Establishing clear expectations and setting limits is a type of parenting skill that warrants status as a unique practice element for several reasons.

Problems with limit setting and how to respond when limits are breached are frequently the main complaints presented by parents / caregivers about the behaviour of their adolescent. Responding to the concerns prioritised by parents / caregivers is vital to the larger project of recruiting them as effective supporters of the young person.

Combined with this, responsibility for setting and enforcing limits is often a contested space that the worker must negotiate with parents concerning their respective roles. Parents / caregivers frequently ask workers to adopt the role of setting and enforcing limits for the adolescent, but this is not the proper role of a youth worker, AOD worker, or mental health worker. Rather it is the responsibility of the parent / caregiver to set limits, identify consequences, and to follow through with consequences.

The role of the practitioner is to provide education and support that assists the parents / caregivers to:

  • Define a set of expectations and limits (including absolute ‘bottom lines’) consistent with their needs;
  • Consult and negotiate with the adolescent to agree upon a set of expectations and limits, while allowing the adolescent sufficient freedom to grow;
  • Agree upon a set of consequences;
  • Be clear and consistent in applying the limits and consequences, and
  • Be prepared to continually review and negotiate new limits as the young person matures.

Define a set of expectations and limits – The limits that are set will vary considerably according to the circumstances of the individual caregiver and adolescent.  There is no one-size-fits-all. Help the caregiver to articulate a set of expectations in terms of what behaviours they expect from the adolescent and what behaviours are unacceptable.  Encourage the caregiver to think about factors such as his/her personal needs, and the needs of other people living in the household.

Consult and negotiate with the adolescent – The adolescent must agree with the behavioural expectations and limits before s/he can be held accountable for meeting them. Building on the communication skills learned earlier, guide the caregiver through factors s/he will need to consider during negotiation, especially the needs of the young person in the context of his/her developmental stage and personal goals. Cultural factors are a very important consideration for Aboriginal and immigrant families. Caregivers and young people may differ in their level of adherence to traditional values compared mainstream values. Use role plays to rehearse conversations likely to take place during negotiations.

Agree upon a set of consequences – Consequences should also be negotiated with the young person.  Wherever there is a limit there must be a consequence for transgression of the limit. A consequence is something that follows from a behavioural action, but it is not necessarily a punishment.

Consequences must be productive or empowering for the young person and need to be graduated so that learning can take place.

They also need to be realistic. For example, the consequence of being asked to move out of the house on the first transgression of a limit (such as taking drugs) is not productive or empowering, and in most cases it is unlikely to be carried through so it is therefore unrealistic. Asking the young person to nominate consequences can be a productive strategy.

Be clear and consistent in applying the limits and consequences – The parent / caregiver must take responsibility for following through with the consequences that have been set for breaches of limits. Reluctance to follow through can be a result of setting consequences that are unrealistic and which feel excessive when confronted with the need to apply them. For this reason, setting a graduated series of consequences for successive breaches can facilitate follow through. Spend some time helping the caregiver to think through the practicalities of applying the consequences that they have set. Role plays can be helpful for identifying barriers and strategies for working through them. Fear of a negative reaction from the young person may be a barrier to applying consequences. A role play in which the practitioner plays the adolescent allows the caregiver to plan and rehearse ways of handling the situation.

Review and renegotiate – The caregiver must be prepared to continually review and renegotiate new limits as the young person matures. Expanding limits or allowing more freedom is an ideal reinforcer for demonstration of respect for previous limits. Adolescents can mature and grow quickly and sufficient freedom to take on new challenges is vital for maximizing growth. Parents / caregivers sometimes make mistakes in the limits or consequences that they have set. Being able to acknowledge mistakes and to rectify them is nothing to be ashamed of, and can be important modeling for young people.

Limit setting relationships need to be balanced by enabling relationships in which adolescents are encouraged to express and develop their own identity and interests. Enabling relationships allow young people to feel comfortable to reveal information about risk-taking activities (e.g. drug taking) that may be unacceptable to limit setters. Access to such information facilitates harm reduction measures.

When these are lacking in the natural social context, youth-focused practitioners may be well placed to provide an enabling relationship in the short to medium term. Responsible enablers can provide positive encouragement for young people to respect limits, but they do not enforce.

Enablers need to negotiate with young people and limit setters to agree upon the nature of information that can be passed to limit setters, under what circumstances, how decisions will be made and how information will be used.