Teenagers and Boundaries

Recent events in the worlds of both entertainment and politics have underlined for many the importance of teenagers learning to construct and observe appropriate boundaries. Our boundaries define who we are, allow us to interact smoothly with those around us, and lay the basis for successful family, professional and social relationships.

Teenagers are sometimes caricatured as seeking to live without boundaries. However, life with no boundaries is anarchy, and whilst it might sometimes look like this from a distance, anarchy is not a fair description of the teenage world. Such descriptions are, rather, examples of the human tendency to dismiss the unfamiliar, to bad-mouth those who are perceived to be different from us.

Teenagers, however, do test and challenge boundaries. This is part of the process of growing towards maturity and working out which boundaries are appropriate for them to adopt as their own. To this end, an understanding of the importance and purposes of boundaries, the reasons given for particular boundaries, and the benefits and responsibilities attached to boundaries are all important.

The importance and purpose of boundaries

Teenagers are apt to see boundaries as control mechanisms by which adults seek to keep them in check. Boundaries are, however, so much more than control mechanisms.

Limitation. It is undeniable that there is an element of limitation within the concept of a boundary. Just as a property boundary delineates the limit of land ownership, so our personal boundaries help define the extent of acceptable behaviour. This is the characteristic of a boundary that a teenager might see as controlling, but that understanding comes from an egocentric interpretation of a concept that is essentially social. Theoretically, we all accept limitations to our personal freedom of expression so that we might all feel comfortable interacting with each other in society. Such boundaries lay the basis for the ways family, professional, social and intimate relationships are all conducted.

Liberation. A further purpose of a boundary is to define an area within which there is liberation. In terms of the analogy of the property boundary introduced above, the boundary of one’s own property defines an area within which there is a considerable degree of freedom for the owner to decide how they will conduct their life. Similarly, the concept of personal boundaries defines an “area” within which the individuals, teenagers included, are at greater liberty to experiment with their lifestyle. Boundaries concerned with the time a teenager returns home in the evening is an example of such a boundary as it accords freedom to explore up until the time boundary is reached.

Protection. The third purpose of a boundary to which I wish to draw attention is that of protection. The property boundary again provides a helpful analogy. One’s own property is the place to which one retreats to find peace and security – it’s the place where you feel safe. Similarly with personal boundaries, they are meant to provide protection, both to us and to others. Boundaries built around the concept of “safe sex” would be an example of a boundary providing a measure of protection to all involved.

The role of parents in helping teenagers develop boundaries

It is important to make clear that in talking of boundaries, I am not talking about the plethora of tiny matters about which many families have their own rules. In talking about the need to develop boundaries, I am talking about major areas such as what defines us as individuals, our relationships with other people, and how we function as members of society.

Agreed boundaries are better than imposed boundaries

Good parents establish boundaries for their children from a very young age, and for the most part, their children accept those boundaries as “the way things are” within their family. Once they reach the teenage years, however, they will begin to question, in some cases if there’s a need for boundaries at all, and in most cases, why these established boundaries cannot be placed somewhere else. It is at this point that boundaries need to have some flexibility. As age and maturity increase, there needs to be a flexibility to create space within which teenagers can examine whether they will adopt the exact same boundaries as their family of origin, or whether they will modify or replace those boundaries. The concept of an agreed boundary, which allows the teenager to have input, and in which there are agreed consequences if the boundary is ignored, is advantageous for all concerned.

The best way of teaching boundaries is to model them

Teenagers can be idealistic in their views. If teenagers perceive their own parents as demanding higher standards from them than they are prepared to live by themselves, the likelihood of them rejecting parental boundaries is increased. Put more positively, the best way for parents to help their teenagers develop good boundaries for themselves is to model those boundaries. Parents, for example, whose personal boundaries ensure they treat others with respect whatever the circumstances convey the importance of such boundaries to their teenagers.

The role of teachers in helping teenagers develop boundaries

Alongside parents, teachers have a key role in helping teenagers develop boundaries.

School is the primary environment for developing a sense of workplace boundaries

School is the daily workplace for most teenagers. The standards and expectations a school sets for its students lay the basis for their understanding of acceptable workplace conduct. The establishment of personal boundaries and respect for those of others are essential areas of learning, such as those that define a person’s “space”. Appropriate boundaries enable us to function most of the time without having actively to ask in every situation questions like how close it is appropriate to stand or sit to another person, or if, when and where it is acceptable for one person to touch another.

Teachers model professional boundaries

Teachers are the primary models for teenagers of professional boundaries since teachers are the professionals with whom most teenagers come into contact on a daily basis. It is not simply the teacher-teenager relationship that is important here. Students see the value teachers place on each other and how they relate to each other. They see how their teachers relate to the school’s secretarial staff and the cleaners. They see how they relate to parents when issues arise that need to be addressed. Teenagers use their observations as they form their understanding of what might be the appropriate boundaries to take with them into the workplace. Much of this is not “taught” in the traditional sense of classroom teaching, but it is communicated nonetheless and it is an important element of how the best teachers help prepare their students for the world of work.

A case study in boundaries: the world of personal mobile devices and social media

The advent of personal mobile devices and the development of social media have demolished many traditional social boundaries. During the past week, CNN reported a survey conducted in the US for Common Sense Media. The survey suggested that 50% of American teenagers feel they are addicted to their mobile devices which, given the human facility for denial, suggests the figure is considerably higher. Personal mobile devices allow the inclusion, or intrusion, of social media into every aspect of the teenager’s life.

The survey did not examine the way teachers use personal mobile devices. However, the 78% of teens who check their phone at least hourly was followed closely by the 69% of parents who do the same! So how can parents and teachers help teenagers establish reasonable boundaries with regard to the use of social media? In next week’s blog, I will aim to discuss that question. In the meantime, if you have an opinion about the above discussion, or about the best way to help teenagers construct appropriate boundaries for use of their personal mobile devices and social media, I invite you to leave a comment on this site.


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