Boundaries: The Key to Freedom

by Dr. John Townsend

Our sons went through all the normal training, conversations and excitement associated with learning to drive. And while my wife and I were happy about our teens' new level of freedom, we also found that this new autonomy provided an automatic leverage for us as parents. The car keys (and our teens' desire to keep the privilege of using them) actually helped curb some negative behaviors in our home. In an ironic way, this symbol of freedom provided us with an effective tool to help our boys learn a critical life skill: self-control.

Adolescence is a time of exploring, challenging, thinking through values and questions about God, and longing for freedom. It's a season when teens don't want to control their urges or impulses and parents want ultimate control. This tension between parents and teens can produce arguing, power struggles and rebellion. Rather than trying to control a teen's freedom, parents should place effective boundaries around that freedom so their teen can learn self-control, frustration tolerance and delayed gratification. These skills can help him navigate the teen years and young adult life.

So what is a boundary? Simply put, it is a property line. A property line defines where your home begins and ends so you are clear about what is yours and what is not. In the same way, a family boundary delineates what is your responsibility in life and what is not. It clarifies what you are for and what you are against — what you will allow and what you will not — all for the purpose of protecting and guarding the family God has given you. Ultimately, a boundary is about taking stewardship over your heart and the heart of your teens: "Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life" (Proverbs 4:23). Clear boundaries with your teens not only create more order in the family, they also provide a way for teens to mature as they learn how to control their choices.

Whether the issue is minor (curfews, disrespect or chores) or major (drugs or sexual behaviors), there are four elements to consider when setting healthy boundaries:

Love. The first thing adolescents need to know for certain is that you are for them. Your teen may not act like he needs your care, but he does. Listen to him, enter his world and connect with. Your love helps your teen to accept and benefit from his boundaries.

Truth. Be clear and reasonable about the boundary you are setting, otherwise your teen won't know where the boundary line is. Clarify the requirement for him, "speaking the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). For example:

  • "I want you to make a certain grade point average (commensurate to your teen's academic ability) because you are capable of it."
  • "We are a zero-tolerance home for drugs."
  • "You may disagree with me, but disrespectful words, tones or behavior are unacceptable."

Freedom. For many parents, the hardest part of setting boundaries is the need to affirm that your teen has a choice. He can choose to obey the rule (your boundary) or not; you cannot make a teen obey. So let him know you understand he has both the responsibility to obey and the freedom not to. God does the same thing with His own children: "Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve" (Joshua 24:15). In the world of parents and teens, it goes something like this: "You don't have to achieve these grades, and I can't make you. It's up to you, but I hope you will do it."

Reality. Your teen needs to know there is a consequence for violating your boundary. Consequences help your adolescent understand the reality of sowing and reaping: "A man reaps what he sows" (Galatians 6:7). So instead of trying to force your teen to make acceptable grades, you set up a consequence that matters to him. It may include grounding; loss of driving time; loss of phone, computer or video electronic privileges; or extra chores. The key is that the consequence should be appropriate for the violation (not too harsh and not too light), and it should be something that matters to your teen. Do your own detective work to find out what your kid cares about.

The good thing about boundaries with teens is that they can become a cultural norm in your home. When you lovingly set and keep boundaries, your teen will begin to accept them and develop internal strength and a sense of responsibility. Boundaries are a part of God's created order for life — helping all of us grow.

Dr. John Townsend is a psychologist, leadership coach and organizational consultant. He is the author or co-author of 27 books, including Boundaries With Teens and the best-seller Boundaries.


This article appeared in the October/November 2012 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was titled "Boundaries: The Key to Freedom." Copyright © 2012 by Dr. John Townsend. Used by permission. ThrivingFamily.com.


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