Boundaries for our children
Lacking boundaries in our relationships can be at the root of so many issues. My clients might present with anxiety issues, anger, fear or feeling like life is out of control. Yet, when we dig deeper, we discover that lack of boundaries is at the heart of the issue. Once we start to work on our boundaries, things can become more manageable. But first, let’s look at what a boundary is.
Our boundaries tell people what is and is not OK for us. They tell people how we would or would not like to be treated. If something feels uncomfortable or makes us feel resentful then it’s probably not OK. Importantly, we send the message to ourselves that we matter, that we are important and are worthy of being treated with respect.
A boundary can be physical: being touched, being given personal space, etc. It is important that we speak to our children about this as they always look to the adult as ‘right’ but, if an adult in their lives is making them feel uncomfortable due to physical boundary violation, then it is absolutely OK to tell a trusted adult. When our kids are teenagers, it’s vital that they learn how to navigate their relationships with boundaries in place to help them in their own romantic relationships and friendship groups.
A mental or emotional boundary teaches our children that they have a right to have their feelings and thoughts respected. Children are entitled to their own opinions and to have those opinions listened to respectfully by others. It also teaches them that they are responsible for their own feelings and aren’t responsible for someone else’s feelings. Teach kids that an unhealthy relationship might be if their every thought or decision is met with disapproval or aggression.
What does a boundary look like in a child/parent relationship?
As a parent, we want to be able to give our children what they want. Sometimes though, we have to say no. We know when our kids are ‘pushing boundaries’. It’s usually a feeling that you are butting heads or never agreeing on things such as when curfews are, how much screen time to have or what time to go to bed. This starts as soon as the child becomes aware that they are an individual and separate from the caregiver.
Even pre-verbal, a toddler will throw themselves on the supermarket floor as their way of signalling to the parent that they want a biscuit, and they want it now (we’ve all been there right?) How much do we give in? How much do we allow? When do we assert ourselves and stand our ground? It can feel so difficult!
It’s important to realise that kids learn boundaries from their parents/caregivers. Therefore, if we have strong boundaries and our kids see us saying no to people then they know that it is OK to do the same from time to time.
We all want to feel ‘heard’ and kids are no exception to this. How does it feel to be dismissed or have our needs minimised? Feels horrible, doesn’t it? We feel like we don’t matter. So, the first step is to make the child feel heard.
Get down to their level, look them in the eye and say “I understand that you are frustrated/angry/sad right now. However, you know that there we do not eat sweets before lunch as it will spoil your appetite. After lunch, you may have a biscuit.” This is teaching kids that you have boundaries and importantly that they have boundaries too, and that they cannot always get their own way all the time.
Boundaries allow kids to know what is safe and what is tolerated.
Take the example of a child running out into the street. Terrified, we grab hold of them. The child might kick and scream to be put down but explain to them that we are keeping them safe and that the road is dangerous. Without boundaries, kids can feel that there are no rules, that anything goes, and this can feel scary to them. As much as they push, kids do need to know that their grown-ups have solid rules and boundaries, and this keeps them feeling like their world is safe and that their caregivers care.
Teenagers can understand a lot more. Negotiating their boundaries with respect might come into play. For instance, if your teenager consistently comes home later than you have asked them to, explain that you can’t help but imagine all sorts of scenarios, that it’s worrying for you. Then you might negotiate when a better time might be and what to do if they are going to be late home. “I get so anxious when you are late Alex. I worry that something has happened to you. Please let me know if you are going to be late home so that I don’t worry so much.”
Honest communication is really the key to negotiating boundaries in any relationship. When people haven’t been used to having boundaries set with you then there will inevitably be some push back. The other person might try to cajole you into saying yes or sulk. You might feel guilty for stating firmly what it is that you need or for saying no.
Boundaries take practice if you aren’t used to setting them, but try to stay firm and you and others will get used to it. You will probably also find that setting boundaries will prevent overwhelm and anxiety in the long run.