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Drawing the Line

How to establish new boundaries for your young teen

If your preteen is starting to ignore you, telling you to mind your own business, and giving you the distinct impression that she has no interest in what you have to say, here's a truth that may surprise you: Parents are still the number one influence in the lives of their teenagers.

Here's another truth that may surprise you even more: Young teens still want and need boundaries. Now the need part of that truth is undoubtedly obvious to you as a parent. But less obvious is the fact that, in spite of their routine spoken and unspoken demands for independence, young teens really do want you to give them healthy, consistent boundaries to help them handle that independence.

This idea of boundaries is a tricky one. Your young teen will never come out and say, "Oh please Mom, please give me less freedom," unless of course you have a particularly sarcastic child. But she can really only thrive in these years if you set up clear expectations about what's acceptable and what isn't.

As you work to develop appropriate boundaries with your preteen, there are two extremes you'll want to avoid:

The Cage: It's normal—and good—for parents to be concerned about the world in which their young teen is growing up. It's normal and good for parents to be concerned about the way our culture pushes kids to act older (and be exposed to more mature thoughts and images) than they are.

The good and appropriate motivation to protect your young teen, however, can easily result in unhealthy restrictions on growing up. Parents who fall to this extreme create boundaries that are so tight that their kids never (or rarely) have the opportunity to make any choices—good or bad.

These overly strict boundaries can stunt the emotional and spiritual growth of teens, keeping them from the essential learning that comes with good and bad decision making. Young teens need to be given small, safe tastes of independence so that they learn how to apply their faith to the decisions they make. If all of their decisions are made for them, that discernment "muscle" will whither away.

The Open Range: The opposite extreme seems even more common these days, and is possibly even more destructive. I see this extreme in exasperated parents who say, "I don't know how to say no to him. He seems to want complete independence, and all his friends can do whatever they want. I don't know where to draw the line, so I let him decide for himself."

I'm saddened and occasionally shocked by how many 12-year-olds have complete freedom in their decision-making. Increasingly, young teens are allowed, or even encouraged, to make their own choices when it comes to things like curfew, bedtime, music and movies, friendships, money, clothing, and appearance. The truth of the matter is that young teens are not adults in any way, shape, or form. They are simply not capable of making wise, mature decisions about these kinds of things. That's why they need parental involvement and input.

The challenge, then, is to provide clear, safe, appropriate boundaries, then offer freedom inside those boundaries to run wild and make decisions. When you do, you are helping your child apply her faith to her life and use what she's learned to make her way in the world.

— Mark Oestreicher is the president of Youth Specialties (www.YouthSpecialties.com), the leading provider of resources and training for Christian youth workers.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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