What are boundaries and how can we set them for our kids? Think of boundaries as a line one draws around themselves — a protective barrier. There are various kinds of boundaries, including emotional, personal, and physical. We use boundaries in ALL areas of our lives, even without knowing it — with parenting, relationships of all kinds, and even setting boundaries for ourselves. In this article we are going to discuss:
- Setting boundaries for kids while still being a loving parent
- Examples of boundaries
- Physical, emotional, and personal boundaries
- Difference between healthy and unhealthy boundaries
- Tools for setting boundaries with kids
- Age-appropriate boundaries
- Setting boundaries with children
- Explaining what boundaries are to kids
- Why kids need boundaries
- Things to consider BEFORE setting boundaries
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Are boundaries a good thing? Yes, but…
I recently asked my readers what their biggest struggle of parenting has been lately.
Across the board, almost EVERYONE said that they’re struggling with setting boundaries for themselves AND their kids, as well as not knowing what age-appropriate boundaries are.
After reading the results of my audience, I began to delve into this subject to answer some questions people might have.
Throughout this process, I realized something.
While it’s good and healthy to make boundaries within the family, if a child isn’t FIRST shown a desire for you to connect with them emotionally, boundaries can be damaging.
For example, healthy boundaries can be set in place to protect us from being taken advantage of, keep us from worrying about what others think of us, having good time management, and knowing how and when to say no and STOP (teaching personal boundaries is ALWAYS healthy and something every parent should do).
They can also be used when setting rules for our kids, and discerning what we need or when enough is enough.
But boundaries can also be damaging.
They can cause us not to take responsibility or avoid others because we simply don’t want to deal with an issue at hand — we focus solely on what we need, instead of considering what others need.
Unhealthy boundaries can also cause us to avoid confrontation or necessary growing pains in relationships, and use manipulation to get what we want.
But like most things, boundaries are a necessity in life and can be extremely helpful when filtered through a healthy lens.
Helping your kids understand and have healthy boundaries will be one of the most important things you teach them.
Establishing healthy boundaries in your family
As a mom, I need to have boundaries for myself, so I don’t get burned out, both emotionally AND physically.
Boundaries are also helpful when learning how to respect others’ feelings.
Understanding your child’s needs even from infancy will teach them proper boundaries throughout their life.
Take, for example, when you’re tickling your baby. Every parent has most likely experienced the moment they see in their baby’s face when they’re done being tickled, so they stop.
Doing this teaches them to respect boundaries by respecting theirs.
When boundaries are like rules
Rule-like boundaries can quickly become unhealthy if we see them as more important than emotionally connecting or spending time with our kids.
It’s easy to do this when we have a lot on our plate. We set more boundaries around our time, let’s say for work, and don’t give our kids the attention they need.
On the other hand, we can be too loose with our boundaries, which usually equates to not being able to say no to our kids, doing things that they should do themselves, and not teaching proper independent play skills.
How can you set up healthy boundaries for yourself and your kids without making your kids feel inadequate?
Sometimes, parents can draw boundary lines too strictly and lay them on too thick or in an unloving way.
I’ll never forget when my friend told me she wants to stop feeling like needing to escape her children. I know I sometimes feel this way as well. It’s normal for parents to want a break or to get something done without constantly being interrupted.
So what are healthy boundaries we can set in place without making our kids feel like we want to escape them?
Or what are healthy boundaries we can set in place, so we aren’t always doing things for our kids, never saying no, or giving in to whatever they want?
What are healthy boundaries parents can set in place as is appropriate to a child’s age?
These are all questions we are going to answer.
Example of when boundaries need to come into play:
Let’s say you work from home (since most of us do these days) and immediately start getting to work after breakfast. Your toddler pops his head up from playing to see you working, and comes over to grab your hand for attention. He wants you to play with him!
You feel overwhelmed because you have a project due that day, and you begin to get frustrated. You try to convince him to go back to playing by himself, but it doesn’t work.
Usually, one of two things happens.
You feel like you need to turn on a screen to be able to escape your child and get your work done OR you give in and end up getting nothing done.
As I’m all for having kids watch something when I need to get something done, it’s not always the best solution, especially when it’s often happening. Sometimes, moms don’t have the luxury to play with their kids whenever and for however long. Even if you don’t work, dinner needs to be made, laundry done, the house cleaned. So giving in won’t always be a solution either.
But there is a solution for both, without making your child feel like you want to escape them, which we will discuss throughout this post.
And as it might take some time for your kids to understand the new rhythm, the more they are used to these boundaries, the better they will comply.
When all is said and done, implementing boundaries can be SUPER helpful in organizing your life, and making the day run as smoothly as possible.
How to explain boundaries to a child
Before you set your boundaries, it's important your child knows what you're talking about.
You don't have to use the word "boundary" necessarily until they are older, and they start setting them for themselves.
That word can sometimes be complicated, so I wouldn't suggest using it when discussing it with your younger kids.
Maybe use a word like "rules" instead.
Sit down with your child, and tell them that you are going to put some rules in place so that everyone will be happier.
You can start will having a "rule" or "boundary" for yourself and say,
"Mommy is going to start playing with you every morning for...amount of time...before I start working. That's my new rule."
"Mommy is going to set a timer when she starts her work as a new rule. I promise I will be done when the timer goes off, and I can play with you again!"
By starting with yourself, your child will be more open to having rules or boundaries for themself.
Introduce the rule, and ask them if it seems fair. If you can, compromise to make sure your child's needs aren't being dismissed.
Another great way to introduce rules, boundaries, or chores is to have a chart. Check out this magnetized one that goes on the fridge.
If you want a chart today, I made this one you can print right from your own home--created to put a fun spin on "doing chores."
Other tips when it comes to setting boundaries
- Always follow through on your word
- Be firm yet kind
- Communicate clearly what the expectation are
- Put the boundaries or rules on display for your kids to see (Chore chart I mentioned above)
- Explain the "why"
- Follow through on consequences
- Be the example
- The simpler the better
- Let your yes's be yes, and your no's be no
Consider this BEFORE setting boundaries
- Pay attention to them FIRST
In the example above, if you're able, try and spend at least 30 minutes with your child playing and giving them your undivided attention. Then you can encourage independent play, set a timer for yourself, and stick to the rule!
Check out these creative timers to make it fun!
- Give them something to do
Distracting your child with something can always help you be more productive. Not only is it good for them to learn to play by themselves, but it will also give you a break without having to turn on a screen.
Here is a great option - Marble Maze - that keeps kids occupied for a LONG time.
Necessary boundaries to set in your family
Screen time boundaries
One of the most caring things you can do for your child is to monitor their screen time. It teaches them self-control with screens and protects them from any potential danger that, unfortunately, comes with technology.
Studies show that kids who have unlimited and unmonitored screen time are more likely to suffer from behavioral problems and develop a mental health issue, as well as become a target for predators.
A great way to monitor their device is to use a parental control software.
I am currently using Bark, and I love it for my 9yo's iPad. Here is a short video explaining how it works.
It allows me to block out times he can't use it, monitor his activity, block inappropriate content, and keep him accountable.
For older kids, you can even monitor their messages, emails, social media apps--Snap Chat, Tik Tok, Instagram, etc.
But be sure to discuss it with them first!
And before you do that, read this post about the emotional needs of teens, and this post about talking with your kids about addiction.
Some people say you shouldn't invade your child's privacy in this way, as it can damage the trust you have with them.
As I'm ALL for building trust with your tween or teen, I still believe that it's vital for ANYONE, not just kids, to have accountability for online activity. Not to mention, protecting our kids from harmful people is our job as parents, and social media is a common gateway for them to get taken advantage of.
And again, discuss the screen time boundary with them before you implement it. Tell them why you have this boundary, what it teaches them, and that it's because you love and want to protect them.
Setting time boundaries for you and your kids will help them know what to expect and when. I find that with my children, the more order we have to our schedule, the better we do.
When it comes to needing to get stuff done, the timer method I mentioned above works wonders. As long as the timer hasn't gone off, your kids need to respect the boundary you set to work, clean the house, do laundry, etc.
But make sure you spend as much time, if not more, hanging out with them and doing things they love. This will help meet their emotional needs, so they won't come looking for your attention in a negative way.
How to teach your kids about healthy personal boundaries
One of main reasons kids fall victim to abuse is because they aren't educated as to what their personal boundaries are for their bodies and the difference between good and bad touch.
As with anything we teach our kids, having conversations with them about who is allowed to touch their bodies is vitally important, even from a very young age.
When my son began crawl I would look for ways to do this. If he didn't want to be hugged or kissed, I would respect that. Now that he is 2 and old enough to communicate what he does and doesn't want, I make sure I ask him if I can have a hug or a kiss.
If he doesn't want that, I respect it.
It's important for kids to know how to say no, especially when it comes to others touching them. As their parents, you are obviously a safe space to say no, so going the distance in conversation about who can and cannot touch them is very important.
A great way to do that is through books! Here are some great options.
Books for teaching healthy personal boundaries to our kids
- No Means No!: Teaching children about personal boundaries, respect and consent; empowering kids by respecting their choices and their right to say, 'No!'
- Your Body Belongs to You
- I Said No! A Kid-to-kid Guide to Keeping Private Parts Private
- NO Trespassing - This Is MY Body!
- An Exceptional Children's Guide to Touch: Teaching Social and Physical Boundaries to Kids (kids with special needs)
- It's MY Body: A Book to Teach Young Children How to Resist Uncomfortable Touch (Children's Safety Series and Abuse Prevention)
Age-Appropriate Boundaries for Kids
Little kids understand a lot more than we give them credit for. For example, when my 2yo hits my older son, I address it. I say we don't hit in our family and guide him to take responsibility for what he did. He understands what he did wrong, and what he needs to do next.
He apologizes to my older son, they hug it out, and we move on.
Even though I have to repeat this process a lot, it teaches him that when he crosses boundaries or rules, it's not respectful or loving to others.
As with most children, this takes time and patience for them to understand.
Be direct but gentle.
Be clear about the consequences and give them immediately following an incident.
Use timers A LOT.
Limit your choices and use simple words.
Apologize if you have to.
This is the age when a child begins to truly understand and obey boundaries that you have set in place and boundaries for themselves. Don't be shy when addressing boundaries at this age. They understand, and follow through on consequences is a must.
In the example above, I discussed why we need to stop tickling our baby when showing signs of being done -- the same goes throughout their entire life.
If you're in a tickle fight, and they ask you to stop, STOP to teach them how valid and important this word is when used.
This is the age where you can begin to see where you went wrong in the earlier years when teaching boundaries.
I don't think I realized all the areas I had gone wrong until my son turned 6.
But it's never too late to correct your wrongs and implement good boundaries. But while setting boundaries for yourself, you want to make sure you're not doing it in a way that separates you emotionally from your child.
When children feel like they're annoying you, or not getting enough attention, they will show you. If you start drawing a thicker line for boundaries, they can feel left out, or like you don't want to be around them.
So set boundaries, but make sure you balance it with meeting the emotional needs and not making them feel like they're a nuisance.
Tweens and Teens
This is the age where boundaries move from being more physical or "rule-like" to emotional.
What are emotional boundaries?
Emotional boundaries are boundaries one puts up around themselves not to be hurt, manipulated or used by others. As always, the best way to teach this is to model it.
With your interactions with others, especially your spouse, you can show your child what is healthy and unhealthy when it comes to emotional boundaries.
I'm a firm believer in the fact that a healthy marriage is a defining factor in an emotionally healthy child. Even if you're divorced, the relationship you have with your ex should still be healthy, as this will give your child a clear understanding of healthy emotional boundaries.
Healthy emotional boundaries are essential for your child to have healthy relationships throughout their life.
Examples of healthy emotional boundaries are:
- Discerning the difference between good and bad friendships
- Standing up for what you believe in, even if others disagree.
- Respecting and accepting others, even if they have a difference of opinion
- Knowing how to speak your needs
- Discerning when your boundaries are invaded
- Discerning when others can't empathize because they haven't been through the same thing you have
Unhealthy emotional boundaries are as follows:
- Never trusting people
- Being a people pleaser
- Always saying yes, even though you don't want or need to
- Seeing yourself through other's eyes instead of God's
- Playing the victim
- Using manipulation to get what you want
- Thinking that others can always know or fulfill your needs
As you can see, when children get to their preteen and teen years, there is a lot that transpires, and helping them navigate these emotional boundaries is difficult.
As my son gets older, I begin to realize the emotional impact and example I have on him. If I don't first meet his emotional needs, he will struggle with understanding what healthy emotional boundaries are, and how they apply to his life.
Teaching your child to set healthy emotional boundaries will benefit their lives in many ways, including how to have healthy relationships, valuing and respecting others and themselves, and being confident in who God created them to be.
What are some healthy boundaries you have implemented in your family, and how have they been useful?