Tips To Teach Kids Boundaries

31st October, 2017
Julia Lamberti

Why are boundaries so important?

“Boundaries fulfil many important functions in a child’s development,” says Pam Gillingham, an experienced social worker and counsellor from Johannesburg. “From toddler years onwards, children learn important life lessons, such as patience, emotional self-regulation and tolerance,” she continues. Pam adds that boundaries provide a sense of security, safety and predictability – all of which are building blocks for emotional well-being. “The ability to make healthy choices independently, at a later age, is also learnt through experiencing effectual limit-setting early on in life,” she explains. So what are effective strategies that parents can use to teach children to set and adhere to boundaries?

1 Talk It Through

“Children need to be children, not pseudo-adults who haven’t yet developed the psycho-social and mental maturity or life experience to make adult decisions,” says Pam. “However, it is also important for children to feel heard and know that their wishes and opinions matter too.” Pam says that conversations that help children understand their parents’ reasons for rules or decisions, and listening to your child’s thoughts about it, will provide your young one with a sense of respect and self-worth. “These positive interactions will provide grounding to cooperation,” she explains. “Providing structure and limits within a loving, democratic environment is really the balance to strive for,” she advises.

2 Teach Them To Say “No”

“Teaching children to say ‘no’ and to be assertive from a young age is important,” says Pam. This is because it gives kids the skills needed to speak up and make choices based on what they want – not what their peers want them to do. Learning to say ‘no’ can also help them to avoid situations that make them uncomfortable or could possibly cause them harm. In addition, kids need to learn that saying ‘no’ to an unreasonable or unacceptable request from a peer or adult is well within their rights.

Pam explains that toddlers have a tendency to say ‘no’ in order to establish a sense of independence. “However, it is also important to listen carefully and, if saying ‘no’ indicates their need for personal space, this should be respected,” she says. “But, one also needs to determine when parental control should override this – without minimising their self-worth,” she adds. Pam further reiterates that negotiation and communication are critical when teaching kids to say ‘no’.

3 Provide Structure

Providing structure involves setting limits and boundaries, giving guidance, passing on your values and teaching children how to behave. A parent can do this by setting standards of behaviour, establishing consequences for breaking rules and following through on those consequences. “Remember, that children think in concrete ways until about the age of 12, so strategies like teaching them to look after their toys, clean up their own mess and keep promises, for example, are practical ways that children can start to learn boundaries,” asserts Pam.

4 Consistency Is Key

“As a parent, setting routines and remaining consistent are important,” says Pam. “Consistent meal, bath and bed times, how much screen time or TV is permitted, specific homework time and how many and how often sweets or treats are allowed, are all ways to teach children boundaries,” she explains.

Consistency teaches children to recognise what is acceptable, helps shape their belief system and gives kids the conviction to stand up for what they believe and assert their own boundaries. Pam also insists that consistency with discipline is important and it is critical to follow through with your expectations and consequences.

5 Shift the Goal Posts

Remember that boundaries are dynamic and change as your child matures. Thus, it is important to adjust boundaries as your child’s understanding, needs and maturity level evolves. From a baby’s growing coordination and figuring out of spatial relations to young children’s development of a sense of others and learning to operate in the world, every age group requires different boundaries and developmentally appropriate expectations.

6 Develop An Awareness Around Others

Having age-appropriate conversations with children around their own and others’ feelings is another way to teach children boundaries, asserts Pam. She suggest unpacking scenarios with kids, such as: “Mary doesn’t seem to like being hugged so much, what other ways can you think of showing her that you like her without hugging her?” She adds that an awareness of others and emotional intelligence is necessary to understand what constitutes appropriate verbal and non-verbal behaviours and that teaching emotional awareness can start at a young age.

“Empathy for and assertiveness with others are important skills in learning boundaries,” says Pam “This can be learnt and developed through parental modelling, conversations about situations that arise on a daily basis and reading and discussing children’s stories.”

7 Create Consequences

“Creating norms about physical and emotional boundaries where, for example, inflicting any form of harm to others is disallowed, and having consequences for this behaviour, is important,” says Pam. “Consequences could be decided upon together, depending on the age of the child,” she adds.

It is also important that children are aware of the consequences of their choices if they decide to ignore a boundary or limit. Another good approach is to make the consequence in direct connection to the offense and ensure that it is age appropriate.

8 Teach Them About “Personal Space”

Everyone has a comfort zone when it comes to physical contact and personal boundaries. Thus, children should be taught to recognise boundaries around ‘safety’ and ‘respect’. Forcing a child to be held or hugged by someone when they are not comfortable disrespects their boundaries. It is in forcing or making children dismiss their own feelings that confusion and self-doubt sets in. Furthermore, this can lead to children devaluing their own needs, instincts and emotions as they age.

9 Clarity is Key

Giving directives and setting limits with children requires concise and definitive language, body language and facial expressions. Using statements like “I don’t really want you to hit your sister” or using “OK?” after sentences makes you sound wishy-washy and unsure of yourself. Instead use, crisp, clear language that stipulates exactly what you mean. Studies also show that non-verbal signals, like body language and facial expressions, are an integral part of the communication process.

An excellent tip is to physically lower yourself to the level of your child and speak to them in a calm, neutral tone, at close proximity. Avoid high-pitched tones or screaming as this could over-stimulate or scare your young child and detract from their feeling of connection with you. This, in turn, can affect their ability to emotionally self-regulate.

10 Be A Role Model

Children watch and learn from your interactions and they will model your behaviour. Thus, if you are respectful of other people’s boundaries, this can be one of the most powerful teaching tools. For instance, if a parent screams at or hits their child or a partner, this sends the message that violence and disrespecting others is how feelings are communicated.

Naturally, there are times when a parent will feel angry or upset. However, managing these feelings in a way that still communicates respect for the other people’s thoughts, feelings and body is important. This also offers your child an example of how to better manage difficult feelings and situations – within acceptable boundaries.

Teaching your children the importance of boundaries will make for a happier and more emotionally stable childhood and a calmer and more nurturing home environment. This critical life skill will also ensure that they grow up to be grounded, disciplined and respectful adults and teach their children this invaluable lesson in turn.