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Parenting teens can feel like a highwire act. You’re trying to give them the freedom to grow up, while also safely guiding them to their future. It’s hard to know exactly when to let your teen make his or her own choices — and when you need to set some limits. Sara Villanueva, associate professor of Psychology at St. Edward’s University and author of The Angst of Adolescence, offers some guidance.

First, she suggests three areas where parents should let teens make their own mistakes:

Appearance.

Those piercings and outfits you dread? It might just be worth going with the flow. “When you say something like ‘You are absolutely not allowed to wear makeup,’ — or whatever it is — you might as well send out a formal, scripted invitation for rebellion,” says Villanueva.

Media.

That TV show with adult themes that your kid loves might make you nervous, but in this case, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. “I watch some of the shows my teen watches,” says Villanueva. “It’s not because I want to, believe me, but I want to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on with her.”

Relationships.

You might see that impending boyfriend or girlfriend train wreck from a mile away, but unless there’s real danger, it’s best to let your child learn from his or her mistakes. “You can say that you personally disagree with him or her going out with a particular kid, but also that you understand the need to explore.”

But there are plenty of times it makes sense to set some smart boundaries. Villanueva offers a few ideas about how to do just that.

Provide a safety net.

You’re not thrilled they’re going to a party, and you definitely don’t want them to be drinking. But make sure they know they can rely on you to keep them safe, especially when they find themselves in potential trouble — it may keep them from making a bad decision worse. Villanueva calls these timeouts. “This means that your teen can call a ‘time out’ and at that point in time, there won’t be screaming and yelling. He or she won’t be in trouble, regardless of the circumstance. It means your number-one concern at that very moment is for your teen to get home safe, and you can have the more serious discussions about consequences later.”

Keep the conversation going.

When you start talking, and the only thing you notice from your teen is the eye rolling and the heavy sighs, it’s easy to think you’re not making an impact — but you are. They may think they want to go to a university known for it’s party scene, for example, but talking to them honestly about their passions and goals can help you guide the conversation in a way that helps them discover for themselves that the college that benefits them most might, in fact, be someplace different. “They may literally look as though they’re not listening to you, and they don’t care about what you think. But it’s when they seem like they’re not paying attention that they actually need you most. Stay engaged. Oh, and don’t forget to listen too!”

Focus on the big picture. 

In the end, you’re not going to be able to mold your teen exactly as you wish. But research suggests that parents are a much stronger reference point for core beliefs, including religious and spiritual beliefs and sociopolitical views. In other words: You can’t influence your kids on all things. But you can influence them on the important things.

Help them make their own best choices. 

Sometimes, parents’ best way to influence a teen is by helping them come to smart decisions on their own. When it comes to helping teens make college choices — perhaps the biggest decision of their young lives — micromanaging the process is rarely effective. But by guiding open, thoughtful conversations about the next steps that will lead them to the life they’ve dreamed of can pay enormous dividends. “When parents know more about what their teen really wants, they can begin the process of negotiating a solution that they can all be happy with for their child’s future.”

Erin Peterson is a freelance writer.

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