What Teens Need to Know About Boundaries

young couple disagreeing

alexxx1981 / iStockphoto

Teens often find themselves in difficult situations with friends, dating partners, and others where they struggle to communicate their needs or their values. Even when their gut is telling them that someone is crossing a line with them, they may struggle to articulate that the situation is making them uncomfortable. For this reason, parents need to work with their teens to establish boundaries with others.

Although boundaries are different for everyone, when done correctly, they help teens set limits with others in order to protect themselves. Setting boundaries allows teens to communicate with other people about what is OK and what is not OK with them and is essential for teen friendships and dating relationships.

Boundaries may even be necessary with some adult figures in their lives like a coach or a relative. Here are some guidelines on how to help your teen set boundaries.

What Are Boundaries?

Boundaries are limits teens establish in order to protect themselves in some way from being hurt, manipulated, or taken advantage of. As an expression of self-worth, boundaries let other people know who your teen is, what they value, and how they want to be treated. Additionally, boundaries help to create space between your teen and other people when they need it.

Healthy boundaries are vital to the success of relationships—both platonic and romantic. Going through the process of establishing boundaries helps teens recognize how they feel and what their limits are as well as requires them to communicate clearly and honestly about those feelings and limits.

For instance, when a teen is setting a boundary with someone they are dating, Love Is Respect, a non-profit organization that addresses teen dating abuse, indicates that they might say: "I am cool with following each other on social media, but not with sharing passwords," or "I am comfortable kissing and holding hands, but not in public."

Why Boundaries Are Important

Learning how to set boundaries—both physical and emotional—is an important part of growing up. It's also essential to developing friendships and dating relationships that are respectful, supportive, and healthy.

Unfortunately, though, many teens have trouble setting boundaries with their friends and in their dating relationships; and when this happens, it puts them at risk for everything from unhealthy friendships to bullying and dating abuse.

Of course, setting boundaries isn't easy. It's uncomfortable and forces a teen to stand up for themselves and draw some lines in the sand. What's more, communicating boundaries to other people can make for difficult conversations or uncomfortable situations.

Yet, it's one of the most important things teens need to learn how to do. Not only will establishing boundaries with other people help keep your teen safe, but it also can help protect their mental health. Being in an unhealthy relationship or experiencing dating abuse has a number of negative consequences.

If your teen has people in their lives such as fake friends, a controlling dating partner, or an adult that makes them feel uncomfortable, disrespected, or unworthy, they need to consider setting boundaries with those people. Allowing people to treat them in unhealthy ways not only leads to unhealthy relationships, but it also can impact your teen mentally and emotionally.

How to Set Boundaries

Like adults, teens run into a variety of different scenarios in their relationships. They might need to tell one friend that they're not comfortable sharing their homework and let another know they don't want to gossip about other people. Perhaps another friend is particularly bossy and another borrows money all the time. These are all scenarios where setting boundaries can be helpful.

Teens may even find themselves in situations where they need to communicate their feelings about sex or drinking.

The point is, your teen will run into a number of different situations throughout their life that challenge their values and their beliefs and knowing how to set boundaries can help them stay safe and be true to who they are. Here are some tips for setting boundaries:

Help Your Teen Identify Their Feelings

Learning to recognize and label different feelings is not as easy as it sounds. It takes work for your teen to stop and think about how they are feeling in any given situation. They may recognize that they're upset, but are they angry, frustrated, or sad? Being able to pinpoint how they are feeling is the first step in setting boundaries.

Teach Your Teen to Trust Their Gut

Let your teen know that they should always trust their intuition. If something feels wrong or off about a situation, it probably is. They are not being dramatic or overly sensitive regardless of what other people say. The point is that they need to be true to who they are—not what someone else expects them to be.

Help Them Identify Unacceptable Behaviors

Sometimes teens need help determining what a healthy relationship or friendship looks like. Regularly talk to them about what constitutes a healthy friendship or dating relationship as well as what respect looks like.

It's not uncommon for teens to accept unhealthy behaviors in others, but when they do they are compromising their self-worth.

Remind them that everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and respect and that if someone is not treating them well, they may need to set some limits with that person.

Address the Importance of Digital Boundaries Too

Most relationships today have a digital component. Talk to your teen about digital etiquette, sexting, and digital dating abuse. Make sure they know how to stay safe online as well as set boundaries with people who are violating their values.

Give Them Key Phrases They Can Use to Diffuse Situations

Setting boundaries is hard and takes a lot of practice. It also is something that requires some thought and decision-making. For this reason, teens need some basic phrases that buy them some time. Some examples include: "Let me think about that and get back to you," "No thank you. I'm not comfortable with that," or "Let me talk to my parents and let you know tomorrow."

Having a few phrases they can say in the heat of the moment keeps them from getting wrapped in the chaos or giving in to peer pressure.

Allow Them to Practice at Home

Establishing boundaries with another person isn't easy—even for some adults. For this reason, teens need to practice in a safe environment with people they know love them unconditionally.

Allow your teen to say "no" to things and to set personal boundaries. This might mean letting family members know that they need space sometimes or it might mean not visiting with extended family when they have a huge exam coming up.

Encourage your teen to develop autonomy and independence at home by allowing them to voice their opinions and make decisions.

Explain That Friendships Have Limits

Too many times, teens fall into the trap of believing that they need to be all things to their friends. Stress that every friendship is different and will play a different role in their lives.

Being a good friend, doesn't require agreement on every single issue. In fact, having different opinions or beliefs is what makes relationships so interesting. Empower your teen to be authentic and find healthy friendships.

Model Good Boundary-Setting Skills

One of the best ways to teach your teen good boundary-setting skills is to model the behavior in your own life. Evaluate your relationships with others. Are you setting a good example by establishing boundaries with people who try to take advantage of you or don't treat you well? If not, start setting boundaries in your own life as well.

Explain the Risks of Not Setting Boundaries

Sometimes it's much easier for a teen to just let things go or not say anything when a friend or dating partner crosses the line. But, not setting boundaries is risky and could even put them at risk. Even if nothing serious happens in the relationship, not setting boundaries can lead to resentment and damage the friendship.

Remind Them to Respect the Boundaries of Others

It's just as important that your teen respect other people's boundaries as it is for them to establish their own. In fact, healthy relationships are built upon mutual respect and ongoing communication. Make sure your teen knows that it's just as important to honor someone else's boundaries as it is to ask them to honor theirs.

Examples of Boundaries

Sometimes boundaries are confusing for young people. While they may understand the concept and importance of establishing boundaries with other people, they may not know what those boundaries look like in real life. Therefore, it's important to talk about what constitutes a healthy boundary and what is unhealthy. You may even want to point out where they are lacking boundaries.

Healthy Boundaries

Healthy boundaries keep your teen safe emotionally and physically without trying to control or manipulate another person. They establish your teen's wants and needs without infringing on another person's rights and needs. Here are some examples:

  • Communicating the desire to move slowly in a romantic relationship and making sure consent is at the forefront of every interaction and that there is no pressure to do more than they want.
  • Asking someone to refrain from teasing them about a sensitive subject and having a consequence if they continue to tease like reducing the amount of time spent together.
  • Telling a friend they are not comfortable with drinking and asking that they support their decision not to drink alcohol.
  • Letting a friend who asks to borrow money frequently without repaying it know that they won't be able to loan them any more money until they repay what they owe.
  • Talking to a sibling about their need for time alone and requesting that they honor this need by not walking into their room when the door is shut.
  • Asking a romantic partner to respect their time with other people by not calling or texting repeatedly when they are hanging out with others.

Unhealthy Boundaries or Lack of Boundaries

As teens learn about boundaries, sometimes they will take them too far or they won't erect boundaries at all. Both scenarios can be problematic.

For this reason, it's important to highlight where you teen might need to erect some boundaries, or even lighten up a little bit. Here are some examples:

  • Shutting people out of their life completely and not trusting anyone.
  • Demanding friends or dating partners be there for them every time they request it.
  • Believing that others know what they're thinking or feeling and should respond accordingly.
  • Giving in to friends or dating partners even when it goes against what they believe.
  • Going against their values or beliefs in order to fit in, be liked, or to please others.
  • Allowing a romantic partner to make decisions for them or direct their life without ever standing up for themselves of questioning this behavior.
  • Spending time with friends or dating partners who treat them poorly or disrespectfully.

A Word From Verywell

Learning how to set boundaries is something every young person needs to know how to do. Ideally, you want to talk to your kids about how to set boundaries before things in a friendship or dating relationship get too challenging.

After all, having healthy boundaries is part of having a healthy sense of self-worth. Kids with a strong sense of self-worth know who they are, what they value, and how they want to be treated; and when someone crosses the line in some way—either taking advantage of them, picking on them, or pressuring them to do something they don't want to do—then they know how to recognize that something isn't right in the relationship.

The best way to address these situations is to show your child how to establish boundaries when someone continues to cross a line with them. By doing so, you will be building a foundation for healthy relationships that will continue with them into adulthood.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Love Is Respect. What are my boundaries?.

  2. National Institutes of Health. Building Social Bonds: Connections That Promote Well-Being.

  3. Levesque DA, Johnson JL, Welch CA, Prochaska JM, Paiva AL. Teen dating violence prevention: cluster-randomized trial of teen choices, an online, stage-based program for healthy, nonviolent relationshipsPsychol Violence. 2016;6(3):421-432. doi:10.1037/vio0000049

  4. Bonnie RJ, Stroud C, Breiner H, eds. Investing in the Health and Well-Being of Young Adults. National Academies Press; 2015.

  5. Pew Research Center. Teens, technology and romantic relationships.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.