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Your Guide: Setting Boundaries With Kids


Boundaries can be messy. Read our guide on setting healthy boundaries with kids inside and outside your home.

It’s easy to find funny parenting stories about the challenges of setting boundaries with kids. Wandering baby fingers curious about a parent or caregiver’s nostrils. Doors flung open while a parent’s changing. Tampons repurposed as toy space shuttles. 

It can seem tempting to shrug, laugh, and hope to regain your privacy a few years down the road. But helping your kid learn how to respect your boundaries—and how to set their own—in age-appropriate ways can help your child begin to learn important lessons about respecting and socializing with other people. 

Ultimately, practicing healthy boundaries and manners for kids can help to cultivate a safe parent-child relationship as they grow older in which they feel heard, respected, and honored.

How Practicing Boundaries Helps Children

Boundaries come in many forms. Common boundaries for adults might include keeping certain conversations with close friends private, refraining from calling colleagues about work when you’re both off the clock, or fostering healthy and consensual sexual relationships. 

Boundaries for kids might look like asking permission to play with someone else’s toy, learning to respect bathroom privacy, or learning that they can choose how, when, and if to show physical affection to someone.

Learning how to practice and respect healthy boundaries as children can help your kid set and value different but equally important boundaries as they grow up.1

Setting firm boundaries can also help young children develop more general life skills, including:1

  • Patience
  • Problem-solving and resourcefulness
  • Responsibility
  • Self-discipline

There’s also a simpler, more immediate benefit to helping your child learn how to respect and set boundaries—it feels good to have your personal boundaries respected. Developing the language and skills so that you and your child can better respect each other’s wants and needs can give you both one more way to care for each other.

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Tips for Setting Boundaries

Practicing specific boundaries can look different depending on factors like your child’s age, family dynamics, and cultural environments.

That said, you can try adapting these tactics to suit your family, especially when it comes to parenting with confidence:

  • Modeling – Children learn from copying the adults around them. Try modeling boundary-setting behavior, such as telling another family member you don’t want a hug right now, but you would like a high-five, or telling your child you can’t play with them right now but you’d love to in ten minutes.1
  • Respecting your child’s boundaries – Teaching your child how to express themselves, set their own physical boundaries about how and when they want to be touched or interacted with, and follow through with those boundaries can help your child build confidence and trust in themselves. Later in life, these skills can be practiced to enforce boundaries within their personal space or in intimate and professional settings.2
  • Providing choices – Giving your child choices can help them practice making decisions and give them more autonomy.1 For example, if you want your child to eat a healthy snack, try giving them two healthy snack options to choose between to show them they have control over their own body.
  • Explaining why – When you have to set a boundary with your child, try using simple, clear language to explain why you’re setting that boundary.1 For example, if they’re trying to hit someone and you’re physically restraining them to prevent that from happening, try to explain, “I can’t let you hurt someone.” When push comes to shove, you may have to override the boundaries your child may lack regarding physicality in order to prioritize safety. While it’s important for them to set their own boundaries, letting them know that safety comes first is critical in any scenario. 
  • Set up environments that support success – You know what conditions bring out the best in your child—and which situations make your child feel frustrated and more likely to push your limits.1 Whether it’s setting up a baby gate, moving a tempting item out of reach, or protecting your child’s sleep schedule, try to set up schedules and environments that make it easier for your child to respect the boundaries you’ve set.

Conversations about personal boundaries can also provide a natural opportunity for teaching kids what to do if someone violates their boundaries or the boundaries of someone else they know. Try to let them know that they’ll never get in trouble for telling you or another adult they trust if someone does something that makes them feel uncomfortable.2

Practicing Age-Appropriate Boundaries

Practicing boundaries can look different depending on your child’s age. 

Here are some tips for setting limits with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers: 

  • Infants – Unlike older children, infants depend wholly on their caretakers to meet their needs. With infants, practicing boundaries can prove as simple as narrating what you’re doing, such as “I’m going to pick you up so we can change your diaper” so they can begin to learn what’s happening to them and why. You can also practice respecting their boundaries by paying attention to their reactions—if they cry when you hand them to another adult who’s excited to meet them, it’s ok to take your child back and let them get to know this new person from the safety of your arms.
  • Toddlers – Many toddlers love to explore. To avoid having to say “no” all the time, try making the spaces they want to explore safe by moving breakables, using child locks on cabinets, and baby gates (if these resources are available). You can also try re-directing their curiosity to other, safer options. Consider using statements that explain what your toddler can do. For example, when it’s time to eat, you can say something along the lines of “We can sit down in our chairs when we are eating at the table.” If your child is having trouble sitting at the table, you can tell them you'll help them down from their chairs. Lastly, you can also help your toddlers learn to set physical boundaries by giving them options when greeting loved ones, such as asking, “Do you want to hug or wave goodbye to Grandma?” so that they can choose the option that makes them feel most comfortable.
  • Pre-Schoolers – As kids' vocabularies grow, so do their abilities to express their feelings about boundaries. If your pre-schooler is experiencing big feelings, continue to remind them that they need to respect others’ boundaries in those moments. Try reading books like Lynx Sets Boundaries and Lynx Trust Yourself that reinforce the lessons you’re trying to teach your child and allow them to ask questions and compare the character’s actions to their own experiences.
  • Setting boundaries can feel more approachable when you think of it as another way to strengthen your connection with your child and help teach them how to have positive, healthy connections with other people. 

    Learning About Boundaries and Other Developmental Skills With Slumberkins

    Learning to enforce healthy boundaries and respect the boundaries of others can help youngsters build self-trust and trust in others. One of the best ways for parents to teach these skills is by modeling respect and encouraging children to voice their wants, needs, and opinions using positive language.

    Founded by a family therapist and a special education teacher, Slumberkins creates books about connection, toys, and resources that help foster emotional learning and growth. We believe emotional learning starts with connection—and we want to provide you and your child with tools that can help you build a connection founded on trust, respect, and understanding.

    Because all families deserve a resilient, supportive community they can rely on.


    Sources: 

    1. Innis, Gail. "Boundaries and expectations are important parenting tools." Michigan State University. 6 May, 2012.  https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/boundaries_and_expectations_are_important_parenting_tools
    2. "Setting Boundaries Between Kids and Adults: How Close Is Too Close?" Nationwide Children’s.  https://www.nationwidechildrens.org/family-resources-education/700childrens/2018/04/setting-appropriate-boundaries-for-children-and-adults