Teaching Healthy Boundaries to Your Kids

by Gideon
April 1, 2020

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Teaching healthy boundaries to your kids is one of the best ways to set them up for a sense of safety and eventual success.

Even when your children are quite small, it’s important to begin instructing them about boundaries between themselves and others, as that lays a foundation for their behavioural development within your family.

Moreover, a child who grows up in a home having healthy boundaries and limits will also learn to apply those boundaries in their own life later on.

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Before I share a few thoughts on teaching healthy boundaries to your kids, let me just make one or two important comments:

One, yes, I am a dad of two kids and we’ve managed to keep them alive for between 9 and 12 years, but that doesn’t make me an expert on parenting at all.

Two, I try and be a good dad but more often than not, I suck at it.

Three, I was raised in a very particular time, place and culture which most likely influenced my parenting style hugely.

Yes, we had to play outside a lot.

Yes, we had to learn how to self-entertain and be self-efficient very quickly (your parents weren’t there to keep you busy).

Yes, the rules that applied at your house, also applied at your friends’ house … and got enforced the same way.

And yes, any punishment was more often than not, swift, instant, and painful.

No, our parents didn’t practice all that much mindfulness and great eastern philosophy inspired parenting.

No, our parents never changed their schedules to fit in with us; we had to fall in with our parents.

You ate what they ate.

You went to bed when they said it was time.

You drank water out of a tap.

Your choice of lollies was what your dad liked.

Your dad was the law.

Your mum was the enforcer.

Your older siblings were the guards … usually corrupt.

And I’m not even going to get into what school was like.

It was essentially a case of knowing your place or be put in your place.

Now, did any of this mess many of us up?

Probably.

But then again, kids seemed happy and content for the most part.

I could be wrong.

Many of us are still respectful of our elders.

We still contribute to society in helpful ways.

We try and keep the law.

We try and work hard to provide for our families.

Can any of us do better at dealing with our emotions?

Yes.

Can any of us learn how to be more flexible and less strict?

For sure.

But there’s no doubt in my mind that it wasn’t all bad.

However, that’s all anecdotal and doesn’t count for much.

I’m also sure most Psychologists and parenting experts reading this would totally disagree and most like argue that very little of what passed as parenting was actually parenting … according to the research of course.

So, what I’m saying to you is this …

Take what I’m sharing with you here with a grain of salt.

This is my perspective.

My 2 cents.

Yes, I will share some ‘professional’ insights where I can, but just take all of this as a dad being in lockdown, with too much time on his hands, sharing a few thoughts.

Cool?

Great.

So, with all of that said, let me now share with you what I’ve observed with both kids and adults.

There seems to be a very powerful principle to put in place as soon as possible if you want to create more certainty and success in your life long-term.

And just to clarify, my focus in this post will be teaching healthy boundaries to your kids

But this principle does seem to make a huge difference for both kids and adults in the short and long run.

What is it?

Learning the principle of healthy boundaries.

We know that kids are often required to make split-second decisions that can lead to either a smooth or troublesome path.

“Do I draw on the couch or the wall?”

Stuff like that, you know.

And as a parent, you need to respond to that in the most effective way while helping your children learn how to make positive choices long term.

It’s quite tricky at times.

But it has to be done.

And one way I have found that sets your children up for feeling secure in the short run and being successful in the long run is to establish good boundaries with them early on.

When you set boundaries for your kids, you essentially provide gentle “cushions” that will stop them whenever they’re about to bump into something that can cause distress and too much deviation.

As soon as children “hit the cushion” (the boundary), they’re reminded to alter their behaviours.

But the question becomes, “Deviation from what”, or “Alter their behaviours in what way?” 

The simplest way to answer that is to refer to the pack or tribe.

Every tribe has a certain order.

That order is maintained and upheld by certain foundational values, expectations, and required roles and behaviours.

There is also a hierarchy, in the sense that it has leaders, specialised roles, and dependent members.

And in order for a tribe to not just survive but thrive, it has to function in unison and towards a common goal(s).

Everyone has to play their part.

Young and old.

Weak and strong.

Those leading and those following.

When any of this deviates, either the tribe suffers or the nature of the tribe changes.

Part of the reason why humans have survived and thrived for so long, despite finding themselves in very challenging environments at times, is because of our ability to work together for the benefit and survival of our tribe.

Unfortunately, at times, this also works against us when we deploy this strength against each other.

The point is, however, that if you establish appropriate tribe-centred boundaries for your young kids, the children will learn to better control themselves in relation to, as well as in service of, the tribe they belong to.

And as they develop self-control, your kids also grow their capacity to make positive choices beyond your input or direction and also start contributing to the overall success of their tribe.

So, even when your children are quite small, it’s important to begin instructing them about boundaries between themselves and others, as well as what is required and expected in the tribe they belong to.

Moreover, a child who grows up in a home (tribe) having healthy limits and boundaries will also learn to apply such boundaries in their own life, especially when they leave the pack to eventually start their own tribe (as an extension of the first one).

Teaching healthy boundaries to your kids is, therefore, not just about teaching them certain rules, but more about teaching them to tap into one of our “superpowers” as humans and how to use that effectively to thrive in life.

Now, with all of that conceptual stuff explained, let’s now turn to a few practicalities around teaching healthy boundaries to your kids.

  • Firstly, what is a “boundary”?
  • What do we need to keep in mind when teaching healthy boundaries to your kids?
  • And what is the best way to teach healthy boundaries to your kids?

Let’s start with …

What Does A “Healthy Boundary” Mean, As It Pertains To Kids?

A boundary signifies a limit that a person has. Such limits can be physical or emotional.

Physical boundaries

The first important type of boundary or limit that kids need to learn about, is that a boundary can be physical and tangible; like one’s own body parts.

Yes, a child tends to be part of a family (tribe) and each member has a role within that pack.

However, each member is also still an individual with personal boundaries.

One such boundary is physical boundaries.

A child, therefore, must be taught that his or her body belongs only to them and nobody else.

An extension to that is to teach a kid that their sense of physical self belongs to them and nobody else.

Explaining, “Daddy’s body belongs to him” and “Your body belongs to you” is a good place to start.

Teaching children the importance of physical boundaries not only give them a sense of personal worth but also put in place safety measures.

Even though an individual is part of the tribe, that member must never get absorbed by the tribe.

That usually leads to all sorts of atrocities and abuse.

The child, in my opinion, should always have the freedom to express and protect their own physical boundaries.

A practical example of this would be to teach siblings to respect and honour the physical boundaries of each other.

For example, I’ve never been a big fan of tickling.

Some of the worst experiences I’ve had in the past was the result of tickling.

When a “mob” of kids turned on one “victim” and hold him or her down to be tickled.

Oftentimes the kid would resist and yell “no” without avail.

Now, even though this is often just playing and a completely innocent thing, it is a violation of physical boundaries (in my opinion).

Consequently, one of the things that I’ve always been quite strict about is teaching our kids, especially my son in regards to his sister, to ALWAYS respect the word “no”.

Differently put, when someone says “Stop!”, or “I don’t like it”, you respect that and immediately alter your behaviour.

Again, this might seem like a very innocent thing, but also consider what you are teaching a child about how to treat members of their tribe.

And going back to a previous point, also consider how not teaching this principle would play out in their life beyond their initial tribe.

There is definitely a place, I believe, for siblings to work things out among themselves.

They are effectively “fighting” for a better position in the pecking order of the tribe.

It’s normal.

Puppies do it and kids do it.

That is also something that will always be a reality for people whether in business or any career they will end up in.

So, learning that early on is a good thing.

But there are also limits to this.

Within our tribe (family), we are trying very hard to teach our children that there is no room for the “abuse of power.”

That’s not how “we do things”.

That doesn’t mean we’re not going to have a conversation around the fact that it does happen beyond our tribe.

It simply means that it’s not how we do things.

And when you abuse your freedom to abuse others, you will be met with the full weight of the tribe.

This brings us to the second type of important boundary …

Emotional boundaries

What is an emotional boundary? 

Teaching children that it’s not okay to say hurtful things to others is an example of an emotional boundary.

Teasing would be another way of crossing a person’s emotional boundary.

In a sense, teaching healthy boundaries to your kids is about understanding their own worth as individual but in the same breath also understanding the worth of others.

It is not a one-way street.

It doesn’t just go one way.

It is therefore vitally important to teach kids to honour and respect another person as a “whole” being.

A person isn’t just physical but also emotional (even spiritual).

It’s not just about what they can see.

It’s also about the intangible.

Children can learn that other people, like their parents and siblings (initially), are more than what they can see.

These other people also have feelings and our actions can impact those feelings.

And funnily enough, children seem to grasp this pretty early on.

But even if they struggle with it initially, it’s really about creating awareness within them that other people are more than just the physical.

In a sense, what you’re teaching them is that boundaries are rules that you live by that protect yourself and others.

If you think about it, living with boundaries basically means, “I won’t do anything to harm you” (physically and emotionally) and “I expect you not to do anything to harm me, but if you do, I’ll let you know.”

This is essentially the principle you’re trying to get across.

It’s not about the details so much because every day is different with too many variables.

It’s about awareness and a certain concept of reality (how things work).

In other words, you have a framework of “do no harm” which forms the boundary within which your tribe operates.

Which, by the way, highlights another very important point …

In order to establish and enforce certain boundaries within your tribe, you as the leader and role model must first have 100% clarity on what the foundational values and guiding principles of your tribe are.

When this is fluctuating or irregular, maintaining consistency becomes impossible.

In so many families one thing goes one day and another the next day.

This is too inconsistent.

It also destroys any sense of certainty any member of the tribe might have.

Because it’s unpredictable.

Nobody knows what comes and goes and when.

This makes it difficult for everyone to navigate the waters, especially the kids.

Teaching Healthy Boundaries To Your Kids

When you’re raising kids to have healthy boundaries, it’s important to allow the children to have and express their own feelings.

This one can be pretty tough for some parents as it isn’t too unusual for us as parents to squelch our child’s healthy behavioural expression.

I’ve probably done this too many times to count.

But I’ve also learned a few things along the way.

As a trained professional counsellor and someone who is obsessed with reading personal development and psychology books, I started thinking differently about many things.

Emotions would be one of them.

I definitely think it’s important to teach our kids that it’s okay and normal to feel the way you do, and also to express how you feel.

But there are helpful and unhelpful ways you can teach your child to do this, of course.

I also think that it’s a powerful thing to start teaching children how we actually generate emotions as people.

Now, perhaps I have an advantage here because of past studying and research, but much of it is also common sense.

When we only focus on bad things, we tend to feel worse.

That’s simple and easy to understand.

I’ve worked with many clients in the past who struggle to deal with their emotions effectively because nobody ever taught them how.

At some point, they received a message from those around them that either what they were feeling was inappropriate, or they had to simply suck it up and move on.

None of which is helpful long-term.

The thing with emotions is, they are normal.

Much of it is biological or physiological in nature.

Hardwired in our brain.

In other words, we don’t really have a say over whether we feel them or not.

However, how we choose to respond to what we are feeling is of course within our control.

That can be done in a helpful or unhelpful manner.

And kids can learn this from a young age.

There are ways to express our feelings in a helpful way, and there are ways that we can do it in an unhelpful way.

There are things that we can do to fully “feel” our emotions, allow them to pass, and to move on.

But there are also things we can do that will render us stuck in a certain emotional state which, over time, can become quite unhealthy.

So, how can we help our kids with this?

One healthy strategy to ensure your 4-year-old develops healthy boundaries is to help them label their feelings.

Remember, young children, don’t have the language yet to assign to the emotions they are feeling.

We need to help them.

You could say something like, “I see that you’re frustrated that you can’t have the candy right now. Maybe you can have some after dinner when you’ve helped clean up the dishes.”

Then, move on with life.

You helped him or her to label their emotions, gave them a tribal task, and set a boundary.

There was no need for punishment or demanding them to stop crying.

As a parent, you just showed acceptance of your child’s feelings, gave them responsibility, and set a healthy boundary.

Furthermore, each time you behave this way as a parent, you’re reinforcing your child’s natural sense of self and boundaries.

But you’re also reinforcing the fact that your tribe has certain values, responsibilities, and limits.

Also, there will be situations and times when you, as a parent, will have to explain the reason for some boundaries or “rules” to a child.

For example, explaining to a child that “In this family, being healthy is very important because it keeps us strong and more able to help each other, which is why we don’t eat too much candy all the time.”

Or something like that.

As a parent, it’s important to teach your kid that it’s okay to appropriately express feelings BUT also deal with it when that doesn’t happen.

The keyword here is “appropriately.”

You can (should) tell your kids it’s okay to have and express angry feelings, but it’s not okay to throw a toy at parents or siblings.

For kids as young as 2 or 3 years, you can definitely begin to set boundaries like this one.

But expect children of these ages to occasionally “test the limits,” or challenge your boundaries.

This is completely normal.

But when these testing behaviours occur, think of each situation as an opportunity to show kids the consequences for violating the tribe’s boundaries (which are an extension of its values).

If they go ahead and throw a toy at you (or a sibling), have them sit in a chair for the number of minutes that matches their age (if they’re 2 years old, they sit for 2 minutes; 3 years old, 3 minutes).

This is not so much about punishment as it is about establishing a consequence for certain actions that potentially “harms” the tribe.

It’s sometimes also about getting them to cool off, as kids can work themselves into a frenzy (not unlike many adults).

During the episode, show no feelings.

Be firm, but not frustrated or angry.

This isn’t the time to be angry or lose your own cool.

Simply state to him or her, “It’s not okay to throw a toy at Daddy. When you throw a toy, you don’t’ get to play anymore and have to sit in that chair,” and say nothing more until the minutes have passed.

Then, thank the child for sitting in the chair and go on with your day.

Hopefully, the child will not throw a toy again.

Instead, they’ll see that you allowed them to have and show feelings without punishment, as long as they stayed within the tribe’s boundaries.

If they do, however, throw the toy again, one of two things can happen:

  1.  they go back to the chair (you have to be consistent), and/or
  2. they lose the toy (and have to earn it back).

Again, none of this must be done with anger or aggression frustration on your part.

There is no need for it.

Their emotions are completely normal, and they should be free to express them.

But they also need to learn there are more appropriate ways to do that, and there are still boundaries in place.

Just because I get insanely angry at my boss, doesn’t mean I get to harm him or her.

It’s ok to feel anger (it’s normal) but it’s not ok to cause harm (inappropriate response).

I’m a big proponent of the idea that it’s important to understand that you’re not raising a child but a grown-up.

It is therefore important to keep the long game in mind.

It’s important to have clarity on the exact values and principles you value as a parent, to set boundaries around them, consistently reinforce those boundaries, and allow your children to be free within those boundaries.

This brings me to the most powerful way of teaching healthy boundaries to your kids …

Modelling Boundaries 

Ultimately, the single best way to teach your kids healthy boundaries is for parents to have healthy boundaries themselves and to model them in the home.

Modelling is hands down one of the most powerful and helpful principles I’ve come across in life so far.

It’s the idea that for every result you want to create, someone else has already done that.

All you need to do is reverse engineer their process and replicate it in your own situation.

This is the fastest way to get to any result you want.

In the context of teaching healthy boundaries to your kids, YOU essentially become the example they model.

There is obviously a lot of trial and error with this approach, but it is very effective in the long run.

Kids tend to model what they see and observe.

Not what you tell them.

For example, showing respect for each person in the house, ensuring everyone has rights to their feelings and appropriate expressions of them and talking openly and honestly about any challenging issues, demonstrate healthy boundaries to your kids rather than just talk to them about it.

And that goes for most other things as well …

If you want to increase the chances of them reading more books then … Read books.

If you want them to be more health-conscious then … Set the tone yourself.

If you want them to be kind to other people then … Lead from the front.

It is extremely difficult to demand of your kids a certain standard when they don’t see you demonstrating it.

Therefore, model the boundaries that you want to have in your tribe.

Don’t just talk about them.

Demonstrate them.

In Summary

From the time our children are born, we’re charged to teach them many things so they’ll grow up to be happy, healthy members of society.

It’s truly a huge responsibility and ask.

And teaching your children about limits and boundaries shows your kids a truly healthy way to live. 

Because that’s how the world works, in my opinion.

And parents who ensure their kids grow up learning about limits and boundaries provide a solid foundation for their children’s futures.

So, apply some of these methods in your home to teach your kids about having and maintaining healthy limits and boundaries.

But always remember to lead from the front.

You cannot demand what you don’t demonstrate.

I hope you found something of value in this post.

About the author 

Gideon

Gideon is the founder of TheRelationshipGuy.com, a top-50 relationship blog (2021) and top-100 marriage blog (2021) which focuses on providing healthy relationship advice about love and life. He earned a Master's degree in theological studies before training as a professional counsellor and hypnotherapist (DipProfCouns., DipMSHT.) almost 10 years ago. He completed a graduate diploma in Psychology and is currently pursuing postgraduate Psychology studies at Massey University. He has been married to his wife for over sixteen years and is the father of two children. His articles have been published on Marriage.com and The Good Men Project.

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