Boundaries are something every child needs to learn. This is not an overnight process, but rather an introduction and gradual implementation of rules and respect. A young child cannot instantly understand rules and respect overnight, but a parent can take steps to make sure their child learns how to respect themselves and learn how to be aware of others’ needs and respect them as well.
Boundaries can include situations where the child feels unsafe or pressured. They can learn how to say “no” or “stop” and seek help from an adult. Other boundaries might include no hitting or taking things that do not belong to them, or learning how to share.
Less is More
As your child becomes more self-aware and aware of others and their feelings, it is important to understand that the fewer boundaries that exist, the better the chance your child has of adhering to them. Thirty different rules and understandings will only confuse a child. Too many boundaries can also make a child feel overly restricted and afraid to speak and act as they would naturally. By initially setting five or less boundaries for your child, they can better remember and practice these new rules.
Implementation of Boundaries
So how exactly do you implement new boundaries? Trying to get your child not only to follow these new boundaries, but understand them, can be challenging. Parents can point out specific, relevant examples to help their child better understand. For example, if your child takes another child’s toy, and one of the boundaries you as a parent has set is to “not take other’s things.” You can help your child understand this by asking them some questions such as:
“Is this toy yours?”
“Would you like it if I took your toy away?”
“How do you think that made (child’s name) feel?”
The goal of asking questions isn’t to scold or create an argument or discussion, but rather to get your child to think about how other’s might feel in a situation. A young child needs to process this information before it can be understood and then implemented.
Respect the Child’s Boundaries
While the ongoing process of teaching your child to learn boundaries, there is a crucial step many parents miss and that is to respect the child’s boundaries. Many children exhibit dislikes at a young age. These dislikes can range from tickling to resisting people who are overly affectionate. A child may not like to show strong feelings of affection such as hugging or kissing—especially if it is with people they do not know well. Parents can dismiss these boundaries and force the child to “go give (adult’s name) a hug or kiss on the cheek.”
If a child tells you that they dislike a specific action, let them know that you hear and understand them and that you will not push the matter further. This establishes trust and respect—the very things needed when establishing boundaries.
Michelle Dell’Aquila, M.A. is a licensed child therapist who is currently the director of CDA, a program geared for infants to 5-year-old providing developmental assessments, advice to parents at home and for teachers in schools.