The adolescent years can be difficult for both parents and children, as teens fight to develop more independence, while parents struggle to set appropriate teen boundaries. As much as teens crave autonomy, however, the areas of the brain responsible for executive functioning are the last to develop fully—which is why teens tend to have low impulse control and less ability to consider the possible consequences of their behavior.
Additionally, many teens with mental health disorders suffer from a deficit in executive function, which is why teens need rules and boundaries during these important years. The challenge for parents and guardians becomes how to set rules for teens and help them to follow those rules while still fostering independence.
Mental Health and Executive Functioning
While teens can grow very quickly physically and appear to be almost adults on the outside, their brains are not fully developed until around age 25. The part of the brain that develops last, the prefrontal cortex, includes the areas responsible for cognitive processes associated with memory, self-control, attention, planning, multi-tasking, and the ability to adapt to life experiences. Teens might refer to these concepts as the skills required for “adulting.”
These skills set humans apart from other mammals and allow people to function in real-world situations. However, the development of executive functioning skills can be easily impeded by mental health issues and environmental factors. Some of the factors that impact the successful development of executive function include:
- Chronic stress
- Academic pressure or increased workloads
- Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions
- ADHD and learning disabilities
- Abuse or neglect
- Violence or chaos in the home or community
- Lack of proper nutrition, which directly affects mood and brain function.
The Need for Teen Boundaries and Structure
When executive functioning in the teen brain is impaired or underdeveloped due to mental health issues or other factors, this increases the need for structure and guidelines. Rules help teens narrow down choices to create better self-regulation and decision-making. Having clear consequences for breaking the rules also helps teens learn to make better choices. And it supports their mental health: In one study, teens whose parents enforced a bedtime of 10:00 pm or earlier were less likely to be depressed or consider suicide than teens who were allowed to stay up past midnight.
Moreover, because so many teen mental health disorders involve risk-taking and dangerous behaviors, parents may need to set higher levels of structure and boundaries in order to decrease the “executive load”—the work that the brain must do in order to make choices and handle complex situations. According to research on the effects of depression and executive functioning in teens, not only are these cognitive functions impaired during depressive episodes, but they may also affect the intensity or frequency of these episodes as well. Hence, teens with mental health conditions or a high number of risk factors may have an increased need for rules and boundaries.
Why Teens Need to Feel Independent
Despite needing rules to guide decision-making and behavior, teens also need to feel independent. The very definition of executive functioning is the ability to use the rational, reasoning mind to govern one’s choices and actions. Allowing teens to feel that they are in control of their lives and making their own decisions, while still offering them structure and guidance until their brains are fully developed, is one of the most difficult balancing acts of parenting.
Too many rules or too forceful implementation of these rules, as well as too many consequences for not following the rules, can make teens feel that they are being oppressed rather than supported. Not enough rules or structure, or inconsistent enforcement of the rules, can create resentment and confusion for both parent and child. Finding a good compromise between healthy boundaries vs. independent choices will allow teens to feel in control while also providing them with a solid foundation as their brains continue to develop.
How To Set Rules For Teens and Help Them To Embrace Them
It may not be easy, but there are ways for parents to help teens embrace and follow rules without alienating them or damaging the parent-child relationship. Here are some approaches for implementing rules and structure in a way that empowers teens rather than pushing them away.
- Involve your teen in creating the road map. Parents can discuss rules with teens and explain the importance of having structure in place to protect their safety and well-being. Involving teens in the conversation and allowing them to help fine-tune rules and create appropriate consequences allows them to feel as if they have some control over their lives.
- Make age-appropriate rules, and adjust when needed. As teens’ executive functioning increases, parents need to respond by reassessing rules. For example, a 16-year-old can typically have more autonomy in their activities and movements than a 13-year-old—but both may need to abide by a rule to stay in touch via text when not at home. Even when boundaries change with age, parents can still maintain consistent structure and consequences.
- Model what it means to follow the rules. When parents constantly break driving rules, tell little white lies, or otherwise demonstrate a lack of integrity, teens will notice and think it’s okay for them to do the same. Hypocrisy undermines teens’ respect for parents and hence undermines the rules parents create for them.
The balance during adolescence between enforcing rules and allowing independence to develop is a delicate one, especially when navigating mental health issues. But, as much as teens crave independence, they also crave boundaries and structure. While establishing the right balance may seem at first like a daunting task, it is ultimately supportive for adolescents and for the parent-child relationship.
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