Teaching kids how to set boundaries has been a popular topic of discussion in multiple parenting groups I am in. As more adults work on boundaries for their mental health, the conversation has turned to how to create children with boundaries. While this can seem daunting for some, it’s actually easier than you might believe. Setting and enforcing boundaries can be a game-changer for kids. Here are a few tips for teaching kids about boundary setting.
Helping Kids Learn to Set Boundaries
Please know that every parent will handle the conversation in a different way in their home. I don’t claim to be an expert. I can only speak from my experience raising my children. Please modify any advice in this post to fit your situation and what is healthiest for your children.
What are boundaries?
There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to boundaries. So often people assume setting boundaries means building a wall around yourself. Another assumption is that it means you are trying to control another person. Some even think boundaries are just a way of making someone leave you alone. These are all false. Instead, boundaries can be defined as the following:
Boundaries – Setting a limit to keep the relationship healthy for all parties involved.
Boundary education starts at home!
When it comes to boundaries, our children are watching us every day. They are watching how we do or do not set boundaries with those we interact with. This means that before we even start to teach, we have already taught a great deal. As a parent, we need to make it a priority to be boundaried people before teaching our children. Having a healthy approach to it ourselves is the best model for any child. Here are a few areas to focus on.
- How am I modeling boundaries with my time? – Time is one of the scarcest resources in parenting. There is always another phone call, event, friend who needs us, or plan to keep up with. Setting some restrictions with your time can teach volumes. This could include saying you won’t pick up the phone during family dinner, commit to taking on extra jobs, or even saying no to things that don’t need your time. Use your time as a great place to model boundary setting.
- How am I modeling boundaries with my personal space? – One of the BEST areas to model boundaries is with your personal space. As a mom who gets “touched out” and just needs to not be touched sometimes, I am a huge advocate of setting boundaries with my personal space. It is completely acceptable to tell a child you don’t want a hug, hand hold, or other physical touch without feeling guilt.
- How am I modeling boundaries in my relationships? – Another area boundaries are essential is within relationships. This can include your relationship with your partner, your friends, or people you interact with in other settings. Children watch out relationships closely and notice when people hurt us. Setting clear boundaries with people will help our children to see that they have the right to set boundaries as well.
How do you teach boundaries to preschoolers?
When most people think of boundary setting, they think of older ages. However, the foundation for learning about setting these limits can start when children are in preschool. While they may not fully understand the word boundary, they will understand the idea that there are some things that aren’t ok. Working on boundaries with preschoolers can lay a strong foundation for future emotional development. Here are a few ways to work on boundaries with preschoolers.
- Start with personal space. – One of the best areas to start working on setting boundaries with preschoolers is with their personal space. This can start with saying no to touch they don’t want such as a hug from grandma or sitting on an uncle’s lap. Teaching children that they own their personal space at a young age can be a great way to set them up to set boundaries around their personal space as they get older.
For some parents, this can be difficult. It’s hard the first time your little one doesn’t want a hug or doesn’t want to be held. Teaching them that when safety isn’t a part of it, they can say no to touch is a good place to start with educating preschoolers about boundary setting.
- Teach through play. – When children play they have an opportunity to learn about about the world they live in in a fun way. There are a few ways to teach about boundaries using play. It can be as simple as letting a child say no to sharing until they’ve finished with a toy. Telling children to “share” a toy they were enjoying is a small violation of their boundaries. Give them the ability to find a kind way to share that doesn’t involve giving up things they are actively enjoying.
Another way to teach preschoolers through play is to immitate social situations they might encounter with the toys. Keep it light and fun but help them to understand when and how they can say no or ask someone to back off and give them space.
- “I don’t like that because” – While this term may be a little hard for younger preschoolers, older preschoolers will be able to understand it more. Teach your preschooler to say, “I don’t like this because” and fill in why something bothers them. Sometimes a no is because they just want what they want. Other times it may be that something scares them, makes them feel overwhelmed, or even hurts them. Being able to say in some small way, “I don’t like this because it’s scratchy” or “I don’t like this because it’s scary” can be a game changer for preschooler and help them to learn about boundaries.
How do you teach elementary children to set boundaries?
As children move into early elementary they start to experience more social situations than they may have when they were younger. This can mean that they have to learn how to set boundaries around those relationships. It also means they are developing a better understanding of the concept of boundaries. It can move from an abstract concept to a very real concept they have to explore. Here are a few areas to focus on with elementary children.
- Use real life examples. – Teaching emotional concepts to elementary children can be a bit easier because they are able to make connections to examples. One great example of boundaries is a trip to the zoo. It might look something like this:
“Do you enjoy visiting the tigers? Isn’t it neat how they come up to the glass and can visit with you? Would you still feel safe if the glass and walls weren’t between you and the tiger? Why not? Tigers could hurt you without boundaries to protect you. When we have people in our lives there may be things they do that hurt us or make us scared. We can put up boundaries to keep things safe when dealing with them.”
- Use social interactions. – Social interactions in Elementary school expose children to some difficult situations. It’s also a great opportunity to have conversations about boundaries. When my oldest was smaller a peer had a habit of hugging her without asking. She hated it. We sat and talked about boundaries. I talked her through it and told her, “Why not try saying something like ‘I like when you hug me but only if you ask first so please ask first.'” That simple change still allows the hug but on her terms.
Take some time to hold conversations about how they are interacting with their peers when they are having bad social encounters but also when they are having good ones. Boundaries are not just meant to prevent negative behaviors. They are meant to promote positive ones. When you hear of your kids being treated well, it can help to look at the good boundaries they respect and how it benefits them.
- Empower them to set boundaries with family and at home. – Elementary aged children are starting to become independent in small ways. This is a great time to let them set boundaries aroudn topics they’re uncomfortable discussing, privacy, and how others interact with them. This doesn’t mean giving your child control of other people. Instead, boundaries are about saying to others, “If you touch me that way, talk about that topic around me, or make me feel unsafe I need to remove myself from this.” Giving your children the right to set and hold boundaries with you will give you the ability to see that they aren’t just using them as a way to control others.
How do you teach boundary setting to teens?
Teaching boundaries to teens is one of the most important ages to focus on boundaries. In middle and high school teens are learning how to function independent of their parents. This is the age when your children will start to test your boundaries as they learn theirs. It can be a challenging age but the work you do here will leave a huge impact on their future relationships. Here are a few things to keep in mind when working on boundary setting with teens.
- Start with a conversation of what boundaries are NOT. – In this age, setting boundaries can look a lot like being controlling. Middle school and high school aged kids can have a harder time with tone and with communicating boundaries without coming across demanding. Spend some time discussing that boundaries are not meant to control the other person. They are a way of communicating to someone where the line is and letting them know what happens if they don’t respect that line.
- Focus on HOW to communicate boundaries. – Teens can be very blunt about things. For instance, the statement, “I don’t like you talking to me like that, you have to stop,” is a bad way to set a boundary. Instead, “When you mock me for the way I dress, it hurts my feelings. If you want to stay friends, I need you to not do that.” This clearly coomunicates a boundary while leaving room for the relationship to stay intact. It also gives a clear definition of what won’t be accepted if the relationship needs to end.
- Acknowlege the social component. – Social dynamics get complicated in the middle an high school age range. It can make boundary setting incredibly difficult. There are strong social implications of deciding to refuse someone to behave a way towards you that you aren’t comfortable with. As you talk about boundary setting with teens it’s important to discuss how to handle the social ramifications of boundary setting and why it is important to choose your own mental health and safety over social standing.