Helping Parents Support Teens

Part 1: Finding the Balance Between Limits and Freedom

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There are so many dialectical dilemmas in parenting. Dialectical dilemmas happen when we feel stuck between two opposite ideas. The overall focus of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is to find balance from both sides; AKA avoiding extremes on either end. There are three adolescent-specific dilemmas that were identified by Miller, Rathus, and Linehan in their book Dialectical Behavior Therapy with Suicidal Adolescents. Understanding how to navigate these dilemmas will help you as a parent:

  • effectively respond to difficult situations
  • learn how to both support and encourage your teen
  • encourage developmentally appropriate boundaries 

The first dilemma we are going to explore is between being strict and being lenient. How do we find the balance here? How do we figure out how to maintain limits and also encourage their freedom and independence?

Being Strict
- lots of rules and expectations and heavy consequences for not following rules
- high expectations for academics or performance overall
- focus is on discipline and not much on warmth or support
- limits are good for teens, but too much extreme in this area can inhibit your teen's independence
- teens might feel scared to not be "perfect"; therefore putting a huge amount of stress on them
- results in strained parent-child relationships

Being Lenient
- very little rules and expectations and any rules are not consistently enforced
- "friend" instead of parent
- may be too emotionally involved in teen's life OR not emotionally involved at all
- Pros: teens can explore their independence
- Cons: too much freedom welcomes problem behaviors; teens may also feel unimportant if they perceive too much freedom as demonstrating that their parents don't care

Consider these two extremes, being Strict and Lenient, on opposite ends of a spectrum. Both are extremes, and ideally, you want to find balance between the two somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. You want to have limits and freedom, not limits or freedom. So... how do we accomplish this balance?

Supporting your teen means finding effective ways to parent them. It means letting go of what a parent should do and doing what you and your teen need in any given moment or situation.

As a parent, you want to work on:
- being mindful of the battles that you pick
- including your teen in exploring fair rules and expectations. You won't always agree on this, but including your teen lets them know that you value their opinion and that their voice matters.
- have clear, fair, and established consequences for when rules are broken. Also good to include your teen in this too.
- leave some freedom for your teen to make their own choices. They will make mistakes and you can't save them from that. But you can explore their choices with them and encourage them to consider alternatives.

Finding this balance encourages healthy parent-child relationships and builds confidence in your teen. They will feel safe within rules and freedom in their choices.

When it's especially hard to find this balance:

If your teen is struggling with anxiety, depression, self-harm or any other mental health concerns, finding this balance can be more difficult. As a parent, you might be scared or angry, which can lead to being too strict in an effort to avoid scary or problematic situations. For example, if your teen is cutting, you might forbid them to cut and enforce a punishment of no technology if you find them cutting again. This is fear-based, and won't actually solve the problematic situation here. It can actually worsen your teen's behavior, resulting in you feeling more out of control. 

Parents also might become too lenient for the same reasons. Consider the scenario above, where a teen is cutting. Because this is scary, you might want to avoid any stress or triggering situation, so maybe you back off on rules or expectations or consequences as a way of protecting them from the stress. And when we parent from Emotion Mind, we land back in one of the two extremes.

Being aware of all of this is the first step to balancing your parenting to best support your teen. Leave your email below to receive our {FREE} DBT-Informed Parent Guide, which includes details and tips for helping you find the balance between being strict and lenient!