It’s crucial to set gentle, loving boundaries in the household. We know that boundaries are important for children and can keep them safe. But they can also make our lives, as parents, easier.
Especially during the COVID-19 epidemic, boundaries must be clear and respected “to a T,” so that kids can follow precautions against the coronavirus.
In closer quarters during shelter-in-place, boundaries also allow parents, siblings, and other family members to keep peace and reduce tension. Now, more than ever, parents must be armed with gentle ways to say “no.”
Children often become upset when boundaries and rules are discussed. But the reality is that by saying “no,” you’re showing your kid that life involves adapting to the non-negotiable.
What are boundaries?
When you imagine a physical boundary, it’s a barrier between you and another person. Social and emotional boundaries work in much the same way.
Boundaries between people are barriers between individuals’ behavior. This is how everyone in the world maintains autonomy without infringing on others’: by communicating and respecting boundaries.
Creating boundaries for children’s behavior is important because it helps them understand what they can and can’t do, what is and is not ok, as they grow up into the “real world.”
Enforcing boundaries with kids usually involves some form of the word “no,” but also ideally includes components like:
- An explanation of why the boundary is being set
- Who this boundary helps and how
- Clarification that the boundary is not personal, and your saying “no” doesn’t mean your child is a “bad kid”
You might think that calling your child out for breaking rules is hurtful, but it doesn’t have to be. Kids need practice with boundaries. This practice teaches them self-control, prepares them to follow rules throughout life, and shows them that they can set boundaries when they need, too.
In the “real” world, there are many bounds and rules, so it’s important to set helpful limitations for your child.
But boundaries always get pushed…!
You can set many boundaries with your children. Take limiting technology usage as an example. Let’s say that you tell your ten-year-old (or twenty-year-old), “You can use the tablet for two hours.” That is the boundary you set, and after that two hours, your child is responsible for putting the tablet away.
However, what if they don’t listen?
An example of your child pushing the boundaries is continuing to play with the electronic device after you’ve made it clear that there’s a set amount of time in which they can use it.
So, what do you do? Respond by reinforcing the boundary, in addition to the reasoning behind it. Tell them, “You know the rules. You are not supposed to be on the tablet for more than two hours. Spending more than that will make things harder for you later in life. And we need to leave enough time to do all our other daily activities. Therefore, you need to put the tablet away.”
Since they are in a boundary-pushing mood, they may continue not to listen to you. They want to see how important it is to follow the rule, and they “judge” this by what happens when they don’t. It’s natural for kids to test what they can get away with in this manner. It’s how they figure out the way the world works–through trial and error.
Kids are built to push boundaries, so the question is: What do you do next?
Set a clear, unpleasant (but not harmful) consequence. If they don’t put the tablet away or willingly hand it to you, they will not get to use it for the rest of the day or at all the next day. When setting this consequence, suggest alternative things they can do. Drawing, reading, playing outside are still options. They may not have well-developed reasoning, so it’s important you clarify that their life will, in fact, go on–even without the tablet. Consequences are unpleasant, but not the be-all, end-all.
So, you set a consequence and restated your boundary. But let’s say that again, your child doesn’t put the device away or give it to you.
At this point, a clear display of authority may be necessary. You can walk over and take the tablet away, yourself. The most important thing to do here is not to fold or budge in your initial boundary; once the boundary and consequence are set, stick to them.
No bargaining the time limit up from 2 hours to 2.5. No extra 5 minutes. If you say that you’re not going to give them the tablet to use the next day, stick to that statement and don’t allow them to use it again until the day after that.
Remember to remind your child of the reasoning behind the boundary–you’re not just randomly depriving them of something that makes them feel good.
When you set a boundary and your child is upset, what do you do?
It’s common for kids to react in an emotional way when you set a boundary with them. Remember you didn’t do anything wrong, and in fact, you’re doing something helpful by teaching them about boundaries and cooperation.
If they’re upset with you for enforcing a boundary or rule, let them feel those feelings and give them space to do that. Children don’t have control over their emotions in the same way we, adults do, and we shouldn’t expect them to. You can tell them they should take this time to calm down, and that you’ll have a reasonable discussion about what happened, after.
What if I’m a parent with a people-pleasing habit?
Some people struggle to set boundaries with their children because they struggle to set boundaries in general.
This struggle may arise from any number of drives: from an unmet need to feel accepted, to an internalized belief that it’s just easier to follow along with what others want.
It’s tempting to want to be the fun parent or the relaxed parent–the one that gives your child what they want. When you imagine being a parent, you imagine being adored and appreciated by your kids; but the problem is that kids don’t appreciate much of what’s healthy for them, including boundaries.
Trying not to upset them by loosening boundaries won’t help them as they grow up. They’ll have to unhappily discover that there are regulations and that they have to mold their behavior to all kinds of implicit and explicit boundaries in adult life.
Lax boundaries will not necessarily make children closer to you or more trusting of you, either. It’s just not worth it. You can still be a fun parent, and you can still be the one that your child comes to talk to, even while keeping consistent rules in place. In fact, kids tend to be happier when they have consistency in their lives.
How do boundaries impact kids’ autonomy?
Important to note: your children don’t have control over the household. You can let them give feedback when setting household boundaries, and you can certainly encourage them to communicate their wants and needs, but they don’t make the rules.
Kids should have some level autonomy within reason, but they need to learn that their autonomy is earned through cooperation. They will require this understanding when they enter the “real world.”
Troubleshooting Boundaries: Collaborative Problem Solving
Sometimes, you’ll set a boundary, and your kid seems physically incapable of respecting it. In other situations, the boundary you set happens to obstruct you kid’s rightful autonomy. In these events, it’s okay to speak with your child and come up with a creative solution that works for you both. This is called collaborative problem-solving.
If a boundary you initially set doesn’t seem to be working for your household, you can ask your child what their feedback is and come to a collaborative resolution. This isn’t making your child the boss, but rather, it’s coming up with a compromise where they’ll feel involved in setting the rules.
It’s perfectly healthy to ask for feedback from your kids; they’re humans with thoughts and feelings too, and having a say empowers them. Collaborative problem solving is a boundary-setting approach that makes everyone feel seen, heard, and respected.
Boundaries are unavoidable and all around us. The better kids learn to set and work within boundaries, the easier a time they’ll have as they grow up. Remember, you’re not being mean or a bad parent. You’re doing something for them that they’ll benefit from later in life.