This is a test

Young people test boundaries as a natural part of development. Why do they do this and how should adults respond in these situations?

“You are really testing me!” Many frustrated parents and teachers have uttered these words. What kind of test are we talking about? When young people behave in ways that are not acceptable or ideal, it can certainly test our patience. They are also testing something else—boundaries. The good news is these behaviors are often a sign of normal, healthy development.

According to Michigan State University Extension, young people test boundaries to better understand the world around them. Testing boundaries is much like how we test the temperature of water before a swim. We may dip a toe in the water and if that feels OK, we may wade in. If the water is too cold, we may not go in or proceed very slowly. People do this same thing when testing boundaries. A young person might stay out a few minutes past curfew to see what happens. If that goes without consequence, they may stay out even later the next time. The young person is trying to figure out where the real boundary is. To avoid confusion, adults need to set and maintain boundaries.

Knowing the boundaries in situations and relationships makes people feel safe. Adults have had more time to observe and learn social boundaries. Young people are still in this process of learning, and learning about boundaries involves a lot of trial and error. What can you do to help young people understand boundaries in relationships and social boundaries?

  • Be consistent. It is confusing when something is allowed some of the time but not others.
  • Model healthy boundaries.
  • Talk about it. Every person has slightly different boundaries. Help a young person understand the different expectations based on relationship, setting and other factors.
  • Define the boundaries—don’t make them guess. For instance, when setting a curfew, explain the consequences for failing to come home on time. If the young person arrives home late, follow through on the consequences.
  • Help young people learn to set their own boundaries.

Finally, recognize while boundary testing can be frustrating for you, it is a healthy part of youth development. Don’t take it personally!

To learn more, contact your local MSU Extension office.

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