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Building Strong Foundations: Boundaries with Kids

By Emily Mall

Posted on September 25, 2023

Big and little people standing on the ground and standing on the roof
Big and little people standing on the ground and standing on the roof
Big and little people standing on the ground and standing on the roof

Parenting is a delicate balance of love, guidance, and setting boundaries. Teaching children about boundaries is essential for their physical and emotional development, as well as for fostering respectful and responsible individuals. 

Many of us were raised in families that did not have boundaries or any sort of understanding of them. Because of this, we suffer from resentment and feel a lack of power in our relationships. The more we understand what boundaries are, how to establish them, and the importance of having them, the better we can help our kids learn strategies and equip our kids for the future.

Understanding Boundaries and Their Significance

Boundaries are like invisible lines that define personal space, privacy, and acceptable behavior. They help us navigate social interactions and develop self-respect and respect for others. Think of a boundary like a fence around your house. You can lock it when you don’t want someone to come in, and open it when you do want them to come in. You can let someone know you don’t like to be hugged, but if there comes a moment where you need a hug, you can “unlock your fence” and let them know you’d like a hug. A boundary is put in place to protect you, not as a way to control others. 

In order to be in a relationship, we need to know how we want to be treated and how to treat others. We do this by establishing and sharing clear boundaries: likes and dislikes, desires and disgusts, etc. 

How to create a boundary with someone: 

Know yourself and own what you like and don’t like.

Pay attention to how you feel about the way people treat you. If you don’t like something, or notice you’re feeling angry or resentful, this is the signal a boundary needs to be set. 

Clearly state what you don’t like, and let the person know what you would like to happen.

This creates accountability for if it happens again. For example:

Ann: “Mary, I don’t like it when you pull on my jacket. Please stop doing that right now, and don’t do it again.”

Mary: “Oh! Okay. I’ll stop. Thanks for telling me you don’t like that; I didn’t know. I won’t do it again.” 

People cannot read your mind or assume things correctly on your behalf, so you have to share and tell them information about you. 

You are under no obligation to explain yourself (no, you did not sign a contract with this person stating that you must explain yourself at all times) so feel free to share or not share your reasoning. Stating how you want to be treated is enough. Using the example above if Ann wanted to share why she doesn’t like her jacket pulled:

Ann: “Thanks Mary. It is just really distracting to me and reminds me of my little annoying brother who does it to me all the time, and I don’t want to think about you that way, too.”

It’s never too late to let someone know how you want to be treated, no matter where you are in your relationship. 

Holding boundaries

Holding your boundary is sometimes the most difficult part. In the event someone crosses your boundary after you have clearly stated it, you have already created accountability by letting the person by stating clearly what you don’t like and won’t tolerate. Use this event to recall the boundary to the person who crossed it. For example:

Ann: “Hey Mary, remember last time when I told you to stop pulling on my jacket and you agreed to not do it again?” 

Mary: “Oh! Right. Sorry; I’ll stop.”

Consequences

People won’t always remember your boundary. 

It’s up to you how many times you are willing to hold them accountable and remind them that they are crossing it. For example: 

Ann: “Mary, remember when I asked you not to pull on my jacket and you agreed not to?”

Mary: “Oh! Yes, I’m sorry. It’s a habit and I think I might need a few more reminders before I remember to stop. Would that be ok?”

Ann: “Thanks. Yes, I am willing to remind you a few more times. If it keeps happening though, I’m not going to play outside with you anymore.”

When you’ve met your threshold, or when it becomes clear to you that the other person refuses to accept your boundary because they continue to cross it despite reminders, you need to create consequences and hold them. For example:

Ann: “Mary, I’ve asked you a lot of times to stop pulling on my jacket, but you continue to do it even though I’ve reminded you a few times, so I’m not going to play outside with you anymore.” 

Mary: “Okay. But what if I promise not to do it again?”

Ann: “Sorry, Mary. I’ve given you multiple chances, but since it keeps happening, I need to find someone to play with.” 

Mary: “I don’t see what the big deal is.”

Ann: “I know. And that’s why I need to find someone else to play with.”

Why are boundaries important for kids?

  • Safety: Boundaries protect children from physical and emotional harm.

  • Respect: Teaching boundaries fosters respect for oneself and others.

  • Healthy Relationships: Knowing boundaries helps in forming and maintaining healthy relationships.

  • Empowerment: Children with boundaries are more likely to make informed decisions.

Age-Appropriate Boundary Setting:

Ages 0-6

  •  Physical Boundaries

    • Creating safe spaces at home

    • Teaching "stranger danger"

    • Encouraging appropriate physical affection

  • Emotional Boundaries

    • Acknowledging and validating emotions

    • Encouraging verbal expression of feelings

    • Teaching empathy and active listening

Ages 7–12

  • Social Boundaries

    • Respect for personal space

    • Appropriate language and tone

    • Online safety and privacy

  • Encouraging age-appropriate decision-making

    • Homework and chores routines

    • Setting technology and screen-time limits

Ages 13–18

  • Independence vs. Boundaries

    • Balancing freedom and responsibility

    • Consent and personal boundaries in relationships

    • Financial boundaries

  • Online Boundaries

    • Discussing online safety and privacy

    • Social media etiquette and digital footprint

    • Encouraging responsible screen time

Teaching children about boundaries is an ongoing process that evolves as they mature. By fostering a safe and nurturing environment, leading by example, and providing consistent guidance, parents can help their children develop the essential skills needed to navigate relationships, make responsible choices, and thrive in a world full of boundaries and expectations. Building strong foundations in boundary-setting ultimately contributes to raising confident, empathetic, and resilient individuals.

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