By: Tamara Wilhelm, MA, LMHC
How a parent approaches boundaries in child rearing has an enormous impact on their child’s self-esteem, how they develop morals, and how well they do academically, socially, and in relationships. In Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend’s book, Boundaries, they outline 5 needs that positive boundary setting addresses for children.
The whole point behind having boundaries is to keep things that are harmful to us away, and keep things that are healthy for us close. It’s important for children to learn how to say no when something feels threatening, to learn how to tell the truth, and to learn the appropriate physical distance to keep from strangers.
As a parent, self-protection can be taught by allowing the child to say no when they feel smothered or harmed. This will allow the child to feel safe, and know it’s OK to say no if they are scared or in discomfort. What will this do for your child? It gives them the practice of saying “no”, so when the time comes when they are put under peer pressure, it will be second-nature for them to say “no” to them as well – all because they’ve had 10-12 years of practice under their belt of saying no to harmful things.
#2: Taking Responsibility for One’s Needs
One of the most important things a parent can do is encourage the expression of feelings in a child, even if it doesn’t match how the parent or rest of family feels. Realize that you as a parent must feel comfortable talking about feelings in order to be able to help your child take responsibility for their own feelings.
When you see your children struggling with a situation, or when something traumatic happens in your family, ask your children how they feel. Allow them to talk about the negative emotions they are experiencing. Most importantly, allow them to talk about these negative feelings without trying to make them feel better. If kids perceive their parents trying to cheer them up, they may begin to think that feeling sad or upset is “wrong” and not something that is natural to feel. This is why it is important to allow your child to express negative and uncomfortable emotions. Lastly, if your children ask you questions that seem hard, don’t assume you have to have all the right answers!
#3: Having a Sense of Control and Choice
Whether it’s letting your child choose what they want for breakfast, or what colleges they want to (or not to) apply to, children like to have choices in their lives so they don’t feel helpless and dependent upon adults. A lot of parents have great intentions in trying to prevent their children from making painful decisions. However, if you intervene too often, you do more harm than good. Interfering in a child’s decision making process stunts their ability to think for themselves and develop self-esteem and character. It also impedes their ability to see two options in front of them, and be able to use discernment in their decision making ability.
A great way to teach discernment in parenting is to give options when disciplining. If your child is refusing to act appropriately, give them options. For example, if they’re refusing to clean their room, you can say, “You’re right, you can choose not to do this, but remember, if you choose not to do this, you’re also choosing not to go to the party/etc tomorrow night”.
#4: Delaying Gratification of Goals
Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend point out that delaying gratification for a child can begin as early as age two. What does this look like? It means teaching children the value of saving, the value of patience, and waiting their turn. This being taught at a very early age is what keeps children from turning into impulsive adults with the “I want it now” attitude. This helps children become goal oriented and teaches them to value what they buy.
#5: Respecting the Limits of Others
Kids by nature are ego-centric. They think the world revolves around them. Boundaries help them realize the world DOES NOT revolve around them. Why is this important? It helps them to be able to entertain themselves and not be dependent on others. It also teaches them to hear the word “no” and listen to it. At the same time, it teaches children to become empathetic and learn how to love another person. They learn how to think of how other people feel, and not always think of how they feel.
As you can see, boundaries can be very beneficial for children in their overall emotional development. One of the best way to teach boundaries to your children is to assess each of these areas and ask, “Do I do these things myself?”. You’ll have a much easier time teaching your children boundaries in these areas if you are practicing what you preach.
Tamara Wilhelm, MA, LMHC is part of the Imagine Hope Counseling Group.