While there’s quite a lot of talk about adults’ boundaries, many of us rarely consider the boundaries of a child. For example, it’s common to instruct children to give their family members hugs and kisses, tell them to stop feeling a certain emotion, share a cute, yet probably embarrassing, story about them or continue tickling them when they've asked you to stop. These are all things that could easily violate a child’s boundaries, just like they might violate an adult's.
Thankfully, this unique period of time we’re in – this phase of history that has caused parents to spend a lot more time with their children – is an excellent opportunity to make a change in how we navigate our child’s boundaries. We can use this time to, number one, figure out what our child’s boundaries even are, then commit to honoring them.
How to Recognize a Child’s Boundaries
Here’s how to begin the process of discovering your child’s unique boundaries:
Ask them. An incredibly effective first step in discovering your child’s boundaries is simply asking them what they are. You can get this conversation started by asking your child what situations make them feel bad, or frustrated. Then, for example, they might tell you that they feel bad when you tell them to do things without saying please. This could be an indication that one of their boundaries is needing people to ask things of them in a polite manner.
If your child has a hard time pinpointing what makes them feel bad, you can ask them how certain situations make them feel. For example, you can ask how they feel when you tell them to give certain people a hug. Or you can ask them how it feels when you tell them to stop crying, or to “cheer up.” Asking about situations you suspect make them uncomfortable can open the door to an enlightening conversation that can lead to the discovery of their boundaries.
Notice how they react to certain situations. Another helpful way to uncover your child’s boundaries, especially if they are not verbal yet, is to simply pay attention to how they act in various situations. For example, what do they do when you pull them in for a kiss? Do they seem to enjoy it? Or do they resist and pull away? When they’re telling you about something that’s upsetting them, and you, for instance, tell them all the reasons why they shouldn’t be upset, do they seem to feel better after you say that? Or, do they seem to retreat within themselves? Noticing these reactions can provide helpful clues about their boundaries in all situations.
Make a list of their boundaries. Once you and your child become clear on what their boundaries are, make a list of them. Making this list can help ensure you have a clear understanding of your child’s boundaries, and have something you can reference when you need a reminder. You can also show this list to other adults that regularly interact with your child, and ask them to honor the boundaries.
In addition to helping your child feel more respected, the process of working with them to clarify their boundaries can be an incredible bonding opportunity. It will likely make them feel like you truly care about their unique perspective, and emotional responses to various stimuli.
How to Honor a Child’s Boundaries
Now that you have a clear understanding of what your child’s boundaries are, it’s time to start respecting them. This might sound simple, but in reality, the process of regularly respecting these boundaries often requires you change built-in habits, which can take time. But with practice, you will get to a place where it’s second nature to honor your child’s unique needs.
Here’s how to get started:
Pause before you act. One of the best ways to stop yourself from ignoring one of your child’s boundaries is to take a quick pause before interacting with them. For example, before instructing them to give their other parent or sibling a hug goodnight, you can pause and ask yourself, “Am I about to ignore a boundary?” This pause might help you remember that your child wants to be asked if they would like to hug someone. You can then revise what you were going to say to align with that boundary. An option might be to instead say "would you like to give (parent or sibling) a hug?" and if the answer is no, respecting that.
Reference your child’s list of boundaries a few times a week. Eventually, you’ll have your child’s boundaries memorized, but until that happens, read through their list a few times a week. Regularly revisiting this list can keep their boundaries fresh in your mind, helping to ensure that your commitment to honor them doesn’t fall to the wayside.
Have a nightly check-in about boundaries. You can gauge how well you’re doing at respecting your child’s boundaries by asking them how you’re doing. Every night at dinner, or during bedtime, you can ask your child if they felt like you didn’t honor one, or many, of their boundaries that day. This gives them an opening to express how various interactions with you made them feel, which can prompt a productive conversation.
In many ways, the journey of recognizing and respecting your child’s boundaries is one of the most worthwhile parenting endeavors you can engage in. Though it can be challenging when all you want to do is scoop them up in a hug and kiss them all over at your leisure, this process can deepen your relationship with your child, while also helping you learn what your own boundaries are, and how to be a better advocate for them.
In addition, it’s been found that encouraging children to discover and voice their boundaries helps them become more grounded and strong in ways that will build self-reliance and a sense of competence. This could be a major step in both you and your child leading a more satisfying, fulfilling life.