What You'll Learn
- Why Setting Boundaries With Kids Is Difficult
- Why Boundaries for Children Are Important
- Guidelines for Healthy Boundaries
- Tips for Setting Age-Appropriate Boundaries
- The Relationship Between Boundaries and Transitions
- How to Follow Through When Children Resist Boundaries
Establishing age-appropriate boundaries can be tough. But without boundaries, we often find ourselves in a cycle of misbehaviour and punishment, leading to frustration for us and our children.
Today, I’m joined by parenting coach Tia Slightham to discuss the importance of boundaries and how to set limits that are age-appropriate and effective.
When Boundaries Are Hard
Being a mom of three boys has taught me firsthand how important boundaries are in parenting. But with each of my children, boundaries look different.
For one child, holding boundaries can look like following through on pre-established limits, like the amount of tablet time we’ve agreed he can have. With another child, boundaries may look like removing him from a situation, and providing a safe space to let out his big feelings.
Enforcing boundaries while staying calm and collected is one of the most difficult parts of parenting.
But this isn’t always easy to do in the moment. In fact, enforcing boundaries while staying calm and collected is one of the most difficult parts of parenting for many of my clients.
Luckily, Tia has a way of making age-appropriate boundaries feel accessible and doable. I was excited to chat with her about boundaries.
Why Setting Boundaries With Kids Is Difficult
Tia pointed out that the reason we find ourselves struggling with boundaries is that parenting is not intuitive.
We often believe that we should naturally know how to navigate difficult parenting situations—that “good moms” should understand their child’s needs and be able to respond the “right way.”
So when we find ourselves yelling, scolding, or getting frustrated with our child, we can feel like failures. But Tia said that we aren’t supposed to naturally know how to set boundaries. It’s a skill that we have to learn—just like if we decided to become a doctor or an accountant.
We aren’t supposed to naturally know how to set boundaries. It’s a skill that we have to learn.
Tia believes that we as parents have to give ourselves grace. We aren’t just born with natural parenting intuition—we have to learn how to break away from the way we were parented and work to develop the skills.
Tia also pointed out that part of why we struggle with boundaries is that we are so emotionally tied to our kids. We think we need them to do their homework, do well in school, or follow directions in order to succeed. But when those things go sideways, we feel like we are failing as parents. As a result, we often lose control, often falling into old patterns.
This becomes especially difficult when we are trying to break old habits. Many moms find themselves repeating negative cycles but are unsure of how to do things differently.
Why Boundaries for Children Are Important
Tia pointed out that children have two natural jobs—the first is to please you, but the counter job is to push boundaries until boundaries are found.
If they have set boundaries, they are able to please you. But if we as parents don’t have the skills to set age-appropriate boundaries and follow through with them, our kids will do what they are supposed to do—push until they find them.
We all have moments where we cave in on our boundaries—we tuck our child in five times or we give an extra cookie or we let them play for “just five more minutes” at the park. But every time we are inconsistent, our kids feel lost—they don’t know what the boundary is. All they know is that sometimes if they cry, whine, beg, or throw a tantrum, they get what they want. It feels to them like what they are supposed to do.
When we sometimes respond by giving in, or other times by yelling or nagging, they get confused because of the lack of clear and consistent communication.
As adults, if we interact with someone who isn’t consistent, it can be confusing. If your spouse was warm one day to you and cold and distant the next, you would not feel secure in that relationship. A lack of consistency can cause anxiety—both in adults and children.
A lack of consistency can cause anxiety—both in adults and children.
That’s why boundaries are so important—they’re our way to communicate consistent expectations to our children.
Sometimes, we don’t think to communicate our expectations because they seem logical to us. Tia pointed out that in our mind it’s logical to change into pajamas, put your clothes in a hamper, brush your teeth and get in bed for stories. It’s not logical to us to lasso pajamas over our heads and run down the hallway screaming.
But our children don’t understand our expectations without communication. Boundaries take those expectations out of our heads and make them accessible for our children. When we don’t set boundaries, the lines of communication are missed.
Guidelines for Healthy Boundaries
When we want to start setting boundaries but have already fallen into an inconsistent pattern, it can be hard to know where to start.
Tia recommends remembering that all boundaries should follow The Three Cs—concrete, clear and consistent.
We also have to remember that boundaries can’t just be set and forgotten. We have to teach, train, and practice—especially when we are first starting.
Boundaries can’t just be set and forgotten. We have to teach, train, and practice them.
Tia recommends thinking about your biggest challenge area right now—whether that’s morning routine, bedtime, coming in from school to do homework, or any other challenge you face with your child.
Next, visualize what you would like it to look like in an ideal dream world. Would bedtime be one story, a kiss, and lights out? Would your child come in the door and sit down to do homework right away?
Tia said that everything you wish could happen can be taught, trained, and practiced—but only if you are clear about where you are and where you want to be.
Tips for Setting Age-Appropriate Boundaries
In some ways, boundaries can begin even with infants. When talking about very little babies, the conversation centers more around boundaries for ourselves.
We have to know our own boundaries with sleep deprivation, feeling touched out, and becoming overstimulated. It can feel as if we shouldn’t have boundaries with our babies, but it’s actually healthy to do so.
Tia pointed out that in the early years, most of our boundaries can be proactive. One of the best ways to introduce healthy boundaries when you are a mom to an infant is to begin routine as early as possible.
When you can consistently (but flexibly) predict naptimes, feedings, and bedtimes, it becomes easier to carve out time and space for yourself—setting these boundaries will help you prioritize your mental health.
As your child becomes a toddler, you can start setting additional age-appropriate boundaries around behaviour. But it’s important to remember that boundaries don’t mean we won’t have struggle and resistance.
Tia recommends thinking of boundaries as just one piece of the behaviour puzzle. Having clear, concrete, and consistent boundaries about acceptable behaviour is important. It gives children the confidence to know where they fit in our family and our world. But you also have to fill your child’s attention and power buckets and support them in other ways.
And, even if you do all the right things, there will be moments of resistance. We can’t expect our child to follow every boundary every time.
We might think of boundaries as harsh rules given in a strict tone. But Tia said that isn’t the case. We can set boundaries from a place of mutual respect, in a way that shows our child we are there to guide and support them.
Tia said that boundaries aren’t negative or harsh. Firm boundaries can come from a place of connection. Boundaries aren’t about squashing our children down—they are about building our children up so that they can manage themselves, be independent, and navigate the world.
She also pointed out that our goal with boundaries should be to be as neutral as possible. When we start to react from a place of dysregulated emotion, we’re picking up the rope in a game of tug-of-war that has no winner. We might overpower our child, causing them to stop their behaviour out of fear, or we might give in because we just can’t deal—but either way, we didn’t actually solve the problem.
The Relationship Between Boundaries and Transitions
As our child continues to age, the boundaries can include additional expectations. With school-aged children, we can draw boundaries around morning routines, nighttime routines, and the other transitions that often become points of contention with our child.
Creating consistent routines with charts can help fill up our child’s power bucket, making them the boss of their own routine.
For kids who really struggle with transitions, you can also set timers or use devices like Google Home (which has a Family Bell setting that gives everyone verbal reminders) to keep everyone on track. Tia recommends the Time Tracker Mini, which gives warnings for when transitions are about to occur.
Tia recommends filling charts with things that children are capable of doing on their own or almost on their own, and starting those boundaries as early as possible. Even two year olds can handle visual morning routine charts that empower them to take responsibility.
For children that young, Tia said that two simple pictures—perhaps potty and get in bed—can help foster independence and get them used to the idea of routine. Creating these expectations early on makes it easier as our children get older. You can adjust the chart or routine, but the boundaries have already been established.
It can seem hard to put these routines into place, but Tia believes it’s absolutely worth it. When we lay the foundation and create a family dynamic and environment where everybody knows their part, then everybody finds more safety and enjoyment at home.
Transitions often become the most difficult times to set and hold boundaries.
Tia also pointed out that transitions often become the most difficult times to set and hold boundaries. One of the reasons is because in transition times, we are often “the boss.” When we tell our child to turn the TV off and go to bed, it feels as if they don’t have any autonomy.
When we can use timers and charts, we don’t have to be the big bad wolf. We create the expectation that they can do what needs to be done with minimal intervention.
Another reason why transitions can be difficult is that we usually have our child going from an activity they want to do to an activity they need to do—like putting down the iPad to do their homework or turning off the TV so they can eat breakfast and brush their teeth.
She recommends flipping activities around so that our child does what they need to do first, and then can do what they want to do.
For toddlers and younger children, Tia pointed out that modelling is crucial. Don’t just expect your toddler to clean up—get down with them and show them what to do. Consider bringing in elements of fun, like a clean-up song or a race. We ultimately want them to do these things on their own, but the training, teaching, and practicing part takes time.
How to Follow Through When Children Resist Boundaries
Even with the right support and boundary-setting skills, our children will sometimes struggle. But when that happens, follow through is important. This is another set of skills we need—something to fall back on so we’re not punishing, reminding, or yelling.
Age-appropriate consequences can and should happen—but the goal is to teach and train—not to blame, shame, or cause pain.
When your child resists a boundary, focus on the behaviour—not them as a person.
When your child resists a boundary, focus on the behaviour—not them as a person. If you can, fall back on a natural consequence or life lesson. For example, if they took too long cleaning up because they were playing, they might not have time to watch TV.
It’s important to stay as consistent as possible while trying to resolve unwanted behaviours. As your children adjust, you can find areas where you can let some things flow and be flexible. If struggles start to occur, you can always revisit and reset boundaries.
Boundaries matter–both with your child and with others in your life! If you find yourself struggling to set boundaries, our workshop, Boundaries: Setting Limits can help! Register for the workshop today.