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  • Dr. Rachel Kramer

January 9: Setting Boundaries with Tweens and Young Teens

In my post on October 24, I wrote about Setting Healthy Boundaries and offered questions for reflection to help parents think deeply about their experience with setting boundaries. In response to that post, a parent reached out and asked if I could write more about holding boundaries with middle school and late elementary school aged children.


I find it helpful to use a three-part framework when parents are setting boundaries and managing tricky moments with children this age. When a tween or young teen is being defiant or engaging in challenging behavior, often a parent’s immediate reaction is to want to correct or scold. I’d recommend trying to delay this impulse and instead start with empathy by focusing on the emotion underlying the behavior:

  • “I hear that you’re upset that you don’t have TikTok. I understand that you feel as though you’re the only 6th grader who doesn’t have that app and that you’re feeling pretty mad right now.”

  • “Sounds like you’re so disappointed that you can’t go to the sleepover. We have plans with your grandparents that night. I understand that’s hard and it’s not what you want to hear.”

  • “Ugh, turning off the Xbox is so hard, even when you’ve been playing for a while. I get that you’re frustrated.”

  • “It looks like you’re pretty mad that we won’t buy you those sneakers.”

Once you have empathized and reflected your child’s emotions, clearly state the boundary:

  • “Different families have different rules. In our family the rule is no social media until 8th grade.”

  • “I understand that you’re upset but you may not throw things in the house. You can step outside if you want to throw some nerf balls in the yard.”

  • “Remember our Family Media Policy? The rule in this house is 1 hour of gaming each weekend day and you’ve already been playing for an hour.”

  • “I hear you’re really mad about this. It’s ok to be furious. It’s not ok to be cruel to family members when you’re mad.”

The third step in the process is to support coping and problem solving. Ideally, we want children this age to have a toolbox of coping strategies to help them self-soothe when they are upset. Often a parent can be most helpful by providing a gentle reminder of those strategies:

  • “I get that you’re really upset. Remember when you made that list of strategies to help yourself feel better when you’re stressed? Think about if you want to try one of those strategies right now.”

  • “We can’t change our family plans for this weekend. I wonder if you could make a plan with your friends for another time. Let me know if you have any ideas.”

  • “I understand that you’re super frustrated. Can you think of something that will help you feel better?”

  • “I know you really wish you could have those sneakers. Do you want to brainstorm some ways to earn money so you can buy them for yourself? Let me know if you want some help coming up with ideas.”

If you notice that you and your tween or young teen have developed a pattern in which the same type of tricky situation keeps showing up repeatedly, consider the approach of collaborative problem solving. Here’s a link to a post I wrote about collaborative problem solving last year. In addition, keep in mind the following parenting scripts when you find yourself in an intense moment with your middle school aged child:

  • “You’re filled with so many emotions. Is there anything I can do that won’t make things worse?”

  • “Wow, this is a lot. If you need to rant, I’m here to listen.”

  • “If want to talk through steps to solve the problem let me know. I’m here and I’m happy to be a sounding board.”

So often when parents are immersed in an emotional situation with a tween or young teen everyone gets caught up in the intensity of the moment. Remember that it is often useful to take space to regulate your own emotions before you respond to your child. My hope is that these strategies provide a useful framework that will support you in moments when you need to hold a boundary with your child: “Yikes this is an intense situation. What are my steps? Empathize, hold the boundary, support coping and problem solving.”

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