Children need caregivers to be strong leaders. When children sense we are unsure or unclear about something, they become anxious and try to step up into the leadership role. This can look like controlling or “bossing” behaviors. This is an uncomfortable and even frightening place for a little one to be in. What is much more comfortable is for parents to be the ones to set the boundaries and limits, and for children to be able to have and express their feelings about it.
Healthy boundaries are not just about enforcing the “rules of the house,” they can also be used to communicate our own needs and feelings as parents and caregivers, and it’s never too early to start. Even young babies can start to become familiar with our messages about our own needs. For instance, if your baby is crying to be picked up, but you are going to the bathroom, you can say to them, “I hear you, you want me to pick you up. I’ll be there in a few minutes after I use the restroom.” When you return you can calmly come over and say, “Thank you for waiting, I’m ready to pick you up now.” Your baby is beginning to learn the language, and may not understand all of your words, but they will understand your confidence and clarity and calm as you meet your own needs, while also meeting theirs. This will help them feel calm and secure. They can learn to wait, and trust that you will be there for them as a calm and confident presence.
As babies grow into toddlers, you’ll notice their desire to move and explore a lot more. It’s okay to tell toddlers that you don’t like the way they are touching your face, or let them know that your body needs some space for a bit. They will likely need your help following through on your request, with a hand blocking, or moving their body, as little ones don’t always have the executive functioning skills to regulate their impulses. Try saying to your toddler, “I don’t like that touch, you can touch my shoulder like this” while modeling for them what you mean.
Sometimes we, as caregivers wait way too long until we are already overwhelmed or frustrated to set a boundary. When we do that, it usually doesn’t come out in a calm and confident way. This can lead to hurt feelings, and oftentimes, more boundary-pushing behaviors. Try setting boundaries early and often to prevent resentment and frustration from building up. This takes some practice to begin to notice your emotions and connect with your body. Try noticing early stages of annoyance or irritation. Check-in with yourself and determine how to can set a boundary. This is such a kind thing to do for our loved ones. We are showing them the ways in which they can connect with us, or engage with us, that will prevent a rupture.
We don’t always remember to set boundaries early and often, sometimes our needs sneak up on us and spill out. When this happens, it’s okay, it’s a great opportunity to “repair” and re-connect with our loved ones. Instead of blaming others for our outbursts, we can take responsibility for our lack of noticing our own boundaries early enough and offer a path to move forward. For instance, you may return to your little one to say, “I’m sorry I yelled. I notice that I was needing a break but I forgot to ask for it. It’s not your fault that I yelled at you. I’m going to go take a break now and return when I feel fresh and ready to play. I love you.” Children can learn from this modeling too, how to take responsibility for their own actions and emotions and return to repair.
You might notice that sometimes you want to set a boundary but something gets in the way. Is there a part of you holding you back? Some common beliefs that hold us back from setting boundaries are:
- I’ll just deal with it, I don’t want to have to deal with their negative reaction to my boundary
- I can’t say “no” to playing with my child, I’ll miss out on these precious moments
- If I say “no”, I’m a mean parent
- If I say “no”, I’m lazy
- It’s my job to put my child’s needs first
- My child will suffer if I say “no”
- It’s not a big deal to let this go (until it builds and builds…)
Examining your limiting beliefs and challenging them can be a good way to work through any barriers to setting boundaries. Sometimes the barriers are easy to identify and sometimes they are difficult to find. People who have grown up in an abusive or neglectful environment, may struggle to even identify their own feelings or needs. Identifying our own needs is the first step to setting boundaries. If this speaks to you, try engaging in mindfulness practice, to begin to identify our own emotions and sensations in the body, as well as accessing mental health counseling can help us work through these barriers.
When we set healthy boundaries, we help others learn how to treat us and love us. It allows us to take care of ourselves and feel more connected to our loved ones. Children benefit from having parents that are able to do this, and parents benefit too. Tell us what you’ve learned through setting boundaries? What comes easy, and what comes hard for you?