Setting Boundaries

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Setting boundaries with kids can feel like one of the trickiest parts of gentle parenting, much like walking on an emotional tightrope. Ouiam El Hassani tells us how to set and follow them.

As parents, we worry that if we’re too harsh, we’re going down the slippery slope of authoritarian parenting. You know… “My way or the highway”. We don’t want to do that. On the flip side, if we’re too permissive in our parenting boundaries, we know that doesn’t bode well for our children either.

We all understand the importance of healthy boundaries with kids, but what should those boundaries look like? How do we hold our kids accountable without damaging them? And, what does it look like if our child doesn’t seem to be respecting the boundaries we’ve set?
When we set and follow through on healthy boundaries with kids, it helps them with their executive functioning skills. Further, it encourages emotional regulation, helps them develop problem-solving skills, and feel more connected to us because they know what we expect of them. These things are correlated with higher self-esteem and better long-term outcomes in their personal, academic, and professional lives.

Part of setting healthy boundaries is being proactive. Children simply often don’t know what’s expected of them since there’s so much to learn and they may have trouble remembering all the ‘rules’ sometimes. They simply don’t have the life experience we do to know what is considered normal behaviour.

Tell them upfront what to expect before they encounter new situations. Then lovingly reinforce the boundary as many times as you need to, because to a young child, it’s a lot to process! The more you practice setting boundaries with kids when they’re young, the easier it is for them to self-regulate when they get older.

When you set boundaries for young children, think of the ‘big picture’. What’s the most important takeaway you want your child to know? Focus on that and let the rest go, so they focus on the core message.

Help kids succeed when you set healthy boundaries by letting them have a say in the details. Their buy-in is directly related to the amount of input they feel they’ve had in the process.

The words you choose in your approach matter greatly. It is better to present a problem statement and approach it as a collaborative problem-solving process. Once you’ve addressed the problem statement, you can turn it into a family agreement rather than a ‘rule’. Oftentimes, when a child has big feelings about boundaries, it’s either because they feel they didn’t have enough of a vote or if they didn’t truly understand why the boundary was important.

If they feel they didn’t have enough of a vote but it’s non-negotiable, do your best to hold space for their feelings without getting defensive. Trust that if they’re opening up to you about their displeasure, they’re still opening up to you — and you want to reinforce that you’re a safe place to do that. Let your tone, your words, and your heart be gentle with them.

When you’re an emotionally safe place for your child, they’ll learn that even when all of their behaviours might not be acceptable, all of their feelings are. The empathy you show your child while you’re navigating boundaries together will connect you both. Your relationship will be stronger for working alongside them.