Setting Boundaries at Home
Written by: Jennifer VanEtten
By establishing healthy boundaries in your home, you are letting your children know that you care about them and want them to feel safe and secure as they learn about the world. Boundaries help children to understand their choices, which choices are acceptable, and how to identify and communicate their expectations with others.
What are Boundaries?
Physical boundaries refer to the invisible line between you and other individuals. A physical boundary represents the extent to which you are comfortable with other people touching you, being in your personal space, and how you define privacy. For children, this may also include how far they can travel from a parent without supervision, where they are allowed to play, and activities they may or may not do in the house.
Emotional boundaries are not as straightforward as physical boundaries. Emotional boundaries are the expectations set to respect emotions and feelings. Setting emotional boundaries requires acknowledgment that everyone has different emotional triggers. We have to learn our own emotional triggers and respect those of others. For example, a child may decide they no longer want to be called by a nickname. When they make this preference known, family and friends need to respect that emotional boundary by not using the nickname in the future. Children need practice with following boundaries. This practice teaches them self-control and empathy, and shows them that they can set boundaries when they are needed.
Tips for Practicing Boundaries at Home
• Collaboration: Work together to establish boundaries within the home. Make sure each parent and child verbalizes their own age-appropriate physical and emotional boundaries. Allowing children to be a part of this process will help them to acknowledge how they want to be treated and how to treat others. It may be helpful to create a contract or chart that everyone can sign. Some universal boundaries include: ask before taking, wait your turn to speak, knock before entering, tell the truth, clean up after your messes, etc.
• Consistency: Children will always push boundaries because it helps them to learn. That is why it is important to be consistent with the boundaries you set at home. Children are less likely to continue pushing boundaries if they are enforced consistently. If there is a time when a boundary needs to be broken, make sure to communicate this with your children. Otherwise, it is important to firmly, and gracefully, remind your children about the boundaries when they are broken, and use consequences if necessary. Remind them why the boundary is important and problem-solve if necessary.
• Mindful Communication: Be conscious of your body language, facial expression, and tone when enforcing your boundaries. If you laugh or smile when a child crosses an established boundary this may encourage them to do it again (even if you are telling them not to do it). On the other hand, harsh reprimands and loud tones may trigger a child’s fight-or-flight response. You will want to save this urgency for emergencies (e.g., your child is in danger) and be sure to nurture your connection with your child in these moments while they learn.
• Reinforcement: Offer praise when you notice your child respecting boundaries. Research has found that using critical statements may be counterproductive for shaping behavior, while praise can boost kids’ feelings of confidence and competence. Try using specific language when praising. For example, “I really like the way you cleaned up your toys without being asked!” communicates the behavior you want to reinforce rather than general praise like, “Good job!”
• Model your boundaries: If you expect children to know and respect your boundaries, it is important that you do the same. If there is a physical boundary in the house that one should knock before entering a closed door, you should do the same for them. If no phones are allowed at the dinner table, hold yourself and your partner to the same standards. Additionally, discontinuing tickling or hugging when a child says “no” or “stop” reinforces physical boundaries. Children learn a lot by watching what you do, which often makes more of an impression than what you say.
A household with healthy boundaries provides children with love, structure, guidance and discipline, and at the same time respect the child’s feelings, opinions, personal space, and right to say no in certain situations. When proper boundaries are set at home, children learn and internalize the ability to set those boundaries for themselves as they mature.
Tips for Practicing Boundaries at Home
American Academy of Pediatrics: Effective Discipline to Raise Healthy Children
Harvard Graduate School of Education: Consent at Every Age
Personal Space Camp by Julia Cook