The earlier in a child’s life that we start setting limits and boundaries, the easier they’ll get accustomed to following rules, trusting you and themselves, and feeling secure in exploring the world around them.
Let me elaborate.
When a child begins to roll and turn in their crib, we set limits for their safety, whether it’d be pillows, raising the handles on the crib, or removing any objects that could cause them harm. As they begin to crawl, we run to the nearest hardware store to buy the strongest and safest baby gate to block their path and ensure that they remain in a designated safe area. Once they are up and walking, we are also walking and running after them, removing harmful objects near them, and keeping them safe.
These are boundaries that just make sense.
But what changes over time?
Why does setting boundaries become more difficult to impose as kids get older? The obvious answer: Kids change and We change. Kids become more independent and we let them enjoy their independence and the world around them. Only now they are not exploring the family room or the kitchen, now they are going to school, karate class, a friend’s house, and the park. If they know to follow certain boundaries early in their lives, it will be easier for them to accept new limits as they grow.
Below are three easy-to-apply steps to begin setting boundaries.
Step 1: Assess what boundaries your child Needs.
Boundaries need to be tailored to each child’s needs. They should be implemented according to the child’s developmental level, personality, and family environment. Although it would be easier to have a ‘one size fits all’ mentality when it comes to boundaries, this is not always the case. Even siblings of the same gender and similar age have different needs and thus, may require different limits. Think back to the beginning of the article: babies needed boundaries to keep them safe while allowing them to explore their immediate environment. Allowing kids to explore their world is extremely beneficial and healthy to their development as this is essential to their learning process. As a school-age child, we need to implement boundaries that allow equal opportunities for exploring, learning, and socializing that are age-appropriate. These boundaries need to work for your family as well. For instance, boundaries will be different if you live in a house (stay in the front yard) vs. an apartment (you can go to the playground with your older brother). Additionally, those children with an easier personality may most likely accept limits more calmly than those with a stronger personality. This is important to keep in mind as each child will have individual needs. Start small and stay steady when applying these limitations.
Step 2: Think about the Message that you want to send with these boundaries.
What do you want to communicate to your child? Children tend to respond more when they know the reasons behind our actions, hence our limits. As children grow, it helps to involve them in the decisions that may alter their day-to-day lives. This means that “Because I said so” will not be as readily acceptable as explaining the reasoning for not letting them out after dark. Keep in mind that when we provide expectations in advance, it also helps the child understand the ‘why’ of the limits being implemented. By establishing rules, your child learns to trust you and themselves, and they can anticipate what will happen next. Sometimes, when we are upset at our children, we may scream and exaggerate the punishments that we give them as these are made when our intense emotions are running high. By letting them know what’s to come, they will trust that these decisions were made proactively rather than reactively to a negative, stressful event.
Step 3: Assess, apply, test, Re-assess, Re-apply, Re-test.
The third step is to think about what boundaries would work for your child, apply them slowly, and test them to see if they work or not. Sometimes parents tend to establish rules and boundaries after the fact. After you caught your teenager sneaking around, after you received a call from the principal that he was skipping class, or when you noticed that she took your clothes to a friend’s house. All these scenarios could be a cause for discipline, but that’s another blog post. The main idea is that when we have previously established clear and simple rules and boundaries, kids are more likely to follow them. Will they follow them 100% of the time? Probably not. But they will think about them often and we hope that they follow them most of the time. It is the parent’s job to think about these boundaries and change them as often as they need. The point is to make them easy to follow and adapt them if they do not work. Involve your teenager as much as you can when establishing these limits as they are more likely to follow them if they feel part of the process.
If you have read this far, then it means you are ready to execute these steps. Try it out, see if it works, and adapt these steps as necessary to your child and your family. The most important thing you can do today is Start. Don’t try to change too many things at the same time. Don’t try to implement too many boundaries at the same time. Try one to two at a time and see what works. For families with more than two children in the same household, try one boundary at a time per child. If you feel overwhelmed with trying to keep track of all the boundaries for all the kids, chances are that your kids will feel equally overwhelmed with too many rules. You’d like this process to go as smoothly as possible as the goal is to increase harmony in the home by establishing appropriate expectations ahead of time.
Dr. Ailyn Payan is a Licensed Psychologist who specializes in children and adolescents. She has her own private practice in the south of Florida where she enjoys servicing the community and helping parents find joy in their relationship with their kids.
Dr. Payan is also a proud mother of three beautiful teenage boys and one very smart little girl who understands the difficulties in raising kids and shaping them to become the best version of themselves. For a FREE 15-minute consultation, you can call her at 305-972-5564 or email her at DrPayan@mindfulamity.com.