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Ask Kindred Place: How can I set boundaries with my children?

In this month's Ask Kindred Place segment, therapists Catherine Collins and Patricia Maynard discuss parenting and how to address your boundaries.  

Did you miss our last conversation covering the topic of parenting styles? Or do you want to read it again? You can do so here

Over the last 18 months, families have been spending more time together, and some of the regular rules, and structure and routines are off. So, the issues of boundaries and relationships are not only relevant, but it's also vital in order to have healthy interactions.  

Patricia: I think it's important that we define what we mean when we use the word boundary, because sometimes people get setting limits and boundaries blurred.  

I heard a great definition when I was at a seminar – a boundary is your position to decide what you will say yes to and what you will say no to. It creates the energy that you want to have around your relationships with people.  

But what parameters are you going to set around what you will or will not do or discuss with a family member, or what you will permit them to do around you where it might impact your ability and energy? 

Catherine: When we are in a relationship with someone we care about, and that person asks us something, the tendency is to feel that saying no is somehow unfair, and I think that's where people get hung up. That when someone asks you a favor or question, one possible answer is no, and that's entirely valid. 

Patricia: Right, no is a complete sentence. 

Catherine: Some people think if they say no, then they'll hurt that person's feelings, or they'll be seen as not caring or loving. 

The important thing to remember when folks are struggling with that is if your inclination is to say yes or to accommodate someone, or to go the extra mile because you care about them and you don't want to hurt their feelings, you need to step back and realize that at some level, that's not being honest with them. 

Patricia: It could have the potential to build resentment in you, because you're constantly saying yes. When in fact, you really want to say no. And it could also put a lot of strain on the relationship long-term. 

Catherine: So really, the fact that we are talking about boundaries as this month's Ask Kindred Place topic shows that we all have difficulty with it, but you can't have an honest, equal relationship without each person feeling clear that they can communicate what is and what is not okay with them. 

Patricia: And having the courage to do so and knowing that it shouldn't define the relationship in any negative way. 

Catherine: And being able to communicate it in a way that is affirming and not rejecting. 

Patricia: Yes, having that balance of keeping the relationship while you set the boundaries, because I find that if parents are not able to set clear boundaries, it can create resentment. Then, the relationship is altered, because you're not spending that quality time doing the meaningful things that matter to you as a family. 

Catherine: You're right. If you can't effectively say what is and what isn't okay with you, that will affect the relationship. And then sometimes the other person doesn't accept your boundary.  

And that happens with kids all the time. Parents can say no as a complete sentence and say this is how it's going to be, but they still get kickback from the child. So, it's not just the ability to clearly and honestly say what the boundary is but also how to handle the negative reaction you may receive from the other person, who may then accuse you of not caring for or loving them. 

And that's something people need to practice, especially parents, because the cycle that will often happen is a parent will say no, and the child will cry, have a fit, plead, etc.  

Patricia: And the parent gets flustered and gives in, and that's why it's so crucial that parents can set the boundary and then maintain that boundary by consistently following through. Because if they can't ignore the tantrum, whining and begging, why set a boundary? 

Catherine: If a parent gives in, that teaches the child that their answer can change based on the circumstances. Consistency and maintaining the limit is one thing, but then the other thing that happens — especially with children 10 and up — is the parent cannot keep their cool and continue. Then there is a fight between parent and child. 

Patricia: It's difficult, because parents care deeply about their children. They want them to be happy. And to define what that happiness is like in a real-life situation is dependent upon the circumstance that they're faced with. Sometimes it's easy to give in, and sometimes it's easy to hold tight to that boundary.  

When thinking about boundaries, I think about how when you buy a house, you are told where your property line starts and ends. Sometimes your next-door neighbor will put their trash on your side of the fence, and you ask them to move, but they never do. So, what do you do? Boundaries can get blurred, and I think that happens with families as well. 

Catherine: Yeah, and parents want their children to be happy, but making the child happy is not always the goal. When parents maintain boundaries with their children, they are allowed to be unhappy or mad; they just have to do what their parents tell them. 

Patricia: And it teaches character, too, because they realize that life is not always about getting what they want, when they want it or how they want it. 

Catherine: Well, it's almost a cliche, right? Parents are told their children want to have boundaries. They want to know what their limits are. But there's security for a child in knowing how far they can go before their parent gets really mad.  

Patricia: And I think it’s good for children and adolescents to understand that the set boundaries are for their protection and well-being. Ultimately, it's about protecting them from all the dangers that could be inherent in having unlimited parameters to navigate around. 

Catherine: Unlimited parameters mean you're not parenting, right?  

And you know, there's a wonderful way to think about how to balance freedom and autonomy. Parents want to raise their children to be independent and make their own choices, and they do that by giving them small areas of choice. This is what the child gets to decide, and beyond that, the parents make the decision, and the kid has to abide by it. As the child becomes more mature and more responsible, the parents can broaden their area of choice. And if the child can't handle as much autonomy as they've been given, then those boundaries can be pulled back.  

Patricia: That makes a lot of sense when you're thinking about boundaries and parent-child relationships and understanding that as a parent, you're responsible for unfolding your children at different stages of their development. You can be permissive and let it be wide open, but then you're not teaching them to be responsible and deal with the consequences of their choices. 

Catherine: Your kids can help you with that, too. As a child enters teenage years, parents will decide, for example, that their curfew is extended. Then, the child breaks the curfew, and the parent can clearly say, “Okay, we mistimed this. You're not quite ready for this amount of freedom yet, so we'll move the curfew back to where it was before and try it again.” That way, it's also a natural consequence of the child's actions, not the parents being capricious. 

Patricia: If a child is going to learn from the boundaries, they need to know what they are ahead of time, not after the fact. If the child is mature enough, the parent and child can come up with a fair consequence together. Then, if the child violates it, they already know what the consequence is going to be. 

Catherine: I think the important thing for parents to remember, especially in the heat of the moment, is that the purpose of boundaries is to teach. Discipline is teaching, not punishing. When parents permit themselves to understand that they aren't being hurtful or depriving their child, and instead teaching, it's a lot easier to stick to your word. 

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