Establishing Boundaries with Children
By Clare Rose Sullivan
Many parents fear that by setting firm and clear boundaries with their children that they will disrupt the positive, loving relationship they have. In fact, boundaries actually allow children a greater sense of freedom and safety. Children will naturally test boundaries so that they can learn where they are. This is their way of learning about their world, how safe it is, and if they can trust their caregivers to take care of them. If children are given too much control in a caregiver-child relationship, they will feel unsafe because they will assume that they need to be in charge and take care of themselves, which they are not developmentally ready to do. Many times, children who are not given clear and consistent boundaries will have behavioral issues including tantrums, hitting, pushing, biting, and other limit-pushing behaviors. In these cases, children are going to continue to push boundaries by displaying these behaviors until they feel comfortable and safe in knowing that the boundaries exist. If a boundary is not clearly and consistently held, it will continue to be crossed and tested.
Another reason parents will avoid setting boundaries is their fear of their children’s reactions to the boundaries. It is hard to see a child going through big emotions especially in response to something we have implemented. However, by setting these boundaries we will actually help support our children in their emotional well-being, as well as our own. Kids are going to have big emotions because it is part of life. Avoiding big emotions will only teach children to ignore and suppress their emotions, causing them to become even bigger and harder to manage. If parents are going to set boundaries, they will need to be able handle the emotions that come from them. Janet Lansbury (2014), author of No Bad Kids, summarizes this nicely on her website: “Children often push for our boundaries because they know intuitively that they need the safety of our calm, confident responses, and also to release uncomfortable feelings simmering inside them. Our acceptance of these feelings eases the need to test and is one of the most profound ways we can express our love. It gets a little easier for us with practice”.
How to Set Boundaries with Your Children
1. Begin now! It is never too late, although the longer you the wait, the harder it will be.
2. Start with something you know you can handle enforcing. You are not going to suddenly become the boundary queen or king overnight. Start with one thing that you can agree with yourself and perhaps your partner on that you will not budge on.
3. Stay firm and consistent. The boundary will continue to be pushed until the child knows this boundary will not be allowed to be crossed.
4. Stay connected in the reaction and redirect (“Connect and Redirect”). “I know you really want to watch one more show, and it’s time for bed, so I am going to turn off the TV now” OR “I know it’s really hard to not get what we want, but right now we need to get ready for bed”.
5. Follow through on consequences. If you say you are going to turn off the TV, turn off the TV! If a child knows you will give in if they ask 5 more times or cry or tantrum, they will do those things until they get what they want.
6. Be the leader. You are the adult and you are taking care of the child. Remember that you have their best interest in mind and know that you don’t always have to be liked in these moments. It is about taking care of the child, not being liked. And when we care for children in the right way, guess what? They end up liking us!