Five Basics of Parenting Adolescents: Guide and Limit

Key Message for Parents:
Loosen up, but don’t let go.

Adolescents vigorously question rules and limits as they struggle to achieve a sense of identity, apply abstract reasoning, and develop more mature relationships—but they still need parents to uphold boundaries and maintain family values. The challenge for parents is to set limits in ways that acknowledge and encourage their teens’ own decision-making and problem-solving skills.

Two key parenting principles emerge from the research:

  • Combine rules and expectations with respect and responsiveness. Parents need to set limits that allow adolescents to develop and maintain their own opinions and beliefs, and the reasoning behind rules needs to be explained.
  • Combine firmness and flexibility. While the relative emphasis on firmness varies within families, all teens need the experience of negotiating rules and resolving conflicts with parents in ways that are respectful to both parent and teen.

The importance of providing guidance and limits in a non-intrusive way is emphasized even more strongly in the international research. This analysis has shown that adolescents who feel parents have consistently violated their individuality through disrespectful, controlling, or manipulative actions (referred to in the literature as “psychological control”) have significantly higher rates of problem behaviors.

Physical punishment also has been associated with a number of negative effects—including rebellion, depression, and physically aggressive behavior. This research has been questioned, however, for failing to consider differences in the severity of the punishment as well as the cultural and religious context.


  • Maintain family rules and values. Uphold some non-negotiable rules that concern safety, while negotiating those rules that involve household tasks and scheduling.
  • Communicate expectations that are high, but realistic.
  • Choose battles and ignore smaller issues in favor of more important ones, such as drug use, school performance, and sexually responsible behavior.
  • Use discipline as a tool for teaching, not for venting or taking revenge.
  • Restrict punishment to forms that do not cause physical or emotional injury.
  • Renegotiate responsibilities and privileges in response to your teen’s changing abilities. Turn over some areas to your teen with appropriate monitoring.