How do we set boundaries for our children?
“Boundaries are essentially about understanding and respecting our own needs, and being respectful and understanding of the needs of others and for that to work, we need to be putting a big emphasis on helping kids develop greater empathy and self-awareness.” Stephanie Dowd, a clinical psychologist
What are healthy boundaries, how do we set them up and how firm should we be, where do we draw the line and more importantly where do we situate our own boundaries?
I think many parents toy with these questions on a regular basis and sometimes find it tricky to maintain a balance between what is best for the child and what fits in with their values.
When we look back it’s incredible how much parenting has evolved. We’ve gone from a generation of children who were ‘seen but not heard’, to parents who always ‘knew best’ or ‘because they said so’. And now to our current generation who has become the centre of our attention, who often get instant gratification and with parents who would do anything for their children's happiness. I suppose somewhere within these extremes we attempt to find a middle ground. So that our children have the freedom to explore and express who they are while thriving in a safe environment.
To start with we can’t ignore that we reside in a society that is ruled by codes of conduct, social boundaries and norms. Sometimes those codes make sense and sometimes they don't. Either way, kids need awareness of societal norms and how to respect others to navigate the world they live in. And then there are the cultural norms of each country. My husband who’s French (living in Australia), has often struggled with accepting some of the Aussie kids' lack of ‘savoir vivre’ as he calls it. In France, any child who enters into someone else's home will automatically seek out the parents to greet them with ‘la bise’ (a kiss on either side of the cheek) and say a few words. A kid who doesn't have the courtesy to say hello when entering our home drives my husband absolutely nuts. And his ultimate frustration is when a child or teenager helps themselves to food or has a shower without asking :-)
In my experience what counts are age-appropriate boundaries and limits so that children feel loved, protected and supported. Because the opposite is conflicting or confusing and makes children feel unsafe. There are also too many boundaries that end up suffocating a child and pushing them into resistance and rebellion. In other words, when we constantly force a child to do something that only suits us, we create tensions and power struggles. And in the case of a compliant child with too many limits, internally he or she feels weakened or powerless when forced to constantly do something that parents want.
When children genuinely feel they have the ability to be in control of their lives instead of being forced to do what parents think is best, they are less likely to push others around, like their siblings or their peers. I found this with all our older girls when they felt powerless or disconnected they would push around their younger siblings.
I feel the prerequisite for successful boundaries is clarity of intention and firmness combined with kindness and respect. We respect them by listening to their points of view. If a child says something that is pertinent about what is being asked of them then we allow them to express themselves. An open discussion will always be empowering to a child, he or she feels heard and understood. All the while we are maintaining a clear understanding of where our limits are.
Berenice (4th child) is a strong-willed child and doesn’t like to be told what to do - whatsoever, even as an infant. When she was about 14 years old she was very resistant to most things we asked her to do, such as going to bed, completing chores or schoolwork, … We had to find inventive ways to get her to collaborate when it was in her best interest, such as taking probiotics or herbs when she had digestive issues. One evening when she and I were out having dinner, the connection was good, there was lots of fun and laughter. I jokingly suggested we shake on a deal, whereby she would have the occasional piece of chocolate that she loved while committing to take her probiotics for 3 weeks. This way she would see for herself if there was any improvement with her gut health and general well being. The connection is the key to mutual understanding in an unforceful way.
For boundaries to work the main rule of thumb as a parent is to be a strong leader, knowing how to anticipate potential danger and stepping in. When they are young, it’s pulling a child to safety when they are about to run across a busy road or they are playing too close to the water's edge or physically blocking an older child who is about to hit the younger sibling, etc. After which, we explain to our child the dangers and why we responded the way we did for their safety and the safety of others.
As they get older, it is discussing the risks of hanging out with peers who are using drugs or having sex or drink driving, … And when it comes to their safety, some things are just non-negotiable, like calling us when plans change so you know where they are or picking them up at the party at the agreed time and place, etc.
I made my life easier by determining clear boundaries in the early years, rather than waiting until they were teenagers, which is an age where it is more difficult to establish boundaries if they haven't already been set. Uncertain boundaries make them feel unsafe, which means they push the limits or feel lost. However, it’s never too late to change. Over time, when we have built a loving and close connection with our child then boundaries emerge more naturally, which creates a genuine authority.
This loving connection with our child also helps them develop a strong sense of self. With time, they learn to use their own inner compass with respect to boundaries with others and themselves, which is an essential ingredient in the teenage years. Even if they make mistakes, that inner guidance when facing danger will kick in. Like knowing not to give in to peer pressure to get into a car with a drunken teenager at the wheel or taking a substance they are not comfortable with.
Obviously, children do and will attempt to test how consistent we are with our boundaries, which is why it is so important to remain clear so that they can rely on our word. Lack of clarity and consistency in our word is confusing.
When teenagers do demand more freedom, we can expand the boundaries once we feel they are ready. And this naturally occurs when they have demonstrated a certain level of responsibility.
However, teenagers will say they ‘I hate you’ when we’ve said no to something they desperately want. For example, our daughter Odyssee (16 at the time) wanted to stay at a friend's house, a friend who we knew the parents were quite permissive. I called the house and found out through the much older boyfriend of the friend, that neither parent would be home that weekend. Instinctively, the arrangements seemed shaky and I didn’t entirely trust the friend, so consequently, I said no. Odyssee’s initial reaction was annoyance and anger, but I also sensed she was relieved and understood the choice I had made. These situations, particularly with teenagers, always demand a great deal of discernment, intuition and trusting of our own inner knowing. Teenagers want freedom but they also thrive on clear boundaries which make them feel safe - a bit like toddlers. Through our experience with our teenage daughters, we have had to adapt our approach of boundaries to match their temperaments and personalities.
Of course, like everything else my boundaries have evolved alongside my children. I think with time I trust my kids more because I trust myself more to allow them to make their own mistakes. I have let go of control to make way for a more relaxed state of parenting. Essentially, I feel boundaries are understanding and respecting our own needs with those of our children through connection.
Kim John Payne says ‘there is no disobedient child just disoriented child’ What I understand of this is as parents if we embody a clear direction and limits then children shouldn’t find themselves too disoriented.