Boundaries With Kids

What are boundaries? What is their purpose? What does it take to make them clear to all the people involved? How do you know when it’s time to change the boundaries? Who is responsible for keeping the boundaries once they’ve been made clear and agreed to? What happens when boundaries are crossed or ignored?

I thought I knew about good boundaries, then my husband and I had an interaction last month that has me calling into question all these things. I made an offer and stated a boundary. The offer was accepted, but both my husband and I ignored the boundary. Then instead of connection and relaxation our interaction lead to some tense conversation and disconnected feelings that night, followed-up by more conversation with much less tension and a better feeling of connection the next morning. We’ve since used this misunderstanding as a way to increase our clarity with each other and be more respectful of our boundaries. Still the situation has me calling into question the issue of boundaries in general.

We are often admonished as parents to set good boundaries with our children. Not so permissive that they run wild. Not so strict that they can’t develop any personality at all. But what are boundaries really? And how do we set them? And how do we maintain them in the face of changing circumstances?

What are boundaries?

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for him- or herself what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around him or her and how he or she will respond when someone steps outside those limits.[1]
‘Personal boundaries define you as an individual. They are statements of what you will or won’t do, what you like and don’t like…how close someone can get to you’

I like this definition for us as individual adults. But what does it mean to set boundaries for our children? Are we just letting them know what is and is not OK for them to do around us or are we educating them in the wider world of what’s OK and not OK to do around anyone? A lot of the first and some of the second, in my opinion.

What is the purpose of Boundaries?

Boundaries are meant to provide the container that holds the energy. They are the cup that holds the water. They are the riverbank that holds the river and keeps it flowing rather than flooding out all over the place. They are meant to enhance the interaction and connection through allowing all involved to feel safe and able to ‘let go’ because they know it won’t go too far (too far being past each person’s particular boundaries).

Boundaries are specific to the people involved and the circumstances. “No yelling” is a rule at dinner, a guideline walking through town, and completely irrelevant when we’re playing in the pond. In our house, “no yelling” is a circumstantial boundary. “Pens are only for drawing on paper, not people.” is a rule for grandmother, a guideline for dad, and not true at all for me unless we’re just out of the bath. So this one is both person dependent and circumstantial. When we start to look at why, when, and how boundaries are made, upheld, and broken we can start to get a more compassionate sense of why are children have a hard time with boundaries and why they test them.

Boundaries are guardians.

What does it take to make them clear to all the people involved?

  • Making a clear statement and having it reflected back to me (or reflecting it back to the other person) then both of us agreeing that’s what we want and that’s what we’re going to do.
  • Putting agreements in writing for longer term more stable boundaries which all read and sign.
  • Talking about boundaries to get clear on what they really mean, what are the underlying fears, beliefs, and assumptions? Looking at boundary setting not as ‘something to get done in order to get to something better’ but allowing boundary setting to be part of establishing trust, communication, and flow. Giving it the time and energy to make the boundaries things we all feel good about. Clear understanding is part of feeling good.

I have resisted doing all of this thinking I would appear too bossy, too controlling, too vulnerable, or not spontaneous enough. Since I believe I have a tendency to be too bossy, too controlling and not spontaneous enough while also fearing people will hurt me if I am vulnerable, I have avoided setting clear boundaries.  I’m starting to see that setting truly clear boundaries might allow me to relax some of that tension I’m always holding. That would be a good thing.

How do you know when it’s time to change the boundaries?

This can be a hard one for me. How do I know when it’s time to change my boundaries? I think getting clearer on their purpose, being able to really talk about boundaries, and just generally getting good boundary skills into my life habits will make it much easier to know when I want to change my boundaries. After all, if it hasn’t been clearly set, it may be even harder to clearly change.

Another skill for both setting and changing boundaries is developing more tolerance for annoying or upsetting someone else. If my primary need is to keep everyone’s feathers from being ruffled, it will be hard for me to figure out what I want and what I want to ask for. I tend to really want people to like me. Yet asking for what I want may set off strong feelings in the other person or group. Being able to sit with those strong feelings without getting defensive is another important skill for boundary setting.

It’s also important to look at your personal level of resources. Sometimes it’s totally easy and clear for me to say “yes” or  “no”, sometimes it’s not. When I am tired, sick, grumpy, sad or in other ways exhibiting signs of being depleted, it’s much harder for me to have an authentic heart-open boundary. That’s when I’m more likely to acquiesce to something I don’t feel I’m really agreeing to or don’t really want. Definitely not the time to change boundaries.

So for me, it’s a good idea to make the agreements to change boundaries when everyone has had enough sleep, is healthy, looking in each other’s eyes and in other ways showing signs of being clear headed and open hearted enough that what we each are saying is truly what we want and mean.

Who is responsible for keeping the boundaries once they’ve been clearly stated and agreed to?

All the people who agreed to keep the boundary are responsible for keeping it. As everyone has explicitly agreed, it becomes the responsibility of all involved to notice and gently redirect the energy if it is coming close to crossing the boundary. This is true of adult interactions and would be a delightful way to maintain boundaries with our children. Instead of the boundary being arbitrarily placed by one parent with no consent from the other or the children, all involved have committed to a standard of behavior and an “out” if that behavior can no longer be maintained. This sets up a teamwork approach to behavior rather than a top-down hierarchy where the kid is trying to get away with anything they can, one parent is trying to control them, and the other parent is oblivious to the whole thing.

What happens when boundaries are crossed or ignored?

There are two ways I want to look at this – the ideal and my habitual reaction.

The habitual – I feel sad, hurt, and angry to varying degrees. I think the other person should not have done what they did. I forget to take self-responsibility and tend to blame and focus on the ‘other’. I am much less likely to be open and vulnerable again, unless the situation resolves in a way that establishes 1) we both see and accept responsibility for our parts in crossing the boundary 2) we both see and commit to other behaviors in the future that will respect both of our boundaries and 3) we take actions to heal any damages (as opposed to saying ‘sorry’ and leaving it at that). When those three conditions are met, then the whole situation tends to land in me as a good thing, a learning opportunity and tends to increase my trust in myself, the other person, and the relationship. When those conditions are not met, I tend to pull back from that person, that relationship, and to try not to put myself in similar situations again (or I start fighting with myself. Open. Don’t open. I should open. I don’t want to. I do want to. etc etc).

The ideal – How do I ideally imagine responding when a boundary is crossed or ignored? Ideally, I’d like to have more awareness when boundaries are being approached so that it doesn’t feel so abrupt and disruptive to suddenly notice “we’ve gone too far”.  Instead we can gently redirect the energy before the boundary is crossed. My ideal is to be clear enough and all in agreement about the boundaries enough that we don’t cross them, that they aren’t ignored. But if they are, a key for me is coming together gently, remembering each other’s vulnerability and remembering the good intentions that may have gotten overrun in the moment. Ideally, I would be gentle with both (all) of us involved rather than blaming or withdrawing.

by Kassandra Brown, Parent Coach