When the kids are young, it’s little things like how many times we tuck them in at night or where they sit at the dinner table. As they grow up they introduce new boundary issues like the money they need for the movie or phones, tablets and other electronic. It can be hard to draw a line in the sand and stick to it. It can be difficult to find the perfect balance between nurturing our children and nurturing ourselves. There is no getting around the fact that kids are persistent. As we start this important discussion about setting healthy, appropriate and kind boundaries it’s important to remember that boundaries are an important part of healthy, nurturing relationships.
If done well boundaries nurture and strengthen our relationships. They protect us and our children. Boundaries help create safety and security as well as other important personal and social skills. They help us to guard against resentment and other negative feelings that can crush relationships.
Knowing when and how to say “no” and when to say “yes” can have a huge impact on our life and parenting. Like most things in life, the extremes are where we get in trouble. Positive, gentle, effective parenting never requires being harsh and punitive but neither does it require passivity and sacrificial martyrdom. When we attempt to set boundaries by cruel, forceful means the result is guilt and regret. Force encourages defiance and anger in our children. However, when we fail to set appropriate boundaries at all we tend to feel victimized and resentful. We incite entitlement in our kids when there are not clear limits.
The alternative happy-medium, of course, is to set appropriate limits and boundaries with firmness and kindness. But HOW do we do it? Here are 5 principles to help you set and follow through with firm and kind boundaries…
Manage your emotions and subsequent actions. Have a “go to” plan when emotions get high and follow through with your plan even when it is uncomfortable to do so. One of our greatest struggles, not only as a parent but as people in general, is to be aware and manage our own emotional reactions. It’s important to recognize that emotions and actions are not the same. We have more power over our emotions than we often think we do. That doesn’t mean that we completely control our emotions at any given time. Sometimes things happen and we have automatic emotional reactions. It does mean that we can be stressed, frustrated and/or angry without being cruel or punitive. When we are aware of these reactions, we have power to change them as well as act intentionally rather than impulsively. Setting effective, healthy boundaries demands that we make conscious, positive decisions and we must acknowledge and manage our emotions in order to do this. TRU Parenting’s online course, “Stop Yelling in 21 Days” gives parents the tools and support they need to become masters of their emotions. It goes beyond emotions only to help parents set boundaries that will change the negative cycles and make each day a little easier. Make sure to register before our next course begins. Register HERE.
It’s okay to say “no.” We don’t always have to use the word “no” in order to establish firm boundaries but just because your child doesn’t like it doesn’t mean it is wrong to say it. There is nothing mean or cruel about saying “no.” It’s all about the delivery. When we have children that are extremely reactive to the word “no” it can be helpful to say “no” with a “yes.” We can do this by saying something like, “Yes, you are welcome to go play as soon as you have cleaned up your room” or “You bet! You are welcome to to go to Jimmy’s house after school tomorrow. Tonight is not the right time to play with Jimmy.” Sometimes our “no” comes in the form of simply informing our children of what we will or will not do. For example, we may state, “I will read to you for 20 minutes and then I need to make dinner” or “I’m not going to stay in this room and get yelled at or hit when you are angry. I would love to talk to you when you are calm. Let me know if I can help you calm down.” The bottom line is that saying “no” is important, but there are lots of kind, effective ways to say “no” that don’t require just barking out that two letter word “no” every time we turn around.
Know what boundaries are and what they are not. Understand the difference between “responsibility to” vs. “responsibility for.” As parents we have plenty of responsibilities to our children. We are responsible to feed them, clothe them, treat them with kindness and teach them skills and values. We are not responsible for how they respond. Once I have fulfilled my responsibility to me child, I am not obligated to make them agree with me or apply what I have taught. When we take the responsibility for our kids actions even after we have fulfilled our own duty to our kids, we misunderstand what boundaries truly are and we start to overstep our children’s’ boundaries. We rob them of there own responsibilities. Boundaries have nothing to do with force or coercion. Boundaries are about what we will and will not do. It is a declaration of who we are and how we are separate from those around us. Boundaries are different than limits and consequences. Boundaries, limits and consequences do not require punishment but are all part of teaching our children. We can think of boundaries like a fence that keeps intruders out and our own greatest treasures in. With our children and families boundaries can sometimes become blurred because we live in such close proximity both physically and emotionally. Boundaries not only help us to feel comfortable and safe but are the foundation of healthy vulnerability and closeness in our parent/child relationships. They allow us to decide where to put our gates through which we extend the special privilege of crossing appropriate lines to participate intimately in each other’s lives.
Be intimately acquainted with yourself, understand the cost and be decisive. I recently wrote an article called “Know Thyself.” Knowing ourselves is the beginning of healthy boundaries with our kids. It’s important to understand what our own boundaries are and that they do not come without a cost. We all have likes and dislikes. We all have preferences and at some time we will all be called upon to sacrifice or give something of ourselves for the sake of another. Every choice or boundary we make has a trade-off that we must be willing to make in order to establish a firm boundary. One of the keys of healthy, kind boundaries is to be aware of the trade-offs involved and to make a solid decision about where we stand, while fully understanding and accepting the cost of that decision. Each boundary we set is like making a purchase. Every time we buy something we make a decision whether we want the money and the other things we could buy with that money or whether we want that specific item. When we don’t consider the trade-offs of a purchase, that’s when we walk to the car and experience the sinking feeling of buyers remorse.
Stick to your guns while you maintain kindness. If you have done the other things mentioned here, this part will be much easier. When we set a boundary we have to be willing to pay the price of following through with enforcing that boundary. Sometimes following through is not convenient or fun. If I sit down to dinner and my son says, “Dad, I wanted the blue cup, not the red cup” and I want to eat dinner instead of go get a blue cup I can set a boundary by saying, “I know you would like the blue cup and you are welcome to switch the red and blue cup if you would like but I am eating dinner now. I’m not going to get it.” If you wanted to make the boundary conditional upon a timeframe that was more convenient for you, you could add, “I would be happy to get the blue cup for you after I am done eating but if you would like me to get the cup you will have to wait until I’m done eating.” The child may complain or whine. That may be the cost of setting the boundary but following through allows your child to learn to respect and accept your boundaries and the boundaries of others’ over time.
Setting boundaries is about making firm decisions about what we will or will not do, declaring clearly what we will or will not do and then doing what we said we would or would not do.
Sometimes, especially with kids and family members, we decide to open the gates of our fences we place are around our hearts and lives. This can be important to special relationships. For example, I talk to my wife about things that I don’t talk to anyone else about. I am more physically touchy and affectionate with my wife and children than with other people in my life. Sometimes I make exceptions to the rules of my general boundaries that I keep with the rest of the world with my family, but it’s important to remember that all of these exceptions and choices are my own. I am not a victim when others cross invisible lines that I have not defined. I am not a martyr when I do things for others that I did not want to do. I am a decision maker, an active participant in what happens in my own life. I get to make the decisions about where those lines are drawn and what trade-offs I am willing to trade.
Boundaries are not only about restrictions but can be what we give of our time, energy and resources. If I promise my son that I will take him out for ice cream tomorrow, I am setting a boundary about how I will use my time. It is just as important or more so to follow through on these type of boundaries as it is on the restrictive boundaries we place in our lives. So it’s time to go make hard choices, declare those choices and then take firm but gentle and kind action to carry out those choices.
Other resources to help you set and stick to firm and kind boundaries:
Listen to Dr. Henry Cloud’s amazing audio book “Boundaries” on Audible for FREE by clicking the link below. (This is an affiliate link. Thanks for supporting TRU Parenting!)