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Understanding boundaries

Discussing the importance of boundaries with your children is one of the foundational steps to understanding limits and respect for oneself and others.

Set limits

Limits create structure and stability. For example, if your child wants to purchase a violent video game, you have the right and responsibility to say, “I don’t like the messages that game sends. Violence is bad and hurts people, but that game makes it seem like fun. I know you play that game at Alex’s house, but I don’t want it played in our house.” Or if your older child argues against having a curfew any longer, you might say, “I believe this rule is important for your safety and your health. If I know when you are coming home, I’ll know more quickly to look for you if you are in an accident or in trouble. And keeping to a consistent schedule is a great way to make sure you’re getting enough sleep and down time, eating properly, and taking care of your responsibilities without too much stress.”

Limits teach children self-control

By setting limits and allowing children to exercise self-control, they learn what behavior is acceptable, how to work through feelings of frustration when they do not get what they want, and to respect other people’s boundaries. Children will push limits; in fact, one of the key elements of adolescence is to test limits. But if children learn to understand limits, they are more likely to be able to set and respect limits as they mature. Imagine, for example, you tell your children that after they do their chores, you will take them to the swimming pool. Your children choose to watch videos instead, so you do not take them to the pool. Your children experience the consequences of their choices and see that you respect yourself by meaning what you say — in this case, you demonstrate that you cannot be coaxed into changing your mind.

Notice, however, that you are not trying to control your child. You simply made your values, expectations, and consequences known (work is important, everyone in the family has household responsibilities, and if you do not meet your responsibilities, I am not taking you to the pool). You also demonstrated that you respect yourself, your values, your decision, and your integrity enough to follow through. This is different than trying to “make” your child behave the way you want them to by, for example, nagging, threatening, arguing, or creating punishments. Instead, you are communicating to them that their behavior is their choice and their responsibility, to which they will be held accountable.

Limits are about establishing a “safety zone” in which children and youth can learn and practice new skills independently. It is natural that as children mature and your relationship with them develops, limits will be negotiated, tested, and changed as appropriate. 

Teach about personal boundaries

Teach your children that in relationships, people decide for themselves what they want and don’t want. Take advantage of everyday activities to talk to your children. For example, tell young children during bath time that their genitals belong only to them and no one else should touch them except as needed for cleanliness and to keep them healthy.

Help your children understand that they should be free to discuss their personal boundaries without fear of repercussions, and have these boundaries respected. Create opportunities for them to think this through. For example, you can ask, “Since you and your sister share a room, what are some ways you can give and respect each other’s privacy?”

Let your children know no one has the right to demand or expect anything from them, for example, that just as they should have been able when they were younger to refuse to kiss and hug family members, they don’t have to kiss anyone on a date or be pressured into sex.

Teach respect for others’ boundaries

You can show children you respect them by allowing them to exercise options and make choices within healthy frameworks, then acknowledge and accept their choices.

Generally speaking, there are a few interconnected ways to teach children to respect others’ boundaries:

  • Teach your children about personal boundaries.
  • Teach your children how to communicate directly and honestly.
  • Respect your children’s boundaries.
  • Set consistent, reasonable limits for your children.

Model good behavior: Set your own boundaries, respect others’, and take responsibility for your own actions and feelings.

Now that you’ve discussed boundaries, learn about how to converse with your child about respecting others.