Keeping your child safe and secure can be relatively easy in prep school, but when they move up their behaviour can change quite quickly. Early boundaries – those lines we draw which build into a supportive, protective code of behaviour – define bedtimes, eating habits, use of technology, and how much time our children spend being active.
‘At this stage, other parents will support your boundaries,’ says Jennie Miller, author of new self-help book Boundaries – How to Draw the Line in Head, Heart and Home. ‘We all want happy, healthy children.’
But, she warns, in senior school, new friends and social media expose them to outside influences at a time when they are changing physically and emotionally. ‘Parents cannot always be there to help them manage their boundaries,’ she says, ‘nor can they expect [day] schools to police their children’s behaviour.’
It is a confusing time for teenagers and their parents: ‘You don’t want your child to be the odd one out with overly strict rules, but equally, it is reasonable to be concerned if a child is talking about going to parties and sleepovers when you don’t know the parents involved.’
The key lies in keeping communication open. ‘You are still the caretaker of their boundaries but as they get older you need to hold the reins with a looser hand. Teach them to build and maintain their own standards rather than just following your orders.
‘At times you will have to risk being unpopular with your child,’ Miller points out, ‘when your adolescent doesn’t understand why they can’t go to an all-night party, for example. But I’ve worked with many grown-ups who talk of being the “cool kid” at school, someone who had no rules or boundaries, and how they associate those feelings now with not having a sense of security – even as an adult. Parental boundaries are also important for their future wellbeing.
‘One of the biggest gifts you can give your child is the ability to say no, without needing to explain why. Many struggle to turn down something like that first cigarette because they don’t know how to refuse without losing face. Teach them that “no” is a complete sentence.’
Youthful relationships are a prime concern. ‘It is important for parents not to pry too much. You may want to know what is going on but your child can clam up like an oyster.
‘If you think a relationship is becoming intimate, help them build boundaries by discussing the age of consent , what consent means, how to respect their own body and others’, and talk about contraception.
‘Don’t lay down the law on drugs and alcohol,’ says Miller. ‘Talk about why they feel a need to join in and discuss what impact their behaviour may have on their future: could they be expelled? Will it damage their health? The decision to say no needs to come from your child, not you. Help them understand.’
It’s important, she suggests, for boarders in particular to learn to prioritise self-care; not being selfish, but learning self-respect.
Teach children to measure their success against themselves, says Miller. ‘The best sprinter doesn’t watch others – they focus on what they can do and run the best race for themselves.’
Don’t be weak and grateful when your young boarder comes home for an exeat. This is the time boundaries are most crucial. Keeping manners, meals and bedtimes consistent will reassure them while building up an internal ‘muscle memory’ of how to behave when they go back to school.
Exercise – The 5/5 plan
Sit down with your adolescent and write down, without discussion, five things you would each like to happen for yourself in the next five years. Think big, think small, think all. Take it in turns to talk through each item on your lists. You may be surprised at what is important to your teenager which they may not have articulated before.
This is a good chance to check whether they are going down a path which has been preordained by you, them, or school and whether they are happy. Don’t be afraid to make changes.