Parents, quite rightly, wish to mould their children into the adults they’d like to see them become. However, such moulding needs to be done carefully or it can end up doing more harm than good. Why? Because, in their desire to steer their child in the right direction, it is very easy for parents to forget that their child is a separate person with their own likes, dislikes, feelings, emotions, wishes and ambitions, and if they don’t give their child enough room to develop these areas of their own personality, then it will not only reduce their chances of growing into happy and successful adults, but may also leave them vulnerable to being exploited by others, both as adult, and as children.
This is where respect for boundaries comes in. In this instance, boundaries are those parts of the self, whether physical, mental or emotional, which an individual has the right to control. They are the barriers between our inner self and the world around us, and they are what protect us from the stresses and strains of everyday life. in many cases, unhappiness comes from allowing others to breach our boundaries without our permission, leaving us feeling that we are not in control of our own lives.
Each of us has our own individual boundaries, but a knowledge of them is not something we are innately born with. Instead, it takes children time to develop both a knowledge of what boundaries are, and an understanding that other people may have different boundaries than they do. Children learn about boundaries from their social interactions with others, and particularly from their peers and those in a position of authority over them, especially parents and relations. Through these social interactions, they learn what they have a right to respect and control in themselves, and what they don’t have a right to control in others.
However, it is very easy for parents to unintentionally ride rough-shod over their children’s boundaries, and so damage their child’s development of what they can and cannot control in themselves and others. This can begin early in childhood and often takes the form of over-ruling the child’s feelings about interactions with other children. When a child complains about the way another child treats them, they’re told to get over it, or suck it up, and so the child learns that they don’t have an expectation to be treated in a way that they are happy with. Similarly, they may be forced to share things with siblings or other children, when they don’t want to, and so learn that they should prioritize the wishes of others over their own. Adults may tell a child that they’re wrong for getting upset in a specific situation, or call them a wimp for not wanting to do something, and the child infers that the way they feel inside is somehow wrong or socially unacceptable.
Worse, is when the same behaviour occurs in interactions with adults. For example, if parents force children to hug or kiss adults that, for whatever reason, they don’t want to, then the child learns that they don’t have a right to say no when they are put in a situation which makes them feel emotionally or physically uncomfortable by authority figures. The same goes for when they are forced to spend time with an adult who, for whatever reason, they don’t feel comfortable with, or to say thank you for something they neither wanted or asked for, regardless of how they feel about it.
In these types of situations, the parents often feel that enforcing what they deem socially appropriate behaviours is helping their child to learn to be polite and interact nicely with others. However, this is not what is actually happening. Instead, the child learns that their own feelings about social interactions are not to be trusted, and should be over-ruled in favour of what others wish, no matter how it makes them feel. This makes them much less likely to speak up or object when someone, whether it is one of their peers, and older child or an adult, acts inappropriately towards them. This, in turn, make them vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation and abuse, and leaves them unable to tell healthy relationships from unhealthy ones. In short, this is the perfect recipe for an unhappy and unfulfilled life.
So, if boundaries are so important in a child’s development, how can you encourage them to build strong ones that will provide them with the mental, physical and emotional protection from the world around them? Well, it’s relatively simple, at least in theory. The key here is to separate what you, as the parent, feels your child should be doing from what your child feels they should be doing in any given situation. If you are forcing your child to do something because you feel it’s the right thing when they do not, then you are teaching them to over-rule their internal boundaries. If, instead, you are helping your child understand how they feel about a specific situation and then act accordingly, then this is encouraging them to build strong boundaries which will help protect them as they move through life. This is something that will make many parents uneasy as it seems like you are giving your child cart blanche to behave in any way that they want, regardless of the feelings of others, but this is not the case. Instead, what you’re aiming to do is encourage your child to act in a way that is socially acceptable, but that does not conflict with their own feelings or trample on the feelings of others. If done right, you will raise a child who not only respects their own boundaries, but that can identify and respect the boundaries of others too, and this will increase the chances of them growing into happy and successful adults. It will also make them nicer people to be around, too.
Of course, as with many things in life, being simple in theory, does not mean that it’s easy or straight forward to put this knowledge into meaningful practice when raising a child, and many parents will struggle with integrating a strategy which encourages their child to develop strong boundaries into their general parenting approach. However, if you can manage it, it’s well worth the effort as it will result in both a happier child, who will grow into a happy adult and, believe it or not, it will help make your life as a parent happier too, as it will defuse much of the conflict which can arise between parent and child. So, to help you integrate this into your parent-child relationship, here are seven rules of thumb for helping a child build strong boundaries:
- Don’t automatically apologise for your child’s actions: Many parents have an instant apologetic response to any of their child’s actions which they feel are socially inappropriate. This, however, sends a message to your child that no matter how justified their actions were, that they were wrong, and this leads children to question their own boundaries because no matter what they do, it is deemed unacceptable enough to require an apology. I’m not saying here that apologies do not sometimes (or even often!) need to be made, but rather that apologies shouldn’t be the first and automatic response, and, if needed, they should come later, once the situation has been fully considered.
- Where possible, let you child sort out their own social problems: Learning how to solve your own social problems is an important part of learning about boundaries. If your child can work out how to deal with a problem which keeps both them and others happy, then they will have learned to respect both their own boundaries and the boundaries of others. However, if you are constantly stepping in to solve every little problem, your child will grow to distrust their own abilities to assess a situation and respond appropriately. This will leave them overly reliant on the opinions of others to determine how they should act. This might not cause much of a problem in the primary school playground, but it can be much more problematic as they move towards adulthood and cannot necessarily trust those around them to act in their best interest.
- Acknowledge your child’s response, no matter how inappropriate you feel it was: If you do find that you need to step in to a solve a social situation, the first thing you need to do is to acknowledge how your child has responded to any given situation. This is easy to do when you feel that they have responded in a way you would have liked them to (like sharing sweets with another child), but it’s much harder to do when they respond in way that you disapprove of (like refusing to give a relative a goodbye hug). However, it is really important that you acknowledge that your child has a right to respond in a way that they feel is appropriate so that they learn that it is their right to do so. Of course, acknowledging that they have a right to respond as they see fit is not the same as condoning their actions, and it’s important to recognise that these are two very different things.
- Talk to your child so that you understand why they responded in a specific way: If your child has responded to a specific situation in a way that you feel is appropriate, make sure that you praise them for it, remembering to be very specific about exactly what they’re being praised for. If you don’t feel their response was appropriate, it is important that you don’t get angry or shout at them as this will be counter-productive. Instead, try to find a quiet spot where you can take them aside and calmly ask them why they responded in the way that they did. This may be difficult, especially if your child is in a highly emotional state, but if you can manage it, it will help you better understand why your child responded the way that they did. For example, your child may have grabbed a toy from another child because, unseen, that child had just done the same to them. This, then makes it easier for you to implement the next rule of thumb.
- Provide them with alternative responses which are more appropriate, but which are still in keeping with how they feel: Once you understand why your child responded in the way that they did, then you can provide them with alternative responses which they can use when they encounter similar situations in the future. Better yet, ask them to come up with their own alternative responses. The critical thing here is that these responses need to be in keeping with how the situation made them feel while being more socially acceptable. For example, if there is another child in your kid’s playground who is continually trying to hug your child when they don’t want to be hugged, their automatic response may be to physically push the other child away, leading to conflict and tears. Letting the other child hug them when they don’t want to be hugged would be one response, but it would not be in keeping with how they feel. Instead, an alternative response which is in keeping with how they feel might be to tell them to hold an arm straight out in front of them, hand raised (to prevent the other child infringing on their personal space without having to push them away) and tell the other child that they don’t want to be hugged.
- Don’t be afraid to encourage your child to voice their opinion: It is important that children learn from as young an age as possible that it is okay to voice their opinion, and that it will be listened to. In particular, it is important that they learn they can say no if they find themselves in a situation which makes them feel, in any way, uncomfortable. Only by learning to voice their opinions, can children learn exactly where their boundaries lie, and so what lines shouldn’t be crossed by themselves or by others. When opinions are expressed, it’s important that you don’t tell your child that the way they are feeling is wrong. This is because while actions may be inappropriate, feelings are an internal expression of the self and by telling them that their feelings are wrong, you are criticising an important part of what makes them them.
- Don’t ask for your child’s input if you’re not willing to live with their decision: Expressing preferences and making choices are both important aspects of knowing your own mental, physical and emotional boundaries. This means that you have to be careful about how to present things to your child. In particular, if you ask your child for their input, their opinion or their preference, then you have to be willing to live with their response, even if it’s not the one you were hoping for or expecting. If you regularly ask for their input and then do whatever you want anyway, regardless of their response, they will learn that their own thoughts, feelings and opinions are worthless, and that they have no right to have any control over their own lives. This, in turn, will lead to a failure to take control and responsibility for their own lives, and the unhappiness that goes along with it. This means, for example, that if you need to go out to run some errands, and you asked your child ‘Would you like to come with me?’ you have to be prepared for a situation where they say no, and ensure that you can live with it. The same goes for asking them if they’d like to spend time with a relative, what they’d like to wear that day, to pick out something to eat or to choose some new clothes. If there’s a situation where the only viable option for you is for them to do what you wish, then don’t ask for their input. Instead, explain what you need them to do, and provide them with an option for later. In the example mentioned above, this might mean that rather than asking if they wish to come to the shops with you, you explain to them that you need to go to the shops and that this means they need to come with you, but that they can choose something for the evening meal while you are there (as long as you are happy to live with the outcome of their decision about what they want to eat!).
All this having been said, remember that these are just rules of thumb, rather than unbreakable edicts. There will always be times when, for whatever reason, you can’t keep to them, and that’s okay, as long as is only every now and then. The real problems come when you are regularly imposing your feelings and needs on your child at the cost of their own, meaning they learn that their boundaries are not theirs to control. And it is this that will lead to future unhappiness,
About The Author: This post was written by Colin Drysdale, the creator of How To Raise A Happy Genius.