Our San Francisco pediatricians consider the holistic needs of children, and psychological and emotional skills like “boundary setting” are valuable skills to teach.
“The most compassionate people are also the most boundaried,” said Dr. Brene Brown, American professor, author, and podcast host known for her work on courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy.
Teaching your kids about boundaries, both setting boundaries for themselves as well as respecting those of others, will serve them over a lifetime. A group of researchers from North Dakota State University argues that learning to set age-appropriate boundaries is an integral factor in young people’s development.
Boundaries can be defined as the set of limits that a person sets for themselves within relationships. While these limits can be physical or emotional, they can likewise be based on time. For example: If you are cooking dinner for the family, tell your child you cannot read them a story while preparing a meal. With clear boundaries, children can decide what they are comfortable with and what makes them uneasy, giving them a sense of control. As they take care of their own needs, boundaried children (and adults!) tend to be more compassionate and are able to cultivate healthier relationships.
While the construct of boundaries might be too abstract for younger children to grasp, there are some age-appropriate ways to introduce this concept. Here are some examples.
Create A Circle Boundary
The concept of a circle is a wonderful way to help children visualize a boundary, especially for younger kids who may be unaware of the various categories of people they interact with and the appropriate behavior within each category. Start by drawing a circle and labeling it as people in the family. Then draw concentric circles around the family circle to represent the other people your child may interact with or encounter, including close friends and acquaintances, and then the farthest out is the “strangers circle”. Use this image to have a conversation with your child about the appropriate types of behaviors for each category. For instance, they can give hugs and kisses to those in the family circle but not to those in the “strangers circle”. This will help them determine the necessary boundaries they may want to consider imposing for each person they meet.
Something else you can do is to set physical “circle boundaries” at home with fun activities for kids. For example, teach your children to keep their toys, books, and other belongings in their own room, so they don’t interfere with the activities of other people. If their toys are in the living room, share with them why that disturbs you, helping them understand the need to keep their belongings in their own circle (their room). This approach teaches your kids the concept of physical boundaries, helping them become more sensitive to the feelings of others.
It’s OK to say NO
Saying no is a basic skill every child should learn. In fact, letting your children know that it is okay to say no allows them to develop a sense of autonomy. More importantly, it will enable them to cultivate feelings of self-worth and self-respect. You might try to role-play various scenarios like saying no to a family member asking for a hug. This helps empower your child to decline offers from others in real-life situations.
While practicing saying no, you can also teach your child about how to react when someone says no to them. Looking at the situation from the opposite perspective provides a more in-depth understanding of what boundaries mean and helps them understand the decisions of others.
Use sports and exercise
Participation in sports provides another opportunity to teach boundaries to a child. The relationships between coaches, teammates, and the opposing team all differ. A child instinctively understands the togetherness of their own team, the respect for the other team and the role of the coach. These relationships can be used to transfer ideas around boundaries to everyday life.
As a parent, set a good example of healthy boundaries
In our article on raising honest children, we shared that modeling the behavior you want your child to exhibit is one of the most successful teaching strategies. For instance, if you made a mistake, own it to show your child the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions.
The same goes for establishing and respecting boundaries. If you want children to respect the limitations set by you and others, you must show that you acknowledge and respect their boundaries. Children learn by “modeling” or imitating the behaviors they see around them.
Encourage them to read books about boundaries
Finally, another way to demonstrate the concept of boundaries to children is by introducing them to situations or scenarios that portray healthy boundaries. This can be done through age-appropriate books such as Don’t Hug Doug by Carrie Finison, a picture book for 4- to 7-year-olds. For elementary school children check out Consent (for Kids!) by Rachel Brian, a fun and playful comic that even touches on bodily autonomy.
Teaching children the importance of establishing and maintaining boundaries requires thought, time, and patience. That said, the benefits are well worth the effort as you will help them grow into someone who not only respects others but, most importantly, themselves.
Article written by Alicia Sawyer for the exclusive use of GetzWell Personalized Pediatrics.