How Much Is Too Much? How To Help Teens Set Clear Limits
Teens often need help setting boundaries. Here are some tips for doing it well.
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At the end of this post is some information about two great free events coming up:
Building Courage And Vulnerability in Men And Boys with one of my favorite educators, Ashanti Branch
The Youth Fentanyl Awareness Collaboration Forum, where I’ll be joining with other speakers to talk about how schools can address fentanyl and keep young people safe.
Thanks for checking them out, and I hope your week is great! — Christopher
Let’s Talk About Limits
“JUST SAY NO!” That’s often the advice parents give teens about how to deal with peer pressure. It seems simple, but sometimes saying no isn’t so easy. Young people might be worried about being teased, feeling embarrassed, or losing their friends.
Setting limits — and sticking to them — can actually be a major challenge for teens. Doing it well takes consideration, skill, and practice.
As teens get older, they’ll likely be spending more time with friends and on their own. Developmentally, that’s exactly what they are supposed to do, and it’s an important part of becoming independent. But becoming independent also means making their own decisions about how they spend their time and what they do with their bodies.
Their friends might be experimenting with drinking or drugs, having sex, or engaging in other types of potentially risky behavior. Even if they aren’t directly asked to join them, they might feel pressure to participate to fit in.
But doing things to fit in is basically the opposite of true independence.
Getting Clear About Values
I tell young people that if they truly want to be independent, it’s important to really think about their own values. They need to figure out what kind of behavior they’re comfortable with and speak up for themselves.
They don’t have to evangelize their beliefs or try to convince anyone that their way is the best way. They just have to act in a way that feels right to them and fits with their own beliefs. And that means they have to spend some serious time thinking about exactly what their values are.
I explain that one of the easiest ways to get some clarity about your own values is to simply make a list. You could call it ’“What’s cool with me?” or “What are my limits?”
I tell them to think about the big decisions that teens have to make and how they feel about them. Sometimes movies, songs, or TV shows provide examples for discussion. Talking through some realistic situations and role playing can help make this more impactful - it’s a lot easier to make solid choices if you’ve thought about those decisions in advance and practiced saying them out loud.
Getting Specific About Drug Use
For decisions about substance use, it helps to think in practical terms. Here are some things you could say to a young person:
“How do you feel about smoking cigarettes? Could you ever see yourself using them?” If they say no, you can congratulate them. They’ve just clarified one of their limits.
You could ask them to think about other drugs, like alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. What are their own beliefs about using them? What would they absolutely not do?
Are they willing to be around friends who are using them even if they’re not?
Are they willing to get in a car with a driver who is high or drunk?
Getting Specific About Dating and Relationships
For dating and relationships, young people need to think closely about what they are comfortable with.
When do they think is the right time to start dating? What exactly does that mean to them?
What are they comfortable with when it comes to physical contact? Is making out ok? Touching? Sex? Where are their boundaries?
Are random hookups ok with them, or do they want a long, serious relationship?
These things can be tricky to figure out, but it’s a lot easier to think clearly about them in advance than when a cute person is whispering suggestions in their ear.
Communication Gets Easier With Practice
Now that they have a basic idea about their values, it’s time to think about how they’re going to communicate them to other people.
Ask them to think about the reasons behind their limits and practice stating them out loud. Maybe they are on a sports team and would face penalties if they were caught. Maybe they don’t want to put their college plans in jeopardy. Maybe they have a family history of alcoholism or drug addiction and they don’t want to take chances with themselves.
Just like shooting baskets or solving algebra equations, setting limits gets easier with practice. Young people can rehearse on their own. Practicing saying things like “That’s cool if you want to do it, but it’s not for me,” “I promised myself I wouldn’t ___________ until I’m done with high school,” or even “I would love to join in, but my mom is really really strict, and I can’t take a chance on her finding out” can help.
If teens are clear and firm when they set their limits, their friends will respect them, and they’ll feel good about being true to their own values.
UPCOMING FREE ONLINE EVENTS - You're Invited!
Building Courage And Vulnerability in Men And Boys
Daring to be vulnerable can be difficult for boys and young men. There is enormous societal pressure for them to be emotionally stoic, autonomous, and physically tough.
Developmental psychologist Niobe Way's research reveals that boys want and need to have intimacy, as much as girls do, but begin to feel pressured to withhold the vulnerability and affection they share with close friends as they age. Encouraging male vulnerability can help men and boys connect with others, express their emotions, and build closer relationships. It can also help them cope with stress and adversity and deal with all of the uncertainty and risk inherent in learning. 💙
The Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley invites you to join us in a discussion with Ashanti Branch about the power of creating brave and emotionally vulnerable spaces for men and boys to foster courage, character, and connection. Come with questions or simply to listen and learn and connect with us and others interested in creating more courageous communities where boys (and everyone) can thrive. 🏫🧡
Tuesday, February 13, 3:30pm PT / 6:30pm ET. Register for free.
Youth Fentanyl Awareness Collaboration Forum
Want to help spread awareness about fentanyl and fake pills to youth and adults in your community? Song For Charlie’s February forum will be tailored for teachers and other education partners who work in middle and high schools. Beaverton School District (Oregon) will share the successful Fake & Fatal program they implemented in their community, and I’ll be sharing reflections on what’s working in school districts in California. Thursday, February 8, 3-4:30pm PT / 6-7:30pm ET. Register for free.
A bit about me: After several years working as a health reporter and doing volunteer sex education, I started teaching high school health classes in 2002. Since then, I’ve taught thousands of young people about things like stress, sleep, healthy relationships, and substance use. In 2014, I started coordinating the Young Men’s Health Project in San Francisco schools, which brings teen boys together in small groups to build positive, supportive relationships and discuss healthy masculinity. I’m currently co-writing the book TALK TO YOUR BOYS withand listening to Arthur Russell.
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