The world of psychology and parent-child relationships appears artificially split between the school of attachment and the school of behaviorism. The attachment folks frown upon sleep training and consequences while the behaviorists balk at parents leaning in to hug a child while he is dysregulated. I know this to be true because I come from both worlds and I conceptualize children’s distress using both frameworks – hence the proof that they can indeed be integrated. The truth is, no matter which school of thought you ascribe to and which parenting books sit on your nightstand, boundaries are a necessary component of life (and parenting). When we fail to assert boundaries with our children, we fail to prepare them for the real world. Why? Because the real world is filled with boundaries. Laws of society, rules of belonging to a group, our jobs, higher education, and social nuances are filled with daily intersections that require one to successfully navigate boundaries. We know that children who learn to respect boundaries fare off better in their future because their future success is largely dependent on their ability to navigate boundaries set by external forces.
Children need boundaries because the freedom of not having limits is quite scary for them. While the initial thrill of it is exciting, over time it creates increased anxiety. Having to make decisions about right and wrong without a confident parent to show you the way is scary to children because it is developmentally inappropriate and burdensome. Children need a balance between freedom and limits and it is in this careful balance where secure attachment rests. Setting and holding loving, rational boundaries is not the same thing as authoritarian (aka “my way or the highway” parenting). It does not rob children of their ability to form a sense of self and break rules in most developmentally appropriate but safe ways. It does not prohibit a child from thinking for themselves. It does not create “yes men”. I list these reassurances because they are the very same concerns I get from parents (and some well-intentioned educators, therapists, and parenting coaches) when I state my position. Loving, reasonable boundaries that are given by an emotionally mature parent who is able to reflect on the boundaries (as well as the way they are delivered) are incredibly healthy for children. In fact, we know that children raised by such parents are more likely to have higher self esteem, social and academic success, and independence as adults. They also report less depression, anxiety, and drug use.
“Loving, reasonable boundaries that are given by an emotionally mature parent who is able to reflect on the boundaries (as well as the way they are delivered) are incredibly healthy for children.” Let’s break this statement down:
→ What does holding a loving boundary look like?
Loving and reasonable boundaries provide structure for our children. Holding a loving boundary involves keeping the rules simple, being clear and positive, staying consistent, and being logical. It means using the boundary as a teaching moment and seizing those teaching moments as they appear throughout the days, and years. For example, it is necessary to set boundaries around your child’s eating habits to condition them for a healthy relationship with food. Parents who say, “I need to see you having a nutritious meal before that cookie” or, “No, you may not have another cookie for dessert tonight; that is too much sugar for your body” embody a positive approach and a logical response. Stick to the boundaries you placed and let your child know that these boundaries are there because you care. Parents that give loving boundaries serve the child’s growth and learning for living in the real world.
Lovingly enforcing boundaries serves the child’s growth and development rather than serving the parent’s ego. An example many of us may be familiar with is the guilt that often comes along with saying “no” to our child and watching the disappointment play out. The rewards of these limits and boundaries begin to show up over time once we move past the temporary feeling of guilt, shame and disappointing our child. Our acceptance of our feelings for not wanting to upset our child or see them in distress eases the need for our child to test those limits; boundaries are a profound way we can express our love. Parents must set aside their ego in order to achieve the ultimate goal. As child development expert Janet Lansbury explains, “We confidently establish a boundary… Our child expresses displeasure which can include frustration, disappointment, sadness, anger, rage… We stay anchored during this storm, patiently accepting and acknowledging our child’s displeasure.” We apply this process for the child’s overall well being. Boundaries teach our children appropriate behavior and serve as a skill-building tool for handling the realities of adulthood.
→ What does a parent’s ability to reflect on the boundary (as well as its delivery) look like?
As parents, we need to be able to take time to reflect on our parenting, which includes our mistakes as well as our successes. Identifying the areas of improvement as parents allows us to model the behaviors and decision making we want our children to imitate. A parent can reflect by observing their intentions for certain rules, and making adjustments when they realize a boundary they have placed serves their own ego rather than the child’s development. Parents also should clarify any confusing rules and revise how they will deliver the rule in a positive and clearer way. Finally, it is important to be aware that the delivery of the boundary impacts how your child receives the message. Set limits with intentions for your child’s safety and well being. Let them know that these boundaries are important for them and you are setting them because you care. To facilitate this process of reflection, ask yourself these questions at the end of a boundary-setting interaction:
Am I proud of how I handled myself?
If I had to do that all over again, would I do it the same way?
Am I being the parent I want to be?
Did I deliver that boundary in a non-reactive, calm manner which aims to teach rather than punish my children or express my own frustration?
→ What does an emotionally mature parent look like?
An emotionally mature parent is aware of emotional regulation, coping skills, and knows that maturity matters. Emotionally mature parents are able to self-soothe, realize when they are being emotional and reactive versus rational and clear, and take care of their own emotions. Emotionally reactive parents are more likely to set harsh, impulsive boundaries because they struggle to regulate themselves.
Emotionally mature parents are also able to self validate and do not rely on their children (or other external forces) for validation that they have made the right choice. In order to hold a boundary with your child, you need to accept that you will not always be your child’s favorite person at every moment. Your child will be angry with you at times for holding a boundary and you will need to know how to self soothe around that experience. This is where a parent’s emotional maturity really counts: your ability to self validate when your child tells you that you are “the worst parent in the world” (for holding an appropriate boundary) is crucial. Parents who desperately need to be liked and validated by their children struggle to hold boundaries because of the mere fact that sometimes it feels awful! Just like when you first teach your child to ride a bike and they fall and cry and blame you…it’s kind of like that but worse.
No one wants to voluntarily upset their child, and consciously asserting a boundary is often a choice to voluntarily upset your child – it may not be for the sake of upsetting them, but this is often the result. So if you are grounded in external validation and your children’s opinion of you is critical to your self esteem, it may be wise to start by working on self validation before you work on your boundaries.
Setting limits is especially difficult towards the end of the day when we are tired and drained. Toss in some hunger and a cranky child and you have a recipe for disaster. But wait! As if that weren’t enough, then there’s the PANDEMIC. It is significantly harder to set limits in a pandemic because we see our children already grieving an aching. I say this with full confidence, not only as a clinical psychologist, but also as a mother. Our children’s lives have been turned upside down; they have less contact with friends, have been uprooted from a stable school schedule, and their social life has been replaced by social isolation, to a large extent. For this reason, it may be tempting to soothe children with extra privileges, such as more screen time and treats in an attempt to comfort them. Realistically, this only leads to momentary relief and results in long term problems. What children need now is quite similar to what they have always needed: clear, confident, present parents who can set and enforce limits and comfort them through the warmth and security of the parent-child relationship, rather than momentary distractions and shortcuts.
I often find that I need to remind parents that “no” is a full sentence. Sometimes a simple, neutral “no” is the best boundary you can set, foregoing the typical explanation or monologue that tends to accompany it. Sometimes, letting the “no” stand there, clear, quiet, and powerful is the most appropriate way to set a boundary. When we provide long explanations and background reasoning with every single “no” we deliver, we fail to prepare our children for the many simple and unexplained “no’s” they will need to accept from others in their lifetime. We set them up to believe that everything is up for debate and negotiation. We lead them to believe that people will always defend or explain their boundary setting, which simply is not the case.
Every organization needs leaders, and your household is no exception. To successfully run your household, you need a clear power hierarchy that includes parents at the top. This means that you need to learn to lovingly use that power to teach and to facilitate your child’s growth and development. How? Through boundaries.
Through boundaries that are well thought out, planned in advance, agreed upon with your
spouse (or former spouse) and delivered warmly and non-reactively.
Through boundaries that sometimes come with an explanation, but not always.
Through boundaries that don’t need to be defended.
Through boundaries that reflect mature and conscious parenting.