Setting Boundaries

Mrs Violet Ross, Head of Woolcock House

“Even as kids reach adolescence, they need more than ever for us to watch over them. Adolescence is not about letting go. It’s about hanging on during a very bumpy ride.”   (Taffel, 2012)                                                                                               

The lives our young people lead seem very different from what may appear to have been our own relatively simple and technology-free teenage existences. Adolescents seem more sophisticated, self-assured and certainly more technologically savvy than we were, and we all feel at times that we don’t really understand the world they live in.  This is when we wonder how we can possibly hope to help them navigate their way through this mysterious new world.

While society and the media are sending us messages to the contrary, our children are still very much children. They are still in the process of growing up both physically and mentally, and they still very much need our guidance and support as parents and teachers ­­to give them the boundaries and life skills they need to help them to take that next step into adulthood (Biddulph, 2012). Teenagers are not yet neurologically wired to make sound decisions. They are prone to unhealthy risk-taking and to not thinking through the possible consequences for their actions (Faber, director, 2009). Renowned psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg in his book “Surviving Adolescents: the must-have manual for all parents” explains that young people often make poor decisions because they use the more primitive, instinctual amygdala while adults use the critical thinking part of their brain to assess risk. He describes a ‘catch 22’, in which teens simultaneously lack experience, and the wiring necessary for the safe gathering of that very experience (Carr-Gregg, 2005, p. 15).

Apart from helping them to avoid dangerous behaviour, setting boundaries also provides them with a sense of security; one of the keys to parenting adolescents (Carr-Gregg, 2005, p. 29). Before considering what effective boundary-setting actually is, it is important to understand the plight of the adolescent. This is a time of hero worship, passion, of great change and turmoil when rejections are taken to heart, ideals are held high and problems are experienced as catastrophes (Fuller, 2011, p. 45). Psychologist Andrew Fuller in his book “Life: a guide – what to expect in each seven-year stage” makes many interesting observations about what teenagers go through emotionally and the changes that occur in their relationships with their parents. Perhaps most surprisingly, he describes the identity formation of adolescence as a time of grieving for the childhood left behind, a time of loneliness and of feeling that no one really understands, and a time when our sense of belonging is questioned as we no longer relate to our family, siblings or teachers in the same way (Fuller, 2011, pp. 44-45).

Even the most angelic child can turn on their parents as a teenager for, while adults grieve with tears and sadness, adolescents grieve with anger. As they break away from the dependency of childhood, this transformation can be confusing and confronting for parents. One moment teens are demanding freedom and the next they need support and acceptance. Methods of parenting that worked perfectly well in the past are no longer effective. While their teenagers are frantically trying to reinvent themselves, parents can grapple to come to terms with the changes taking place. Fuller has observed that at this stage mothers may become overly intrusive while fathers may either temporarily distance themselves from parenting or refuse to modify their parenting methods and engage in criticism. In the past, their children have generally complied with their wishes, now they want input into major decisions and teenagers do not have the skills to make suggestions in a diplomatic manner, they are far more likely to demand, rant and sneer when making their views known (Fuller, 2011, pp. 46-47).

Fuller explains that it is essential that adolescents differentiate themselves from their parents and find their own identities. To become ‘herself’, a girl needs to either reject her mother or repeat her mother’s emotional life, which is why so many mothers find they can do nothing right in the eyes of their fourteen to sixteen year old daughters. Fuller believes that to become powerful in their own right, girls must also stop seeing their fathers as either protectors or authorities. He says that fathers who develop adult-to-adult relationships with their daughters provide them with the gifts of individuality and empowerment. While it can be tempting for parents to give their children everything they want in order to appease and befriend them, this approach will fail. Interestingly, Fuller says that it is the job of adolescents and parents to fail one another. This  perception of ‘failure’ causes the emerging teenager to differentiate herself from her parents, and it is the work of adolescents to carve a life that is different from their parents and to form a positive identity (Fuller, 2011, p. 48-50).

What, then, is the best approach to establishing family rules and boundaries? Carr-Gregg asserts that there is no point dictating a set of rules and expecting them to be obeyed, as adolescents are not programmed to do this. Compromise is the currency during this phase. A far more effective strategy is for parents to involve their teenagers in a negotiated system of rewards and punishments based on trust and respect. This is a system where a set of reasonable rules with reasonable consequences is established, giving teenagers a sense of ownership of the rules while also communicating to them that they are cared for. Once the child seems ready to take on more responsibility then rules should be revisited and re-negotiated. He believes that too many parents today are hesitant to set limits, instead creating a culture of entitlement – all rights and no responsibilities – which can create lifelong problems (Carr-Gregg, 2005, pp. 29-30). When young people feel too constrained, however, their world can seem very negative, engendering rebellion and resulting in conflict. So the challenge for parents is to find a balance between too many and too few boundaries – a case of picking one’s battles. Carr-Gregg posits consequences as important tools for changing adolescent behaviour and instilling responsibility. Teaching young people the principles of cause and effect helps them to accept ‘ownership’ of their actions and helps prepare them for their adult lives. He feels that traditional disciplinary methods do not give adolescents opportunities to make decisions and take responsibility for them (Carr-Gregg, 2005, p. 31).

Apart from ascertaining the more traditional rules about curfews, household chores, homework and bedtimes, our modern world presents parents with the new challenge of setting boundaries for our children’s online lives. Not only do we want to help them to become responsible cybercitizens but, more importantly, we want to ensure that they know how to protect themselves from potential harm and to be aware of the downsides of technology. University of New South Wales researcher Nina Funnell strongly discourages giving technology as presents. A gift cannot be withdrawn and these devices should come with responsibilities. In her experience, net nannies and technology contracts between parents and their children can be quite helpful. Like Carr-Gregg, she emphasizes that technology contracts need to be negotiated by both parent and child to provide a sense of ownership and include clearly stated rights, responsibilities and reprimands, signed and dated by all parties (Funnell, 2012). There are various examples of technology contracts available online to use as a starting point. They address issues like the sharing of passwords and personal information, downloading and cyber bullying. For example, what parents would do if their child told them he or she was being cyber bullied. It is often the case that young people will not report online incidents such as bullying and sexting to their parents as their greatest fear is that their parents will take their technology away (Funnell, 2012). One could be forgiven for thinking that if the technology is taken away then the problem will go away but that is not the world our children live in. Technology is now and will most likely always be a significant part of their lives. We need to teach them the skills they need to deal with these types of situations. Helping our girls to learn how to self-regulate and use technology responsibly are far better options. Funnell stresses that rather than banning or discouraging young people from using technology, we should be encouraging them to embrace it but think critically about the ethical dilemmas it raises (Funnell, 2012).

Parents often express their concerns about the amount of time their children are spending on Facebook and other social media sites instead of, or while doing their homework. There are two issues here. The first is that multi-tasking may work when completing routine tasks but scientific research has proven that it is ineffective and reduces focus when completing something that requires a higher level of thinking (Manhart, 2004, p. 66). Dedicated study time without distractions produces better learning (“Can Kids Really”, 2012). The second issue is that pastimes like engaging in social media and online gaming can be great time-wasters and become seemingly addictive, although this type of addiction is still not officially recognised as a clinical disorder (Carr-Gregg, 2007, p. 122). I know of students who have asked a trusted sibling to change their password on Facebook as a strategy to avoid the temptation of spending too much time socialising with friends when they know they should be spending their time more profitably.

Many of our students have not yet mastered these skills of self-regulation so are in need of parental guidance to do so. Their sleep can also be impacted. Research indicates that Facebook experiences its peak traffic between eleven at night and four in the morning. Both Fuller and Carr-Gregg firmly believe that sleep is the most important study tool. Sufficient sleep is not only essential to maintaining good emotional well-being but is also imperative for retaining information (Carr-Gregg, 2012). It must be acknowledged, however, that social media has become an important part of how adolescent girls maintain their friendships and it is well-documented that friendships are one of the most important things for adolescent girls at a time when a sense of belonging is so crucial. Therefore, banning social network sites altogether is not the best solution (Funnell, 2012).

Extensive research has shown that two of the key factors which can contribute to good social and emotional well-being of our young people today are a home environment that has high expectations communicated for achievement and behaviour, and one that provides children with responsibility and involvement in decision making (Bernard, 2008). Routine and knowing what the boundaries are provide children with a much-needed sense of security. It is important that they learn by experience the benefits of appropriate behaviour and the disadvantages of inappropriate behaviour, especially when safety is a factor. There are no fool-proof formulas but without clear and consistent rules and consequences there is no structure, no teaching or learning of responsibility (Carr-Gregg, 2005, p. 32). Ideally trust and respect grow incrementally as rules are negotiated and teenagers are at their best when they are treated with respect (Irvine, 2002, p. 171). In following these guidelines we can provide our young people with relevant life skills that will assist them as they make the transition from adolescence into adulthood in a modern world.


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Biddulph, S. (2012, April 26). The war on girls. Lecture presented at What’s Happening to our Girls? What’s Happening to our Boys? at The University of Queensland, Brisbane.

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Carr-Gregg, M. (2012, April 26). Quiz: How much do you really know about the developmental psychology of girls? Address presented at What’s Happening to our Girls? What’s Happening to our Boys? at The University of Queensland, Brisbane.

Carr-Gregg, M., & Tanberg, R. (2007). Real wired child: what parents need to know about kids online. Camberwell, Victoria: Penguin Books.

Carr-Gregg, M., & Tandberg, R. (2005). Surviving adolescents: the must-have manual for all parents. Camberwell, Victoria: Penguin.

Faber, L. (Director). (2009, July 23). Whatever! The Science of Teens [Television broadcast]. In Risk. Sydney, New South Wales: ABC.

Fuller, A. (2011). Life: a guide – what to expect in each seven-year stage. Sydney: Finch.

Funnell, N. (2012, April 26). Girls in cyberia: sex and puberty in the digital age. Lecture presented at What’s Happening to our Girls? What’s Happening to our Boys? at The University of Queensland, Brisbane.

Irvine, J. (2002). A handbook for happy families: a practical and fun-filled guide to managing children’s behaviour. Lane Cove, NSW: Finch Pub.

Leonard, R. (2012, January 20). Lights! Camera! Action! How can schools educate in a media saturated culture? Address presented at BGGS Staff Day Keynote Speaker and Workshop in Brisbane Girls Grammar School, Brisbane.

Manhart, K. (2004). The limits of multitasking. Scientific American, 14(5), 63-67.

Taffel, R. (n.d.). Healthy families – Healthy teens. Healthy families – healthy teens. Retrieved May 15, 2012, from

Teaching Technological Ethics by Nina Funnell. (n.d.). Ignite Talk Videos. Retrieved May 18, 2012, from


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