Unfortunately, the dynamics of some family structures have dissolved personal boundaries: Often, children are forced to help raise younger siblings. In some households, you may find a 12-year-old cooking, clothing, and transporting her 5-year-old brother to kindergarten, or a high school sophomore caring for his three younger siblings for several days at a time with no parent in the home.

Kids who have parenting responsibilities will neglect homework, extracurricular activities, and their own right to be a child because they’re acting in the role of a mother or father. Such dynamics may cause kids to learn that personal boundaries, or limitations on what they give and take from others, are non-existent, and they can and should always be called upon to meet the needs of others instead of themselves. A child who grows up with this mindset turns into an adult who places the needs of others before his or her personal needs. 

Sound familiar?  

While we may not be able to change the dynamics of our family structure, we can teach our children how to set limits and boundaries for their personal lives so they won’t succumb to the influences of peers, the media, and the more selfish demands of others. Here’s how to help your child establish personal boundaries:  

In school

Middle-school and high-school students have a lot to juggle. They often switch classes, join clubs and athletic teams, and participate in church or community organizations. With so much going on, it can be hard identifying time to just enjoy themselves. If you find your child working on homework from the moment she leaves school until late at night or practicing a sport or musical instrument at the expense of eating healthy, take time to help her create boundaries and address her personal needs. Decide together the number of hours of sleep your child should get each night (8-10) and then have him commit to it by scheduling time for academic and social work around sleep time. Setting boundaries like this proves to your teen that caring for personal health is a priority, not based on the time available after they complete everything else. Such boundaries will prevent your child’s work life from taking over, so they can still love their personal selves, regardless of their academic success.

With friends

Teach your child how to establish boundaries with their friends. Although your child should support her BFF, she should not feel as if she has an obligation to meet her friend’s every demand. If your teenager’s friend requests that she join her at a party where liquor is being served, your child should be aware of his or her right to say no and not feel guilty because of it. Setting boundaries helps with this. When you work with your children to establish boundaries around the types of places they won’t go with their friends or the types of things they won’t do with them, they will more likely stick up for themselves and avoid situations in which they are harmed for just hanging with the wrong crowd. 

In relationships

Is your teenager allowed to date? If so, agree on some very firm boundaries within the dating relationship. Boundaries prevent emotions and hormones from running wild and can circumvent a broken heart. To set relationship boundaries, discuss the things that make them “fall” for someone. For example, if talking on the phone for hours stirs up a lot of loving feelings, decide on the number of minutes your child can spend in conversation with his or her crush each day. If spending time with a crush enhances the affections of your teenager, then group outings may be the best way to date. Setting such boundaries not only protects your child’s heart, it also protects their continued interest in school, work, and extracurricular activities, which some teens neglect for a significant other. 

Remember, teaching your child to establish personal boundaries shows them how to serve others without neglecting themselves and allows them to make their values, goals, and health a priority instead of placing them on the backburner in favor of others.