Is ‘Boundaries’ a Four-Letter Word?
As Mum to an energetic 6-year old, I’m constantly working on setting boundaries. The latest challenge is a phase many other parents face: backtalk. Most kids go through this as a normal child development stage during their journey towards independence.
The challenge as parents, is to make sure that budding independence doesn’t transform into disrespect. This is where firm, consistent boundaries is key.
We try and be persistent in telling her that “it’s rude to roll your eyes at people”… or why “it’s disrespectful when you yell at others”. But doing this reminds me of a social skill many parents (including myself, big time!) are challenged with: Setting boundaries.
For some, I wonder if boundaries could be spelled with 4-letters… F-E-A-R?
Setting firm, clear boundaries can sometimes scare even the strongest, most professional-minded adult into giving in and bribing, pleading or negotiating.
All this stems from fear of rejection.
Ironically, when parents don’t set clear, firm boundaries for their kids, it creates a sense of fear and instability for the children themselves too.
Remember back to how small you felt when you were a child. With each month that goes by, a young child becomes more and more aware of how BIG the world is… and subsequently, how small they are relative to that great big world.
To live in that vast big world without any sense of where the edge is can be very scary too. In this context, the “edge” represents the boundary set by the grown-ups in charge. The absence of that creates a sense of panic and/or anxiety for a young child.
In contrast, when adults can kindly, and firmly, without a punitive tone of voice, set clear boundaries and (perhaps even more importantly) stick with them no matter what, this scenario feels better for EVERYONE involved, children and grown ups alike.
What to do instead…
First, Center Yourself
It’s imperative that before you speak with a child, get yourself in the right mindset. Picture, visualize whatever you need to do to imagine yourself as the grown-up in charge and what you say goes. Not in an aggressive way, but in a calm, confident, assertive way.
When a child is behaving inappropriately, they are experiencing a wide range of emotions, most of which didn’t even know they had. Try and remind yourself of this. You have (likely) multiple decades of experience feeling and managing your emotions. Our lil ones are just getting started.
This tiny human is still new to the whole process of regulating their emotions. Reminding yourself of this can help you have more compassion and respond to them with kindness, instead of anger.
I love the actress-turned-child care educator Janet Lansbury!!! She was an absolute lifeline to my hubby and me during those ground-shaking early months and years of parenthood.
She focuses on a method that involves validating the child’s feelings in a non-confrontational, yet confident, in-control way. As the grown-up you basically call out what you perceive the child is feeling.
This doesn’t mean you don’t also enforce the boundary. But it’s done in a non-confrontational, matter-of-fact sort of way.
J-Lan (as the hubs nicknamed her LOL) has podcasts and videos that are especially helpful because you can actually hear what it should sound like when you are talking with a child who is struggling.
To help describe her teachings, imagine this scenario: A child in your care is having a screaming tantrum. Say/do the following, coming from a calm-assertive mindset:
- “I see that you are upset. You are very angry because you wanted [—-], and I said no. And that makes you very upset.”
- “I can’t let you hit me, so I’ll need to hold your arms gently.”
- “I need to keep you safe, so I’ll hold you until you’re acting safely.”
- Sometimes even mimicking a portion of their body language aggression helps… stomping foot on ground, lightly pounding table, etc.
- Then, calm yourself down slowly, and they will begin to calm with you, when also accompanied by the validation you’re speaking along with it.
Get down on their level. Remember what it was like to be small, and surrounded by grown-ups towering over you. When a child is acting out, get down on the floor with them.
Sit peacefully, and non-aggressively. Show calmness in your own body language, and that vibe will translate to them, as you use your other.
Calm & Assertive
Some people might get offended comparing dogs to children, but from a parent perspective, there’s a ton in common. Take the Dog Whisperer, Ceasar Milan. His methods of training dogs involves a mantra of “calm, assertive”.
Milan’s methods show us that setting boundaries shouldn’t be aggressive. Matching aggression with more aggression is not the answer.
As parents, we are the ultimate role model for the children in our care.
If we can demonstrate an assertive, matter-of-fact demeanor, even in the face of a raging temper tantrum, then they’ll follow our lead.
Requires an equal amount of “patience and persistence” (SOURCE: Parenting.com). It isn’t realistic to expect things to change overnight. However, consistently setting firm-yet-gentle boundaries will begin to show results before you know it!
Once kids know they cannot scream, whine or barter their way out, they’ll begin to be a more agreeable, happy participant in the family. For more on this method, I especially loved the book Happiest Toddler on the Block. There is also it’s predecessor, Happiest Baby on the Block, which is another one we loved.
Do you have any questions? Have you used some of these techniques? Comment below or contact me here. I’d love to hear about your experiences!