Focus on the Family Broadcast   >>   All Episodes

Establishing Healthy Boundaries With Your Teens (Part 2 of 2)

Air Date 02/09/2016

Get Social and Listen

Dr. John Townsend offers parents practical advice and encouragement in a discussion based on his book Boundaries With Teens: When to Say Yes, How to Say No. (Part 2 of 2)

Listen here, watch recent episodes on our YouTube channel, or download our app.

Episode Transcript


Promotion: Daily Broadcast App

John Fuller: When you need the best marriage and parenting advice you can find, check out the "Focus on the Family" daily broadcast app. It's free encouragement as close as your phone. Get the "Focus on the Family" daily broadcast app today on iTunes or Google Play.

End of Promotion


Dr. John Townsend: If I don't have the band width for somebody to have crazy ideas and push against me and disagree and be passive-aggressive, If I don't have the band width for that, I'm not gonna do anybody any good. So, get my life in order so that my teen's up and downs don't, you know, freak me out.

End of Teaser

John F.: That's Dr. John Townsend and he's back with us again today on "Focus on the family" with Jim Daly. I'm John Fuller and once again, we're coming back to a topic that it just vexes so many parents, Jim.

Jim Daly: "Vexes," I like that word, John. Trent and Troy asked me the other day, what does that word mean, "vex?"

John F.: What did you say?

Jim: So, now I can say we used it on the air. I said "a very perplexing dilemma." Was that fair?

John F.: I'd say, that expresses it pretty well, I'd say, yeah.


Jim: Okay, good. Well, it was, you know, I think raising teenagers can be a vexing experience, but we want to talk about that with an expert today, Dr. John Townsend. If you did not hear the program last time, you gotta get it, because John and I were pourin' out our souls as dads of teenagers (Chuckling). And I think it will be helpful to everyone.

And in addition to that, we were talking about his book, Boundaries with Teens and man, I'm tellin' you, this is some of the best content that you can get your hands on. And if you're in that moment, maybe preteen—12, 13, 14—this is the time to know what you're doin' and to do it well. It's not to control your child; it's to launch your child so that they can be successful, not only from a worldly standpoint, but especially spiritually, that they're healthy and they're servin' the Lord, walkin' with the Lord and reaching people for Him that are around them and John, let me welcome you back to the program.

Dr. John Townsend: Thanks, guys.

Jim: I wish I could spend many days with you and just hang out with you, because you and your partner, Henry Cloud, have done this for years. Your Boundary series with marriage and parenting has been one of the most successful things in Christian literature. I don't even know, 10 million books you guys have sold or 12 million?

John T.: Close to that and Relevant magazine just came out and said that it's one of the top 10 books for people who are 25-ish, among Mere Christianity, Annie Lee Mott's book, David Miller's book, some others, but—

Jim: Yeah.

John T.: --they're sayin' that now the Millennials are really grabbing onto them recently.

Jim: Talk about the institute that you created. Who's targeted for that? What's the experience like?

John T.: We're so excited about it. It's the Townsend Institute of Leadership and Counseling and it's a fully online school where you can get a Master's in Organizational Leadership, a Master's in Counseling or a degree in Executive Coaching, using my material and a way to get it out there to either people who are in their early 20s, you know, a senior in college, [who's saying], what do I want to do? Or people in their 30s to 60s who want to know their skill set.

We are a partner with Huntington University, which is halfway between Chicago and Indianapolis in the Midwest, but fully online. And so, we're havin' a great time. What I did is to, besides my materials, which is, you know, biblical, neurological, research based, but also I got a bunch of friends who have expertise in different areas to also help teach and do their best stuff like, Ken Blanchard and Henry Cloud and John Ortberg. Oh, there's this guy named Jim Daly (Laughter) and Jim is also a fellow and provides content of his fresh stuff and your fresh passion. So, we're havin' a great time with sorta like helping to provide a reasonably, we try to be really reasonable with the pricing and the availability, because we want people to get education. So, we're havin 'a good time.

Jim: Well, we'll put a link to that, so people who are interested could come to the Focus website and find that. John, you'll give—

John F.: Sure.

Jim: --those details in a while. Dr. Townsend, let's jump into the content. We left off last time, talk[ing] about single parents and the special demands upon them. Let me ask you this when it comes to being the parent of teenagers. Some teenagers, I mean, they just can't wait to get out of the house. It's been so bombastic. The relationship is to torn that they can't wait to run away. That breaks my heart and oftentimes, as parents, we're fearful of that and we start doing things that are probably in poor judgment. Talk about that kind of moment, where the parent in their gut, they know that they're losing their teenager in all the ways that we don't want to lose them—emotionally, spiritually. What can that parent do to tie that tether?

John T.: You know, actually Jim, that happens even with the great kids. The great kids a lot of times want to leave, too, not because of the bombastic nature of the chaos at home, but because really God is pushing them into the second world.

If you go to Genesis 2 where it talks about leaving and cleaving, the word in the Hebrew there for "leave" means to abandon or make desolate. Now think about that with your teenagers. Like God created a system where that 1-year-old that you loved, that was so cuddly, then became a fun toddler, then became a kid who is in latency age, and then became a teenager and the dynamics changed, but the goal was never to stay cuddly forever and dependent on mom and dad.

They're supposed to abandon us. And I don't mean that in a bad way. I mean that in a God way, that God's intent is there's another world out there, a social system and marriage and friends and ministries and business and churches. And so, they are supposed to abandon us and the best thing a parent can do is to grieve that, because we love our kids.

We had to grieve our children leaving, 'cause they left recently and support each other and find other great ways to relate, but not to make—here's the important thing—don't make the child the recipient of the grief. When a child feels mom and dad are sad because you're moving out and the word's gone out, you know, what are we gonna do? And make sure you live close to home. Well, that gives a message to the child of, leaving and cleaving isn't true. I shouldn't go to New Zealand. I shouldn't take a job or something in another state. I should get the house next door, because mom and dad are lonely. It puts the child in guilt conflicts. They can't express their gifts, so you tell the kids, "We love you. Anytime you want to visit, do it," but you handle the grief privately.

Jim: That's so good. I'm thinking of when you use that term "abandonment" as the parent, that can hurt. It's natural, but when you say that, I wince inside even thinking purposefully I've got to anticipate and it's healthy that my boys will at some point have the desire to abandon me.

John T.: It's worse than that. I have to not only allow it, I have to encourage it. I have to encourage my own abandonment, so they learn how to make decisions and make great friends who are godly and healthy and fun and make great relationships and find their gifts. I've got to encourage that, rather than, "Well, we don't see you very much. Do you think you can get an apartment near the house?" I have to encourage it, but that's what grownups do.

Jim: You know in that vein, John, someone mentioned to me the other day, when you have that kind of stress in the household with teens and particularly with boys and this worries me a little bit obviously, because boys tend to launch if they go to school, vocation, whatever they do, they get really connected with their future bride's family. And so often if there's been a lot of strain in the family, the mom particularly, will feel that abandonment in far deeper ways, 'cause they don't typically call as often. They may not be there at Christmas and Thanksgiving. And I know it works in both genders, but particularly with the mom of the boys who are gone now. They're 24, 25 and she doesn't hear from 'em.

John T.: Yeah, it's certainly a great idea to say, "I want to hear from you." You know—

Jim: (Chuckling) Right.

John T.: "I miss you," but not to give a guilt message to your child. But and I tell all my empty-nest parents this, this is the time to find 2.0. Where do you put those nurturing energies? Are their single moms out there that you can help? Are there MOPS groups? Are there ways that you can help Focus on the Family? Are there ways that you can get that nurturant part to other places and not keep tryin' to like hold on for the grandchildren to come and then I'll be fulfilled again. That doesn't really reach God's promise of blanketing the whole earth with Christ's message. It's sorta like, no, it's just me and my family tent.. It's not that way, so put those energies into churches and service missions and domestic violence shelters and goin' to Africa and helping natives who don't have anything.

Jim: Express that—

John T.: Express it—

Jim: --desire--

John T.: --in some way.

Jim: --that nurturing. John, last time, just to recap, we talked about your four pillars: Loving your child, truth, to be honest, the freedom that you don't really control them and then the reality. And that was more the parent-child relationship, but let's talk about how parents respond to the environment. You've got a lot of different things going on for a parent. A parent may be really busy and they keep at a distance with their kids and then at some point, it catches up to 'em and they're beginning to feel guilty over that. Talk about the parenting dilemma.

John T.: Yeah, I call it "the preoccupied parent," Jim. Somebody's that got a lot, maybe a lot of job struggles or maybe healthy issues or maybe their own parents in this sandwich generation are struggling or they've got a lot of kids or a kid with special needs.

And so, they're preoccupation makes them not as engaged with that teen as they would like and they feel guilt and anxiety about that. And the first thing to do is to look at what are the feelings saying? Well, the feelings might be saying, I've got to find the time to redeem what I've got left. A teenager, you've got by definition, five years left with, "ish," you know—

Jim: Right.

John T.: --five [years] to 18--

Jim: Wherever you're at.

John T.: --wherever you're at. And so, you might see in your child the signs that there wasn't enough time to get to them to give them support and self-image and structure and that sort of thing. So, the good thing about it, we call this neuroplasticity, is that the brain can really change at that age. And there's a lot you can do to redeem the time. You can really turn things around. It's not like it's all over, but you do have to do something.

So, find ways to take the stable parts of your life, job, health, your own parents or whatever, the things that are stable and let other people handle those. Put maintenance systems up there. Get churches involved and community and the county and whoever and put more time into helping that child, with one caveat.

That child's energy is not going into you anymore. These are what we call "the de-parenting years." So, the idea of a million camping trips and a million times at home with hot chocolate, reading books together with them on your lap, well, they're 6'3". They're not (Chuckling), you know, so don't have that in mind.

But times where you're engaged in their life. Can I drive you somewhere? Or doing family things, where you're not prohibiting all that, "I want to be with my friends" stuff, as long as their friends are okay. Don't prohibit that, but make your strokes as quality as possible and the kids really respond.

John F.: John, you were talking about friends right there and last time, you addressed how to give your children some freedom in choosing friends. What if I'm seeing my teenager hanging out with the wrong crowd and they're not responsive to my little subtle suggestions perhaps, that maybe we should find some new friends for you?

John T.: Yeah, there are several things we can do, John. One is to give them the right stuff, right, because God meant them to have healthy kids who are fun and all that, but also responsible people and that sort of thing. So, where are they getting' the right stuff? If they're operating in a vacuum, then they won't want to go to the right stuff.

One thing I told our kids was, at about the age from 12 to the time they left for college, you'll be in a small group. You know, some things that I don't have requirements of, you know, you can kind of wear your hair the way you want. I don't care about that, but you will go to school. You will be nice to your mom. You will go to church and you'll be in a small group. That's not an option. We didn't make that a[n], "If you feel like it."

So, I found the right churches and mentors at a great church and that small group discipler guy that would tell my kids the same thing that I would tell them, but they respected it because it came from him, right, 'cause a kid's—

Jim: Right. (Chuckling)

John T.: --pushing and they come home, "They said that I really ought to focus more." I said, "Yeah, I've never said that before, right?" But I made sure they were in those groups, so they were around cool kids who were also loving God and struggling with all those issues, with a guy I trusted, with a mentor I trusted. And it was a requirement all the way through. That helped a lot.

So, when they got around the kids who were no good, they'd think, "That kid's really snarky and he's mean and you've got habits I don't like. That was the No. 1 thing we did.

Jim: That's good advice. You're listening to "Focus on the Family." Today we're talking with author, Dr. John Townsend about his book, Boundaries with Teens, John Fuller and Jim Daly here and we are livin' it, John. I mean, that's why this content is so powerful as I'm sitting here listening to John Townsend.

John, let me take the next few minutes. I want to look specifically at some of those typical things that parents are dealing with in the teen years. Some of them will be a little heavier than others, but let's hit a few of them that you talk about in your book. Breaking agreements, that kind of idea of deception and lying. Look at our politicians. I mean, this culture seems to adore the fact that you could prevaricate, twist the truth and you get away with it. How do you deal with that in a teenager, who is embracing that?

John T.: Well, when you look at what, the way that God designed our brains, kids are looking for truth. They're looking for something that's solid, that means something that is absolute. That's why the absolute truth is the absolute truth.

So, the best thing a parent can do is to say, there's no real difference between a big lie and a white lie. A white lie is a lie and so, if it's, well, yeah, I did kinda wash the dishes, but I didn't. And we think, well, sometimes we think, well, gosh, at least they're not on drugs, so we let it go. Don't let it go, because they've got to understand that when you are lying in a small way, allowing deception to happen, whether it's your girlfriend, your boyfriend, your mate or your new boss or whatever, they don't know you anymore. It's all about relationship and when small deceptions happen, they become big deceptions. So, you have to draw a really hard line with any kind of deception.

I don't throw the moral card at 'em a whole lot, like you know, what does God think of you? I mean, it's sorta like, I don't want them to hate God as well as me. I just throw the reality card at 'em of, we don't allow this in the house. There's certain things we love. We love fun and camping and sports and music and all that. We don't do lying and if you do, it will not go well for you. All the things you love, we talked about in this last show, the video and the freedom and the friends and the social stuff, that goes away.

And so, with immature children, some teenagers are immature, don't give them the moral card. They don't feel the moral things. [With] older children, you can say, "Now how does that affect you and your relationship with God and your relationship with others?" they can get it. But a child that doesn't show that, it's sorta like, you gotta go through the law in the Old Testament before you can get to grace. So, it's gotta be the pain of the rules as opposed to, am I making the right choices in an ultimate sense.

Jim: Yeah.

John T.: You gotta know your kid.

Jim: And let me ask you this. We didn't touch on this last time and I have a propensity to do this, where I will overreact in the moment and "You are grounded for four years." (Laughter)

John T.: I don't think I've gone that far.

John F.: Nuclear option.

John T.: The nuclear option.

Jim: I mean, of course, Jean's snickering, so when we lay our head on the pillow, then she's saying, "You know, you probably overreacted on that one." (Laughter)

John T.: You would think.

Jim: And yeah, and I'm going, "I know." And then you gotta reel it all in and the next day, you gotta say, "Okay, let's go a week." What recommendation do you have there to not do that? (Laughing)

John T.: Well, look at that as a symptom. It's probably the result of not only the engagement with the teen, but other things in their lives. We all have hard jobs and everybody's workin' a lot these days and social media's been bombarding us. We're worried about cultural issues and the kingdom and money and all that.

And so, you kinda look at the disrespectful attitude or the rolling eyes or the not getting to homework, look at that as, my kid was my tipping point. That's what made me turn into a psycho. (Laughter) And so, it just means, I've probably got an out-of-balance life and what do I do to get health back in my life and my family?

Because I need to have the band width to handle somebody whose brain, we talked about this before—is still wet cement. And so, if I don't have the band width for somebody to have crazy ideas and push against me and disagree and be passive-aggressive, if I don't have the band width for that, I'm not gonna do anybody any good. So, get my life in order so that my teen's up and downs don't, you know, freak me out.

Jim: Yeah, no, that's good advice.

John T.: It's a symptom.

Jim: Let's move to some more difficult ones with the time remaining. What about, you know, ultimately, God and spirituality, the idea that you're trying to inculcate, to drive into the children, the teenager, the ability to relate to God, to understand God, to know their purpose in life. Those are big weighty issues. How do you help them develop that sense of self spiritual awareness?

John T.: Well, I mean, you guys here at Focus do the best job on the planet of how do you have a talk about God as an integrated part of your life, over dinner, and watchin' TV, washin' dishes, doin' sports, to be kind of like salt and peppering God into your conversation and watch how you engage with them and with your spouse if you're married, just you know, I really think that's cool or that reminds me of a Bible verse or I thought about God and how that relates to football or that TV show. I mean, if we are spiritual beings, we integrate our spirituality with the rest of life. And so, the teen grows up in that kind of environment.

But the other thing and sometimes people disagree with me on this, but I think that you should drive a long way to find a church that is teen friendly, that has their music and their culture, teaches us a good Bible message and really clear Bible, but good friends. And I would tell some people, if you love your church, but it doesn't do well with teens, leave your church for a few years. Let your teens get what they need. It's just a few years. Then come back to your church, but find a place where they understand the teen dynamics, because it takes a certain youth pastor, male and female to do that. You will not regret having done that.

Jim: And frankly, it's important for churches and pastors to understand that need at that point, not to take it personally or emotionally.

John T.: No, just find the specialist.

Jim: Right (Chuckling).

John T.: There's some really great people out there who are really biblical, but the kids go, "I like that person, because we throw whipped cream pies at each other (Laughter)," whatever they do, you know.

Jim: It's crazy but fun and learning. They're learning. John, let me ask you about the harder areas and you know, I've not experienced this and I'm grateful for that, but when you look at alcohol and drugs and sexual addictions in the teen years, there's brokenness there and there's sorrow. Talk to the parent and talk to the teen, if you can about where they're at, what they need to do. Talk to the parent first.

John T.: Guys, Jim's right. If you're dealing with this and we have a new normal unfortunately in our world that a lot of people say maybe it's okay. It's just not and it never will be. It's not good for the child's moral development, spiritual development, brain develop[ment], any of that.

So, if you've got that situation, either with drugs or alcohol, my heart goes out to you, because you're kinda, you're in the beginning of a nightmare. The best type thing that I can ever say is, you're not alone and there are professionals who've seen 10,000 hours' worth of kids, and believe me when I say this, worse than your child, more struggling than your child, more radical than your child. So, take advantage of the resources out there.

Focus on the Family has a huge, thousands and thousands of Christian counselor network all around the country. I refer to you guys all the time. When in doubt, if you're not sure, call. I would rather overreact and get a professional in and we just want to get a checkup from the neck up. Get a good Christian counselor who deals with teens and say, "The four of us are comin' in because we think we have a problem." You'll be amazed at the competency and help and hope is there.

Jim: John, so often and we see this with marriage particularly, but it is true in parenting, as well and just human development, we lag in the decision-making process, because we don't think it's as bad as it should be before we reach out for that kind of help. We're doubting the environment, the circumstances. We're not seeing clearly what reality is. How does a parent know to pull the parachute, to pull the trigger and say, "We need help?"

John T.: I always tell parents, well, if it's not going away, it's beyond you. I mean, if you sit down and you say, "I smelled alcohol on your breath or whatever and we have to talk." And we're gonna, by now, we're gonna pull in the reins. We're gonna monitor more. We're gonna put GPS's on the car and we're gonna do home testing and all that stuff, and it's not going away, then default to too soon.

You don't want a child come out in their 20s and say, "Well, they waited until I was really, really a mess and then I had to do major rehab." You don't want that. You want to nip it in the bud. I'd rather have a kid that said, "My parents were a little bit freaked out about drugs and alcohol and we went to some counselors." And you know what I found out is, these people now that they're in their 20s, they're sayin', "I like counselors now. When I'm married, I'm gonna find a counselor," because the parents went. This is healthy. You've got fun and church and sports and all these things. Oh, you've also got counseling and they kinda saw it—

Jim: And—

John T.: --as a way to stay healthy.

Jim: --yeah, it's not a negative.

John T.: No.

Jim: It's tune-up stuff. Let me say this in the last moments here. Parents have listened to what we've talked about this time and last time and they're convinced. Oh, my goodness, we have blown it with our 15-year-old and they go home tonight sayin', we're gonna lay down the law. How do they go about beginning that journey to say, we're gonna have firm boundaries. Maybe they contact us. They get a copy of your book. How would you encourage them tonight when they go home? What do they need to say about the way the family's gonna operate?

John T.: Don't say anything to the kids yet. You're not ready. Get with your spouse if you're married. Get with your small group. Get with your disciple people, your mentors. Get with them and get a game plan, because it's just like in business, you want to roll out the new game plan of what the Daly family's gonna be doing to the kids when it's ready to go, so that you don't come off chaotic and unsure.

But get the game plan together of, you know, we're gonna have better structure. We're gonna have consistency. We're gonna have clear rules. We're gonna have so much fun as a family. We're gonna worship together, have vacations, have fun, but here's the new things that aren't okay. Work out the things that are non-negotiable. They're all in the book.

And then you have a conversation with the kids. They may be several weeks later unless you've got an emergency, where you say, "No. 1, kids, we love you. No. 2, I have to apologize to you. I haven't been as consistent with my parenting values because of lots of reasons and things are gonna change. I think you'll be happy with 'em, but I'm sorry, because they're sort of a new way we're doing things here and we want your input, but here's what we're gonna do.

There are issues of schooling and issues of conduct and issues of behavior and issues of friendships and here's our new things we're gonna do. And have a big town hall meeting about the kids, where they have input, but they don't determine it. But I just think startin' off in a vulnerable way and say, "We just haven't been the parents we want to have. We want to change things in the last five years." Think about the message and how the kids feel. Well, first off is "Uh-oh." (Laughter)

Jim: Yeah, 'cause they've kinda ruled the roost.

John T.: It's been fun. The cat's away, the mice'll play. And the second one is, God meant them to feel secure. I've got parents who are grown-ups. They have structure. They're calm; they're consistent. I feel safer, because structure brings safety, so they feel better inside, even though they tell you they don't.

Jim: John, when you look at life, you have been a counselor for many years. You've had many couples, many families go through your practice. You've seen life from a lot of different vantage points, tragedy, success. When you look at it, what is it about? What do we need to be mindful of? When you boil it all down, beyond our vocations, beyond it all, what are the two or three things we really have to get right?

John T.: Jim, I think ultimately, the Bible teaches it comes down to two things. One is, God and one is our character. The first is, we've gotta find the One Who determines life and His rules of life and His paths of life, because the Bible says that in Psalm 119, "His paths are the way to happiness." So, following Him.

But the second one is our character, meaning that it's who you are on the inside that determines how you parent, how you marry, how you find a vocation, how you get old, how you handle your aging parents, is that you need a team of people around you who love you, who are safe—Bible study group, whatever it's called—a few people around you that will help build up your character, so that you can withstand the flow.

You can also chart a course. You can handle problems. You can handle catastrophe and it's sorta like you become this person who can handle everything life's throwing at them. At the same time there's this beacon ahead, 'cause you know, you want to have this job, this kind of marriage, this kind of parenting. So, develop your character with people who love you and you cannot lose.

Jim: That is well-said. Dr. John Townsend, author of the book, Boundaries with Teens, this has been really helpful. Thanks so much for being with us, John.

John T.: Thank you guys.


John F.: Well, I hope you'll take this conversation to heart and pray about some next steps in developing that relationship with your teenager. And certainly, a good first step would be getting a copy of Boundaries with Teens from us. We've got it at or call us and we'll tell you how to get your copy, 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.

And when you contribute to Focus on the Family today, for your gift of any amount we'll send that book to you as our way of saying thank you for partnering with us and becoming part of our support team.

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly, I'm John Fuller, thanking you for listening and inviting you back tomorrow for a dramatic story of a woman who survived a very dramatic health crisis.


Mrs. Pamela Christian: The next thing that he heard was someone yell, "Bag her." And she's thinking, "You can't do that." (Laughter) "You can't give up on her now." (Laughter) You hardly worked on her. (Laughter) "We can't possibly bag her now." And she turns around and she looks and she sees an oxygen bag on my face. (Laughter)

End of Excerpt

John F.: That's next time, as we once again, help your family thrive.

  • Featured Audience Input

    Daily Radio Broadcast Listener Survey

    To help us provide the best possible programming for you, we need your honest feedback on how we're doing and how we can get better.

    Read more
  • Featured Book


    Henry Cloud and John Townsend

    Having clear boundaries is essential to a healthy, balanced lifestyle. A boundary is a personal property line that marks those things for which we are responsible.

    Buy Now
  • Featured Book

    Boundaries With Kids

    Henry Cloud and John Townsend

    Here's the help you need to raise kids who take responsibility for their lives and attitudes.

    Buy Now
  • Featured Episode

    Connecting with Your Teen

    Author Jill Savage advises parents on ways to connect with and mentor their teenagers by allowing them the decision-making freedom needed to transition into adulthood.

More Episode Resources


John Townsend

View Bio

Dr. John Townsend is a clinical psychologist, a marriage and family therapist, a popular public speaker and the co-founder of Cloud-Townsend Resources. He is also the author or co-author of numerous books including God Will Make a Way, How People Grow and Who's Pushing Your Buttons? Dr. Townsend holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Biola University. He resides in Southern California with his wife and sons. Learn how you can earn a graduate degree in Dr. Townsend's methodology at The Townsend Institute.