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Healthy boundaries for families

Sep 08, 2020

People talk a lot about the need for “boundaries,” but what does this word really mean?

As a parent, you can think of a boundary as the line you draw around yourself to define where you end and where your child begins. This isn’t always easy. And let’s face it, children push the boundaries every day, all the time. They are wired to test us and see how far they can go; it’s in their nature. As parents, we sometimes cross boundaries ourselves in our attempts to fix things for them. Understand that one of our most important jobs as parents is to stay loving and but sometimes separate from our children.

We do this by clearly defining our principles, staying in our role as a parent, and sticking to our bottom lines.

How do you know if your child is pushing boundaries? Here are some examples:

  • Your child interrupts your conversations without saying “excuse me” or waiting politely for a chance to get your attention.
  • Your child tells you what to do and throws tantrums if you don’t do what he / she says.
  • Reluctance to do what is asked of them.

How does it feel when boundaries are crossed?

Sometimes we get clear indications that it’s happening, while other times, it’s more subtle. You might feel anxious or uncomfortable, angry, tense, embarrassed, resentful, or put upon. Other times, you could react by feeling diminished, despair or defeated.

You might also see your child acting as if they are the one in charge!

Over-functioning or smothering parenting.

When we get anxious about our children, we often over-function for them and that’s when boundaries can get blurred. This can mean that we do too much for them!

At the root of all this is ‘anxiety’. When you become nervous about your child’s success or ability to handle things in life (whether it’s in school, with friends, in sports, or with his or her ability to behave appropriately), it might feel as if you’re alleviating stress by jumping in and taking control instead of letting your child work things out for themselves.

Believe me, I understand that it’s painful to see our children struggle in life; we love them and feel responsible for them, so we naturally want to make things better for them and “fix things.” But know that when you aren’t able to let your child work through obstacles on their own, you’re denying them an important experience—the experience of how to overcome disappointment, how to deal with an argument with a friend, or how to talk to her teacher about a grade. I’m not saying that we should never help, guide, coach and teach our children; of course, we should—that’s a huge part of what it means to be a parent. What I’m saying is that we need to let them try to fight their own battles when possible and appropriate, rather than taking on their battles for them. Letting your child work through things is a way to respect them by observing their boundaries—and your own.

So how can you set good solid boundaries with your children? Here are 4 tips that will help you get there:

1. Define your boundaries. To develop boundaries for yourself, you have to know what you value, think and where you stand. This is not always easy to define, but it’s so important that your child knows who you are and what you believe. This doesn’t mean you should be rigid; it means you communicate your personal values and stick to them. If your value is to be honest, for example, then talk it and walk it. Children are guided in life by watching what you do, which often makes more of an impression than what you say.

2. Make your expectations known. Make a list of what you expect for yourself in relation to your child. Think about what you can and can’t live with; think through what matters most to you. Is it responsibility, loyalty, respect? If it’s helpful for you, write it down. Tell your children what your guiding principles are. Notice in coming up with this list that you are not attempting to control your child but rather, you are taking charge of yourself. If one of your principles is “respect” and your child is frequently rude to you, calls you names or ignores you, let them know the consequence they can expect from you each time that happens. Let them see that you respect yourself and will follow through. This is different than trying to “make them” speak the way you want them to. You’re giving them the choice, whilst holding them accountable.

3. Get your focus on yourself instead of your child. When your child is acting poorly and not listening to you, think about how you can more clearly communicate what you expect—and hold them accountable when they don’t listen. Try to say things in a way that conveys that you mean business; expect to be listened to and taken seriously. As difficult as it is to look at yourself openly and honestly, it will help you to stop doing the impossible—which is like hitting your head against the wall as you try in vain to control your child. Instead it will open you to the possibility of taking charge of yourself. By doing this, you will be continuing your own growth. Your own self-knowledge and maturity will help lead your children to find theirs.

4. Let your child feel the impact of a crossed boundary. Help your child to experience the impact of crossing boundaries so that it becomes part of their reality. Admit when you have crossed someone else’s boundary and apologise for it. And when your children cross one, let them know and hold them accountable. Let’s say you promise your child that you will go to a favourite place of theirs after completing their homework or chores (for older children)—but they decide to play instead. If you follow through by ‘not’ taking them, your child will experience the consequences, and will come to understand on a deep level what you expect for yourself. They will know that you respect yourself and mean what you say. Eventually, they will learn good boundaries for themselves and how to respect others, as well.

Don’t Beat Yourself up!

Sometimes parents have a hard time holding on to themselves and their boundaries even though they know it’s in their child’s best interest. This can happen because we are simply worn out. You’re having a difficult time staying “separate” from your child. We all have hard times, moments when we give in. Nobody—and no parent—is perfect. Instead of beating yourself up for this, you might have to let yourself off the hook for letting them off the hook. Simply try your best not to make it a pattern. You may have inadvertently programmed your children to get you to finally give in out of exhaustion. Or you may have to consider that you are so wiped that it’s not possible for you to hold on to yourself. In that case, you may have to work on building up your resilience through exercise, getting more sleep, and getting more involved in your own life and goals.

Final word…

When you know where you stand, you’ll know what you will and won’t put up with from your child. Define your boundaries and try to stick to your principles rather than reacting to your moment-to-moment emotions. If you let your thoughts and principles drive you, you won’t let your emotions determine your parenting—and both you and your child will be happier for it.

I am a parent and I know how hard it can be sometimes. There will always be good days and other days. Let the ‘other’day go and move on. I am at the end of the phone if you would like to talk to me about this issue or any other.

Good luck

Holly Bowden Holmes

FAPHP (acc) DHP HPD Supervisor (acc)
NLP, Coaching
Accredited Member and Supervisor
of the APHP


ARFID therapist Essex.
Child Behaviour and Eating Disorder Specialist. 

As with any therapy no guarantees or refunds can be offered but I will do everything within my power to help you address, overcome or achieve whatever had brought you to my office. My commitment to my profession and to my clients is an ethical lifetime obligation forwhich I am passionate.

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