In this article, we’ll explore why guardrails are important, and how parents and educators can establish the most effective boundaries for our kids so they may make the best choices as it relates to their experiences with alcohol and drugs.
Do you remember as a teenager how much energy you spent trying to work your way around the restrictions your parents set for you? My mom is still finding out about the different times I snuck out, snuck around, and was up to something she had no clue about. And, she still gets mad about it!
On one hand, teenagers can’t stand boundaries and restrictions. And, they have excellent reasons, really. Developmentally, they’re in an important phase where they’re trying to figure out life on their own and prepare for a time soon coming when they will be responsible for themselves. They need to discover where the boundaries really are and carve out a path that’s most suitable for them.
They want to stay up late. They want to watch what they want to watch. They want unlimited access to technology. They want freedom to go wherever they want, when they want. They want to discover how life will work best for them.
Parents, we know that’s a big part of the process. We know that we have to give more and more freedom and responsibility to our teenage children. In fact, we want to. We want to see them become more mature, wise, and thoughtful about how they steward their lives.
We know how the teenage years are an intense time of training for life. It’s a stressful time for them, not to mention for us. They’re under constant pressure to perform well academically, to fit in with their peers, and to make choices about their future as much as choices for their wardrobe. With so much stress and pressure, it’s no wonder they make some careless mistakes.
And, we also want them to be safe and make smart choices. We know how their developing brains have yet to grasp the wisdom they need to manage their own lives effectively. They still need us, although it looks different from when they were younger. They need us to start to serve as their coach and guide and steer them away from harm and towards experiences and choices that will assist them in growing up well.

Here’s the deal. As much as teens grate against the rules, restrictions, and boundaries adults set for them—they still need them. They aren’t wise enough (yet) to make the best choices for themselves. They lack the context, life experience, and ability to see how their current choices will affect them in the future. They need help in the form of guidance and especially through boundaries and guardrails we set for them. That’s our responsibility. We need to continue operating as their brake as they push down the gas pedal.
In fact, even though they roll their eyes and argue at every turn, they know deep down that the restrictions we set for them express our love and concern for them. Kids who have adults in their lives who give them too much freedom too early often develop a deep-seated belief that they aren’t valuable or worthy, and they carry that fundamental belief with them into adulthood.
The problem is, teens will never match their freedom with responsibility. Their wise decision-making brain functioning hasn’t fully developed yet. Making mistakes is a key part of growing up, and kids learn to make better decisions by experiencing the natural consequences of their actions.
With substance use, though, the potential negative consequences for their health and future are too much to gamble with. Well-intentioned parents will often recall their own early experiences with substance use with a touch of nostalgia while forgetting to remember the actual details or reality of harm those experiences had on their life.
What we know:
• Kids who delay their first drink of alcohol until past their 18th birthday will have an infinitely higher likelihood of avoiding a lifelong struggle with alcohol.
• Most addiction problems start during the teenage years.
• The teenage brain will get permanently altered to crave more and more risky behaviors if they indulge in substance use and the subsequent dopamine rush their brains enjoy.
• Teens are hypersensitive to their perception of their friend’s behaviors, and they grossly overestimate how many of their peers use drugs and alcohol.
• Teens underestimate how harmful substances like marijuana or prescription painkillers are.
• Substance use can lead to death — through a dangerous combination of substances, overdose, or automobile crashes.
Your kids don’t know these facts. They probably won’t believe them, either.
The thing is, they don’t need to believe these facts for you to keep them safe. You can create safety by establishing expectations, boundaries, and guardrails.
Whether it’s a curfew, a promise to say no to any offer of alcohol or drugs, a GPS-linked app to make sure you know their location, or a restriction to attend parties or late night activities, it’s important for every family to clearly communicate and enforce guardrails. Your teens won’t like it. They won’t understand it. But, they don’t need to. And, ironically, later on they will be able to understand that your strictness was an expression of your love for them.

This article was reprinted with permission. Natural High is a youth drug prevention and life skills program that provides easy, effective, and fun resources for educators, mentors, and parents to deliver protective measures in a relevant way through storytelling. The Storyteller library contains a roster of 40+ Natural High Storytellers — athletes, artists, musicians, designers — people who kids admire and trust. Their flexible curriculum offers videos, discussion questions, and activities. It can be used to meet a variety of needs, from brief 10-15-minute discussions to project-based work that takes place across multiple days or class periods.

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