Ask the Experts: Navigating 13 year olds, boundaries, and support

This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on September 3, 2021, by Cindy Mailhot, LCSW, CCS, Assistant Director of the Outpatient Therapy Program, Health Affiliates Maine. 

Question:  My 13-year-old is struggling with mental health and starting to act out in concerning ways. How can I help and be supportive while also parenting and setting healthy boundaries with screens, dating, and outbursts toward younger siblings?

Answer:  First, I want to commend you on considering the two sides to every parent’s dilemma…how to be their biggest supporter and their disciplinarian at the same time. That is not an easy job! At thirteen years old you are on the starting line of those all-important teen years, so considering this now will help you set the tone for your relationship in the coming years. I think the answer lies in achieving a balance between these things. There are situations when you will be able to take on a stronger role as a supporter while offering gentle guidance and other times where you will need to fall heavier on the disciplinarian side. 

Being prepared can help alleviate stress for everyone in many situations. It is important to establish the rules and consequences for breaking those rules ahead of time (I.e. outbursts toward others). It helps both parents and children when navigating those emotionally charged moments. To ensure consistency, be sure to include anyone that might be significant in co-parenting (parents, stepparents, grandparents, etc.). Rules and consequences allow parents to remain levelheaded in these situations. Without them, heightened emotions can lead us to giving consequences (i.e., “you are grounded for a month”) and giving in later when the emotions are lower.   

Screen time is generally recommended to be no more than two hours per day.  That being said, you will want to determine what is right for your child and family. Once you establish that, set some clear rules around that. Does it need to be done after homework is complete? Do their grades factor in? What about chores? Do you want to change your Wi-Fi password daily and provide it after they meet your established boundaries? These are all things to consider before the issue arises.

Dating is another topic that you will want to consider before the need arises. When can they meet a date somewhere? What age will you have the date pick them up? Do you meet dates ahead of time?  What is the curfew and the consequence if broken? This is a great topic to have some discussion around so that your child understands your concerns. This is a great topic for safe dating discussions as well—internet safety, safety planning if a date if going poorly, red flags in choosing dating partners, etc. Allowing opportunities for your child to discuss this topic before and during their dating experiences will be important to you feeling comfortable with their plans and them feeling comfortable talking to you if challenges or questions arise.

The supportive parent may also incorporate several strategies to be sure that the relationship does not become defined as a series of arguments and punishments:

  • Incorporate time together to just have fun and talk.  Maybe take turns planning those “dates” or plan them together.  It is important to engage in activities that your child likes to do too (even if you do not).
  • Listen to your children about all topics. These are great times to teach them your family values but also how to think for themselves and make informed decisions. Listening also sends the message that they can talk to you—and even disagree with you—and it is okay. These are great skills for them to learn and will preserve your relationship for those harder times.
  • While very challenging, try to keep emotion level when disciplining. It is all too easy to fall into shaming and blaming when we are responding out of our own fear or anger. Those parenting behaviors may put a rift in your relationship, making the discipline times more challenging. Be firm about the discipline, acknowledge your emotions, and allow them to express theirs.   
  • Just like in adult relationships, talking when both parties are angry is probably not a great idea.  Come back to discipline and discussion later when you both have a chance to calm down.

In summary, know the rules and consequences for your family and be consistent with them but always leave communication lines open. 

If you notice anything concerning (you know your child best), reach out to a mental health specialist for assistance. Behavior changes could include a change in social activities, isolation, sadness, anger, acting out, or essentially any behavior that is outside the norm for your child.

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