Setting boundaries with kids

boyIn my parenting coaching I get a lot of questions from parents about how to discipline effectively and what to do instead of time-outs, spanking, yelling and other common discipline tactics.

When I think about the word “discipline” I think it sets up a disconnecting power dynamic where I’m in charge all of the time and the kids in my life must do what I say, or “behave”, and submit to my dominance.

On the other hand, without any “discipline” I imagine complete chaos and no sense of leadership.  So, instead of discipline, I like to talk about setting boundaries.

We all need boundaries whether with ourselves, our parents, children, employers or employees.  It’s healthy to have and keep clear boundaries, but somehow, many of us have never learned to recognize, implement, and maintain healthy boundaries.

I just read the novel “The Undomestic Goddess” by Sophie Kinsella.  It was a fun read but what struck me the most about it was how few boundaries the main character had at the beginning of the book.  Samantha was a high-powered lawyer at a leading Houston lawyer firm.  She was going for partner and as a result, she was available to her law firm 24/7.  No kidding.  The woman couldn’t even put her blackberry down for an hour to get a massage!  She was the epitome of someone without any healthy boundaries and without a life of her own.  Instead, she was completely owned by her law firm!

Do you ever feel owned by your kids and family?  Have you forgotten to set boundaries and maintain a healthy sense of self?  Well this week it’s time to turn it around.  Take a moment right now to make a list of the times in the past week or so when your boundaries were crossed.  These could be moments when you felt helpless, frustrated, overwhelmed, or trapped.  List at least 3-5 moments right now…

OK, now take a look at your list.  What were the boundaries that got crossed?  What needs of yours weren’t being met during the incident?  What is a possible solution that would clearly express your boundary?  Often, when we’re not in the habit of expressing and maintaining healthy boundaries, we may not even know what the boundaries are until they’ve been trampled on.  Here’s an example of two incidents including boundaries, unmet needs, and possible solutions from my own experience with kids:

Incident:  When Derek (7yo) said to me, “You’re so mean, I hate it when you come to our house!”

Boundary: Hurtful communication is not acceptable

Unmet needs: respect and kindness

Solution: Tell Derek, “You may not speak to me that way, I hear that you’re frustrated, but next time you can say, ‘I’m frustrated’ instead of ‘You’re mean and I hate it when you come over’.  Now I need some space because I’m feeling sad and hurt by what you said.  Please go in the other room for five minutes so I can take care of myself.”

Incident:  Seth (18mo.) throws food from his highchair

Boundary:  Cleaning up other people’s messes is not OK with me

Unmet needs:  order, cleanliness, freedom

Solution:  Tell Seth, “It’s not OK to throw food, when you throw your food it tells me that you’re finished eating.”  Take away the rest of Seth’s food.  “Now it’s time to clean up the mess you made.  Here’s a bowl, please collect the food from the floor and put it into this bowl so we can throw it away.”  Stay nearby and watch to be sure Seth gets all of the food.

In each of these examples I was able to set a clear boundary and stick to it.  And in each case, the young person involved conformed to my boundary.  That’s not to say that they didn’t resist, but when I was clear and consistent with the boundaries, they eventually got into alignment with me.

One of the most important aspects of setting clear boundaries with kids is that we maintain composure during the interaction.  If we’re too angry, upset, hurt, or punitive, then our boundaries just feel like punishments.  But when you can maintain your calm and be clear and consistent without freaking out, kids will often become much more cooperative and able to respect your boundaries.

Have some more questions about setting healthy boundaries with your kids?  Please leave a comment!

Have a great week, Shelly


I would love to see more about discipline. That is our biggest challenge around here. We don't spank, but yelling happens everyday in our house and I need it to STOP!!


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