Skip to content

How to Parent Teens with Compassion and Healthy Boundaries

Reading Time: 6 minutes

It’s hard to see a child suffering. And when we parent teens we can have a hard time knowing where we stop and they begin. As parents, we want to do whatever it takes to help kids. However, sometimes distance is needed.

At times, children need space. And parents need healthy boundaries. In addition, this allows growth to occur.

Furthermore, it’s ideal for parents to care for themselves. They stay emotionally centered. In addition, they have more energy and compassion to offer their kids. Hence, self-care is key.

Parent Burnout Is Common

In one study, a control group of parents of healthy kids was compared to a group of parents of chronically ill children.

As a result, 36 percent of parents of sick kids showed clinical burnout symptoms. But 20 percent of the control group showed clinical levels of burnout as well. In other words, one out of every five parents is suffering from burnout—even when their child is healthy.

Consequently, parents who are burnt out have less energy. In addition, they have less patience and perspective. Therefore, their ability to care for others is compromised. Moreover, chronic burnout can tax mental health. Therefore, this can lead to deeper concerns, like depression.

The Importance of Self-Care for Parents

When we’re stressed and overscheduled, we can’t be there for others. Therefore, we all need to find ways to practice self-care.

Parents who practice self-care are better able to care for their children. Additionally, they do so with creativity and resilience. Therefore, parents who find reliable, positive self-care approaches tend to have strong relationships with their kids.

Watch how Denise, parent of a Newport Academy alumna, practices self-care. It affects her relationship with her daughter positively.

Read “6 Self-Care Practices for Today and Every Day.”

Creating Healthy Boundaries

Healthy boundaries contribute to positive, authentic relationships. Moreover, parents’ behavior informs the type of boundaries their children will have. Therefore, parents with healthy boundaries serve as role models.

There are two ways to parent. First, we can be too open and vulnerable. On the other hand, we can have boundaries that are too strong. In these cases, we are not vulnerable enough to make authentic connections.

Parents who are overinvolved with their teen’s lives have “uncontained boundaries.” As a result, they interfere with their teen’s emotional development. It’s vital for parents to contribute to their children’s growth. And to offer advice. But, sometimes the best way is to allow teens to step out on their own.

On the other hand, parents who have overly contained boundaries might maintain too much distance from their children. Teens need to know that their parents care about what they’re doing. Parents should know where they’re going and how they feel. Therefore, ongoing, appropriate communication between parent and teen is key.

How to Parent Teens

Recognizing Unhealthy Boundaries

To become more aware of boundaries, parents can observe their own behavior with their child. For example, here are some signs that parents are blurring or overstepping the boundaries:

  • Doing things for a teen that they could do for themselves
  • Asking too many questions about what your teen is doing
  • Focusing on your child in favor of your spouse or partner
  • Giving your teen too much information about your own life
  • Becoming too invested in your teen’s achievements

Remember, however, that everyone missteps sometimes. In addition, this is true when it comes to holding appropriate boundaries. This is key in the parent-teen relationship. It’s an ongoing process. Hence it is best to zero in to create connection and make healthy space.

Stepping Back to Let Our Kids Fail

Parents want to protect their children from discomfort and pain, whether physical or emotional. Yet, by keeping hardships at bay, parents deprive kids. They need to learn a sense of confidence and empowerment. Therefore, that comes from overcoming a challenge.

Children who don’t get the chance to deal with obstacles grow into teenagers who suffer from what’s known as “failure deprivation.” Faculty at Stanford and Harvard coined the term “failure deprived” a decade ago. Hence, the term describes college-aged students who seem to have difficulty coping with everyday struggles.

Moreover, they connected this lack of resilience with the mental health crisis. This is occurring on American college campuses across the US. The 2016 report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health found that the number of crisis and walk-in appointments at college counseling centers increased by 28 percent over the past six years.

Hence, one confusing part of parenting is figuring out when to step in. In addition, it’s hard to know when to let a child navigate a challenge and discover their own solution. It’s tricky for parents to avoid anxiety when their kids are in a tough situation. However, parents can trust that their children have the strength and grit to handle disappointments and pain.

What It Means to Over-Empathize

Furthermore, parents need to be aware of when they are over-empathizing with their teens. In other words, feeling compassion is almost always positive. But empathizing too much with someone else—even when it’s your own child—can be detrimental to both individuals. When we feel too much empathy, our negative emotions increase. Therefore, we have less energy to help them.

Research confirms this. In one study, neuroscientists Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki compared the effects of empathy versus the effects of compassion. First, they trained two separate experiment groups. They would practice either empathy or compassion. Subsequently, they looked at the brain’s reaction to the different trainings.

As a result, those who practiced empathy training experienced more activation in the parts of the brain linked to emotion and self-awareness. By contrast, the compassion group showed more activity in the areas associated with decision-making.

Moreover, participants experienced very different emotional reactions. The empathy-trained group found empathy uncomfortable and difficult. However, the compassion group experienced increased positivity. As a result, participants in the compassion group were more interested in helping others than those in the empathy group.

Practicing Compassion with Healthy Boundaries

For parents of teens, maintaining compassion is essential. And it helps not only adolescents but parents as well. Another study found that we cope better with others’ negative emotions by strengthening our compassion. The researchers defined compassion as “concern for another’s suffering and desire to enhance that individual’s welfare.”

Participants in the study trained in loving-kindness meditation. This type of meditation supports compassion toward self and others. In addition, both before and after the meditation training, they were shown videos of people in distress.

After the meditation practice, participants showed more positive emotion when viewing the videos. They coped better seeing someone else experiencing difficult circumstances.

Newport Academy Restoring Families Resources: Parent with Compassion

How to Practice Loving-Kindness Meditation

These instructions for loving-kindness meditation come from Gil Fronsdal of the Insight Retreat Center in Santa Cruz, California.

  • Sit in a comfortable and relaxed manner.
  • Take three deep breaths with slow, long, and complete exhalations. Let go of your worries.
  • Next, for a few minutes, feel or imagine the breath moving through the center of your chest, in the area of your heart.
  • Since we often have difficulty loving others without first loving ourselves, begin by focusing well wishes on yourself. Thus, sitting quietly, mentally repeat, slowly and steadily, the following or similar phrases: May I be happy, May I be well, May I be safe, May I be peaceful and at ease.
  • Subsequently, bring to mind someone in your life that you are deeply connected to. Then slowly repeat phrases of loving-kindness toward them: May you be happy, May you be well, May you be safe, May you be peaceful and at ease.
  • Furthermore, as you continue the meditation, bring to mind other loved ones, as well as neighbors, acquaintances, strangers, and even animals. Finally, send loving-kindness toward people with whom you have difficulty.
  • Sometimes during loving-kindness meditation, seemingly opposite feelings, such as anger, grief, or sadness may arise. Take these as signs that your heart is softening, revealing what is held there. Direct loving-kindness toward these feelings. Above all, remember that there is no need to judge yourself.

In conclusion, practicing loving-kindness meditation has a proven positive impact. In addition, it enhances brain function, happiness, and mental health. Therefore, this practice provides self-care to parents. Furthermore, it also helps them to be more available and present for their children.

Ultimately, parent-teen relationships flourish when parents care for themselves as well as their kids.

Images courtesy of unsplash


Acta Paediatrica 99(3):427-32 

Center for Collegiate Mental Health 2016 Annual Report

Curr Biol. 2014 Sep 22;24(18):R875-R878. 

Neuroimage. 2011 Feb 1;54(3):2492-502. 

Cereb Cortex. 2013 Jul;23(7):1552-61.