Create Teen Learning and Growing, When Setting and Enforcing Limits

One of the most challenging parts of parenting a teen is knowing how to effectively set and enforce limits. The discussion of limits often arises out of situations where expressed or assumed limits have been violated. When limits have been violated, thoughtful parents wisely want to avoid being punitive, having worked hard to build a positive relationship with their teenager. They don’t want to ruin that by being a harsh enforcer. On the other hand, parents don’t want to be in a frustrating cycle of trying to get their teenagers to behave and manage responsibilities, either. Here are some key principles and tools to be sure that setting and enforcing limits effectively does the job of supporting teen learning and growing in a healthy way and stays out of the realm of punishing.

1. Focus on and communicate the concept of Earned Privileges.

Giving your teenager an activity or a level of independence, such as going on an unsupervised outing for a younger teenager or driving privileges for an older teenager, means making sure they understand that it is, in fact, a privilege. And, that continuing that privilege in the future requires them to manage it well. Through their actions, they’ll build trust with you and prove they are ready to take on the responsibilities that go along with the privilege. In this way, as privileges are granted, they represent your teen’s achievements in developing trust, responsibility, and independence.

2. Keep learning and growing as the goal when your teenager violates a rule or limit.

Teenagers learn best when they actively engage in a learning process. That’s why skilled middle and high school teachers divide their classes into small, problem-solving groups, rather than stand up front and lecture to them. Let’s apply this to our young teen who was allowed to go on an unsupervised outing. Let’s say she came home an hour late and didn’t answer her parent’s calls or texts.  A parent’s typical response might be to ground her and confiscate her phone as a means of enforcing the limits. Of course, our young teen is going to ask, “When will I be off grounding, and get my phone back?”  Here is where we create the opportunity for learning and growing, by not providing an easy answer, using what I call “the Gap.”

3. Utilize the Magic of the Gap.

Learning and growing occur when we put the responsibility for regaining a lost privilege into the hands of the teenager. The Gap is the empty space between the question, “When do I get my privileges back?” that a teenager asks their parent, and the answer that the parent doesn’t have. It gives responsibility for providing the answer back to the teenager: “Only you know the answer to that question. You will get the privilege back when you earn it back – when you demonstrate that you have learned what you need to learn from this. I have no idea when that will be, only you do.”

  • In this case, the parent might invite their daughter to put some serious thinking into what elements interfered with getting home on time and not answering her phone, and why it’s wrong to break a commitment.
  • They might then have her write those things down and think about and write up a plan for how she isn’t going to let those elements (or others) interfere again with keeping her commitments. Then, when she’s completed this process, she and her parents can have an in-depth discussion about what she’s come up with.
  • After she has demonstrated acceptance of responsibility for her breach and demonstrated she’s learned from the experience and has been presenting with a good attitude, that’s when privileges, with an emphasis on the responsibilities that go along with them, can be restored.


About Neil D. Brown LCSW

Neil D. Brown, LCSW, is a psychotherapist, podcast host of the popular Healthy Family Connections, and author of Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle. He has worked with families, couples, and individuals for more than thirty years. Deeply steeped in the theory and practice of family therapy, Brown uses a systemic approach that allows him to understand the system, or context, in which problems are both formed and are healed. This approach has revealed a simple yet profound method of empowering parents and their adolescent youth to put an end to destructive control battles for good. Brown is also a trainer of parents and mental health professionals. Additionally, Brown works in the industry with teams and workgroups to increase organizational effectiveness. You can learn more about his work by going to and following him on Twitter @NeilDBrownLCSW.


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