Creative Child

The Importance of Boundaries with Kids and How to Set Them

by Rebecca Eanes

It’s no secret that I’m a proponent of positive parenting. I’ve written several books and hundreds of articles over the past 12 years about the topic. One aspect that I have found to be most confusing to parents is how to set (and stick to) boundaries, particularly without the threat of punishment to back them up.

Boundaries can be confusing and even uncomfortable. Many parents are afraid to set and enforce boundaries for fear of making their child angry with them, or perhaps they want to avoid the inevitable power struggle that will ensue. They worry that it will harm the relationship in some way. Yet others feel boundaries are just another type of control. On the other end of the spectrum are the parents who have no trouble whatsoever being very firm and sticking to those boundaries relentlessly. There is no wiggle room, and the consequences are swift. Neither of these approaches is optimal. 

Let me explain why.

Boundaries are a necessary part of any healthy relationship, and this includes the parent-child relationship. Consider the lines on the road. Without them, there’d be chaos. The lines are boundaries that show us where we can safely operate. Without proper boundaries, our children wouldn’t feel safe. While it may seem they’re fighting for control, they’re really asking for autonomy within boundaries. Children don’t want to be controlled, but they also aren’t capable of being in control. What they need is what Susan Stiffelman refers to as a Captain of the Ship. 

She explains “Captains exude a calm authority. They don’t leap over the side of the ship when there’s a storm or a problem. What children need is the security of knowing that someone capable and loving is nearby to help them navigate life.”

This “captain of the ship” imagery really helped me, as a young parent, to understand how to be a loving, kind authority. Best-selling author and gentle parenting expert L.R. Knost explains boundaries beautifully. She says, “Boundaries are not barbed-wire fences, love. Boundaries are the poetry and prose that tell others how to love, respect, and connect with us. Boundaries are the choreography of our relationships, guiding the steps of our interactions. Boundaries are love in action.”

Knost explains that healthy boundaries are not selfish, controlling, demanding, unreasonable or unloving. They are self-honoring, confident, secure, reasonable, and rooted in love. 

So, a lack of boundaries is clearly not good for parents or children, but what about being super strict about them? There are a couple of problems with having no wiggle room and going straight to consequences. The first is that being inflexible causes parents to overlook the reason behind the struggle or behavior. The reason behind the behavior (and the human behind the behavior) always matters. Very often, children misbehave because of big feelings they don’t know how to deal with or because they’re lacking in skill due to development. When we don’t consider these things, we miss important teaching/healing opportunities.

Second, being too strict will actually trigger your child’s natural instinct to push back. Mother Nature wired children so that they are resistant to anyone they do not feel connected to. Ruling with an iron fist erodes connection because children don’t feel seen, heard, or respected, and this invites power struggles. 

Here are five keys to setting and holding effective boundaries:

Understand what is developmentally possible. Many times, we set expectations that are beyond our children’s maturity or development level. Toddlers, for example, have very underdeveloped prefrontal cortices. This is the area of the brain responsible for reasoning, for understanding cause and effect, and for emotional control and regulation. When we expect toddlers to “stop and think about their actions,” we are expecting something they aren’t even cognitively capable of doing yet. It helps to understand basic child and brain development for this reason. Even teens, although they may be taller than us and look quite grown, still have brains that are under construction. They don’t always have access to the higher brain functions that aren’t fully developed until around age 25. This explains they’re moody and sometimes risky behaviors, but it doesn’t excuse them. It just means they need us to step in with our logical, fully formed brains and help them make the right choices. 

Lead with kindness and firmness. It’s not that positive parents have different boundaries, it’s that we set them differently. There is still no hitting, no pulling the cat’s tail, no throwing toys at your baby brother’s head, but when we set boundaries, we come alongside our children rather than at them. This means you are very clear about what you expect and what you will accept, but you’re also respectful and kind, honoring your child as a person, too.

Hold with respect and empathy. When your child pushes against your boundary, you hold it with respect and empathy. You might say, “I understand that you really want cookies for breakfast. That does sound delicious, but it’s not what your body needs to grow strong.” If you’re parenting a teen, it sounds like “I know you want to go camping with your friends, but I have some concerns I want to discuss” or “The agreement was that, if you broke curfew again, you wouldn’t go out this weekend. I know you’re upset about that, and it sucks you now have to miss the game.”

Come up with a solution. Punishments very rarely help children do better because they don’t provide a solution. If a child knows what not to do but doesn’t have the skills or cognitive ability to do something different, punishment will not solve it, only teaching or time will. Solutions vary by age, and may include a time-in for your toddler or preschooler, allowing natural consequences for your older child, or a logical solution. For example, a child who failed math would benefit more from a tutor or a study schedule than losing his PlayStation.

Reaffirm the attachment relationship. Anytime there is conflict or correction, it’s important to repair any rifts and reaffirm the attachment. This is easily done by saying, “We’re ok. I love you!” and spending quality time together. Healthy relationships don’t harbor resentment, so it’s important to move on. 

Remember, while boundaries can be tricky, and holding them in the face of a screaming child requires great emotional maturity, as parents, this is how we be the calm captain that steers our children in the right direction with loving authority.

Rebecca Eanes is the bestselling author of multiple books including Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide, The Positive Parenting Workbook, and The Gift of a Happy Mother. She is the grateful mom of two boys. 


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