Ever tell a child “no”? Chances are, it didn’t go very well. Enter meltdown mode.
Is this because they are a defiant child? No.
It is because thwarted desire is hard, even for us adults. And because their brain doesn’t know how to regulate that hard disappointment, your child’s emotional explosion is their body’s way of showing you their frustration.
We all long to fit into our family system, and this can sometimes overpower our desire to express our wants and needs, especially if we are being punished for exposing these parts of ourselves.
So how do we allow our children to hold onto their desires without feeling like we are being walked all over? By tapping into our family roles.
Our role as parents is to make decisions that we feel are best for our children, set boundaries, and validate our child’s emotional experience around whatever limit we set.
Our child’s job is to explore and learn through the testing of boundaries and expressing their wants and emotions.
So, if you tell your child that you’re unwilling to let her play in the street, and she meets your limit with an emotional objection because she really wants to pretend to be a car … well, then everyone is doing their part in the family system.
The sequence of validating emotions while also setting firm, clear, and consistent boundaries is the key to both you and your child feeling seen, heard, and supported.
It may look like this:
1. “It’s time to leave the park.”
Insert your child crying or running away in protest.
“I know you want to stay at the park. It’s so fun to play here. How would like to get to the car? Gallop like a pony or fly like an airplane?”
2. “Hand the block back to your sister.”
Insert your child clinging to the toy he snatched from his sibling.
“You wanted that block to build your tower, huh? It’s okay to want the block. It’s not okay to take it from someone’s hands. I will help you give the block to your sister. What can we do while we wait?”
3. “I have to work this afternoon. We can go to your friend’s house tomorrow.”
Insert your child feeling mad, frustrated, or shutting you out.
“I hear you telling me that you want to try out a new game with your friend today. Let’s make a plan for tomorrow because I know this is important to you.”
Boundaries Feel Tricky
For many of us, boundaries are like a looming question mark … Are they okay to set? … How do I set them? … Why does it feel hard to make them stick?
In the face of our children’s big emotions, we may become flooded with guilt … a trail of breadcrumbs we could probably follow back to our own childhood when we were told to lessen our boundaries for the sake of someone else’s feelings or desires.
Because of this, we begin to question ourselves in the face of our children’s big emotions to whatever limit we set. In these moments, I find it helpful to pause and notice how my body feels. Does this feel like the right decision to me? What is my motivation behind my boundary (to be right, to control, or to connect)? Once I affirm within myself that I am making the best decision I can, I accept the upset without letting it dictate my decisions.
Boundaries Around Boundaries
When setting boundaries within our family, I like to follow a few rules of my own … creating boundaries around the boundaries.
1. Boundaries focus on what you will do, not what your child can’t.
When we focus on what our children can’t do, we enter power struggle territory. When we tell our children what we will do, we stand in the power of our thoughts, feelings, and actions to lead and guide them.
2. Rules need reasons.
“Because I said so” isn’t a reason. Overpowering your child will only lead to another power struggle. In a relationship of any kind, both parties want to feel seen and heard. So, help your child understand the why behind your limit.
3. Have hard boundaries.
What are your firm boundaries - those non-negotiable things that you’re unwilling to budge on? In our family, this includes …
- Hygiene (Ex: We wash our hands after using the toilet.)
- Safety of your child or another (Ex: I won’t let you hit your brother.)
- Kindness (Ex: I won’t let you take the toy from your sister.)
You will likely have your own hard limits! Each family looks and functions differently.
4. Firm up hard boundaries within yourself first.
Ask yourself what it is that you want and need, and then practice asking for it. How someone else feels about the limit we set is their responsibility, and how we respond is ours. You are allowed to ask for what you want and need even if it inconveniences someone else. And you are allowed to say no. State your firm boundaries clearly and remain consistent.
5. Have soft boundaries.
For those things that are not a hard limit within you, be flexible. Maybe you have a boundary that there is no screen time until homework is finished but your child makes a good case that their grades are solid and they won’t have time for the tube the rest of the week … if this isn’t a “must” for you, be adaptable. How do you know when to be flexible? Focus on how you feel, and look for win-wins where you can.
6. Create family agreements.
When we create limits together, we create an opportunity for everyone to own the rules. By enrolling them in the process, our children become intrinsically motivated to participate in adhering to the set boundary. Family meetings are a great place to discuss what boundaries are working for the family system, and which need revising.
Boundaries are a form of love. We need them. Our children need them. Yet, this fundamental aspect of relationships is so dang hard! Learning to set boundaries may be the superhighway to transforming your self-talk and building your self-worth. Because selfless parenting (or selfless human-ing) doesn’t help anyone.