Op-Ed on Parenting: Setting Up Expectations, Enforcing Rules, Giving Rewards to Adolescents

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What is the difference between rules and expectations? And how do I enforce them?

Adolescence is a time of self-exploration. It’s the time when kids are beginning to individuate and separate from their parents and decide what values are their own.

The goal of adolescence is to answer the question: “Who am I?” This time can be difficult for parents, and yet parents provide a key role in a kid’s adolescence: create and maintain a framework — we call it a “Family Frame” — that gives kids limits and boundaries so that they can safely explore their development.

Two of the key components of the Family Frame are expectations and rules.

Rules should be based on safety concerns: drinking, using drugs, safe sex, driving, anything that is illegal and/or potentially life threatening. The consequences for breaking the rules should be clear and enforceable in the moment; they should also be applicable to the “crime.”

For instance, if the rule was about socializing, the consequence is grounding. Do sit down with your kids ahead of time and develop this family frame based on your family values and these safety concerns. Don’t have conversations about consequences in the heat of the moment when a crisis is happening — those never go well.

Tracey Masella LCSW Silver Hill Hospital

Photo from Silver Hill Hospital website

Tracey Masella (file photo)

The other component of the family frame are expectations, daily and weekly “assignments” that do not have a consequence if not completed but are instead tied to rewards. Expectations can be built around assignments such as chores, participation in the family, and attending to schoolwork.

If expectations are met, the kid gets the reward (allowance, use of the car, weekend activities with friends, screen time, etc.). Finding out what is important to your kid —what will motivate him/her — is the key to setting up the rewards. If the kid doesn’t meet the expectations, they don’t get the rewards. Your job as a parent is to not nag!

The Family Frame gives kids the opportunity to make some choices about how they behave. The key to the Family Frame is consistency. Once you develop the Family Frame, make sure you as the parent hold up your end of the agreement with consequences and rewards.

Tracey Masella, LCSW


Adapted from an “Our Darien” campaign video.


Tracey Masella is a licensed clinical social worker with an office in Wilton who treats adolescents and adults using behavioral, solutions-focused psychodynamic therapy. As part of a multi-disciplinary clinical team at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, CT, she worked for close to 10 years with adults and adolescents at all levels of care, most recently as the manager for the Adolescent Transitional Living Program. She continues to work with Silver Hill in community outreach and education.

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