One of the most common questions that parents have concerning their children is “How do I set boundaries with my child without taking away their independence?” Our children are little humans with big emotions, thoughts, ideas, as well as wants and needs. As parents, we want a sense of control over how we raise our children, but we don’t want to squash their personality in the process
What are Boundaries?
The official definition of boundary is a line that marks the limits of an area; a dividing line. In terms of setting boundaries with people, a boundary is what is and what is not appropriate given a situation. Whether it’s setting boundaries with people in your family due to generational trauma or implementing rules with children, that dividing line can vary greatly.
What are Healthy Boundaries?
Setting healthy boundaries increases safety and effective communication. Healthy boundaries do not involve fear, shame, or guilt. They allow others to choose their choice of action with realistic consequences. Healthy boundaries are clear, easy to understand, and non-threatening.
The Developmental Lifespan
Erik Erikson was the creator of the Psychosocial Development Theory, a theory that holds true today. Failure to achieve the goal of each psychosocial phase can lead to emotional and behavioral problems later in life. The first few phases in a young child’s life are critical:
Trust vs. Mistrust (infancy)
A child learns through parental responses if their caregivers are safe and can be trusted to meet their basic needs (food, shelter, comfort).
Autonomy vs. Doubt (18 mo to 3)
Toddlers need space to grow and adapt to their environment. Toddlers are explorers and have such a drive for independence that rivals the teenage years. Stifling too much of that exploration leads to doubt in their own abilities.
Initiative vs. Guilt (3 to 5)
As children continue to grow, they want to be involved in everything around them. They want to grow, learn and be creative. They will take initiative at tasks that might seem too big for them. Stifling creativity can lead to feelings of guilt.
Industry vs. Inferiority (5 to 13)
Children work hard at school, after-school activities like sports and clubs, as well as rules and expectations at home. Constant negativity can lead to a sense of not feeling good enough.
Identity vs. Role Confusion (13 to 22)
Adolescence is about finding who you are, what you like to do, who you want to become, what path in life is the right fit. This is a stressful time that leads to a lot of conflict between adolescents and their caregivers. Teenagers have a strong sense of independence but also crave support (whether they admit it or not!)
Boundaries with Young Children
The easiest and effective way to get a young child to learn boundaries is providing them with choices (Cloud, Townsend 2001). An example of setting expectations:
“You can choose to eat your snack and pick up your toys or pick up your toys and then eat your snack.”
Notice that the expectation of picking up the toys is not an option. Your child gets the independence to choose whether they eat first or later. Another example would be:
“Would you rather put your coat on now or before you walk into school?”
Again, the coat is not an option. It is cold outside. This allows them to choose when to put it on, rather than have a knock down, drag out fight of getting them bundled up for the trip.
Of course, children are not perfect beings, nor are we. There are times when children will say no either way or be generally disagreeable. It is important as parents to check our anger. It is easy to say,
“You will do this because I say so.”
While that statement is not wrong, it is usually not helpful. Taking a breath and reiterating that there are only two options will reinforce to your child that the outcome will be the same, and they choose their consequence, whether positive or negative.
In their book Parenting with Love and Logic (2020), Cline and Fay report that parents should remember to keep choices simple and to never allow a choice that a parent is not willing to see through, such as a specific punishment or consequence.
Children need consistency. If we as parents aren’t consistent in our teachings, rules, or expectations, that will only add to their confusion. Remember, boundaries are not synonymous with threats. Remaining calm and collected during a stressful situation is not weakness or “being soft”. Children respond well to clear, consistent communication.
Boundaries With Teens
One of the biggest challenges of parenting is reaching the teenage years with your child. These mini adults have thoughts and opinions that may differ from your own. One of the most common questions is
“How do I keep open communication with my teen without sacrificing my rules or boundaries?”
One of the best predictions of future behavior is careful planning. Set expectations for your teen and the rest of the family when things are calm. Waiting to set an expectation or boundary until the situation arises will only end in frustration for both parties. For example, even if you think your teen should inherently know not to leave the house without telling you where they are going, the thought might not have crossed their mind. Hence, an argument on manners ensues.
By setting expectations up front, every single person in the family knows the potential consequence. Use if, then statements with specific time frames. For example,
“If you choose not to get off your phone at 11 pm, then I will take it for 1 day.”
Notice that this statement does not prevent the behavior. Your teens still have the final choice in what they decide to do, but you have made it clear from the forefront that this specific consequence will occur. When setting boundaries with your child or teen, follow-through is key. No parent is perfect. There will be times where you don’t feel like hearing excuses or whining. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t feel that way. Choosing simple consequences that allow you to use your resources (phone, allowance, time with friends, etc.) will allow more consistent follow-through.
Sometimes natural consequences are more effective.
“If you choose to stay up too late, you will feel it in the morning.”
Your teens will learn quickly that they still must get up and go to whatever activity is planned. Natural consequences are fast teachers of future behavior.
How Therapy Can Help
Therapy offers many different resources, including support. Well-trained therapists can help you decide what boundaries are appropriate for your household. Therapists can help explore what worked well and what did not work well in your own childhood. We can help support you in choosing age-appropriate consequences while managing your own emotional responses. Therapy encourages self-reflection and emotional growth. By learning what you are and what you are not willing to put up with in your family dynamic, it will become easier to set expectations from the start.
Most importantly, therapy reminds us that we are all individuals going through life the best way we know how. Family therapy is a great tool to help connect everyone to find common goals and create pathways for family success.
Boundary work is not easy. It is an ebb and flow of testing limits and re-setting expectations. When you strive to be consistent in your own boundary work, lines of communication stay open.
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Cline, F., Fay, J. (2020). Parenting with Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility. United States: The Navigators.
Townsend, J., Townsend, J. S., Cloud, H. (2001). Boundaries with Kids: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Children. United States: Zondervan.