in your sense of self. So if you’ve succeeded in setting up a boundary with your parents, congrats!! You should feel accomplished. Having completed the process is important not only in your freedom, but in gaining life skills for the real world.

This story originally appeared in The Roar on January 18, 2023.