The start of a new school year is a great time for families and educators to reestablish norms and behavioral expectations for young people. Often, summers are a time when youth, especially adolescents, are more self-directed. Schedules, curfews, and the general boundaries that get set to guide youth often change and become looser during the summer, and September presents a good opportunity to reassess what structures youth need in place to feel supported and safe.
Setting boundaries for young people can be hard, especially during adolescence. Teenagers are generally finding ways to seek out independence and practice more autonomy, and setting limits can feel fraught for parents who are seeking to foster warm, loving relationships. While young people might resist the expectations you set, it’s important to know that having clear and consistent sets of rules and consequences is a key component of supporting your child’s well-being.
Youth development research tells us that youth are most successful in settings where there is structure and routine. When rules are clear, easily understood, and consistently enforced, young people are better able to engage in healthy decision-making and are less likely to engage in destructive behaviors. Having these structures in place will help young people make smart choices in adolescence, and as they transition into college and on to adulthood. Importantly, research also tells us that maintaining clear and consistent expectations helps foster better communication between parents and children, and helps keep adults informed about what’s happening in young people’s lives. It also helps young people to feel secure and safe.
So, given that the research supports consistent expectations and consequences, what are some of the practical steps you can take to ensure that the young people in your life are getting the support they need?
First, communication is key. It’s essential that the rules you set are clear and that young people understand what you’re trying to achieve; for example, explain that having designated homework time is a way to help manage their workload and stress, or that a “no crosstalk” rule in the classroom is meant to foster listening and respect. Make sure that when consequences are set, they address behaviors directly; if your child isn’t getting their homework done because they’re spending too much time on social media, restricting their access to their phones on weeknights makes much more sense than telling them they can’t see their friends that weekend. Be prepared to tolerate some frustration from the young people in your life! Children and adolescents may be upset about certain rules or when a consequence is enforced; it’s important that you be able to tolerate those feelings and express understanding and empathy without bending the rules unnecessarily. Clear structures make young people feel loved and safe, and while maintaining them can be difficult, that maintenance is essential in supporting their wellness. And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, use positive reinforcement as much as possible. When young people are practicing positive behaviors, let them know how much you appreciate it. Ideally, young people should be hearing far more about what they’re doing right than about what they’re doing wrong.