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Boundaries For Children

We Care receive many questions from parents about how to successfully put boundaries in with their children as an important part of behaviour interventions

Our Allied health team receive many questions from parents about how to successfully put boundaries in with their children as it is often an important part of behaviour interventions.

Why are boundaries important:

Kids feel anxious and insecure when they don't have adults around who set limits. Boundaries help kids feel safe and enable them to feel confident that they can depend on you to protect them when needed. Just as boundaries can be beneficial for children, they can also negatively impact the relationship between you and your child if this is not done carefully.

Before I jump straight into boundaries, I want to highlight some information from The Circle of Security Parenting program we deliver that is relevant to this topic. Circle of Security is a relationship/attachment focused therapy program that highlights the importance of being bigger, stronger, wiser and kind and avoid being mean or weak when responding to children's behaviours of concern.

For more information about the Circle of Security and how you can be involved, click here. 


Importance of Bigger, Stronger, Wiser and Kind:

It is important to remember being bigger, stronger and wiser without kindness means that children perceive our actions as 'mean' and they are less likely to follow our rules and expectations. Some children may follow rules and expectations, however, this may be out of fear which means they will only do the right thing when you are around. This can become problematic for the child/parent relationship, particularly as the child gets older.

The complications of weak:

I think we have all been here as parents when we have given in to our children's needs when we shouldn't. There can be several reasons for this and The Circle of Security Program covers these reasons in detail. This can be beneficial in helping us understand how our anxieties can lead to mean/weak parenting styles.

So what does 'wise' actually mean?

According to the dictionary – it means 'having or showing experience, knowledge, and good judgement'  What does that tell us about parenting and how to put boundaries in?
Being wise means our role is to educate our kids. We use our skills, knowledge and good judgement to help our children make better choices in life.

What happens when children refuse to follow our rules:

The first step is to work out what is the function behind this refusal e.g. is there a need that is not being met which we cannot see but the child may be seeking inappropriately. If so, is this need reasonable and how can you still meet their need without giving in to what they want.

Iceberg model

Here at We Care, we refer to the Iceberg model when assessing children and adult's behaviour.
The iceberg model encourages us to see the behaviour as the tip of the iceberg and work out what is hidden underwater that is influencing the child or adult's behaviour (what is the function of the behaviour) before we can develop appropriate strategies and interventions.

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By assessing the function of behaviours it helps us to better understand what the behaviour is trying to communicate. You can get assistance from our psychologists to help you with understanding your child's behaviour and developing appropriate positive behaviour support strategies and interventions. Our behaviour support plans can assist in helping you better understand where it is appropriate to put boundaries in and how to implement them.

Some tips for putting in boundaries

It is always important to validate a child's reaction to the rule or boundary so they feel heard and understood. This will help to reduce the likelihood of the situation escalating to the next level of behaviour. This will be significantly harder to manage and increase the likelihood of giving in to your child.

It is also important to never say no to a child as it will increase their anger and possibly escalate their behaviour.

So how do I validate?

Let me give you an example of a child asking for something they cannot have:

Child: "I want…….."
Parent: "I'm sorry that is not something you can have. But how about A or B (give other options if possible)


Child: starts screaming "I want….."
Parent: (this is where you validate) "I can see you really want ……and your really angry right now". "how can I help you with your anger?"

If there is no answer, suggest some options:

"Can I give you a hug?"
"I'll stay here with you until you feel better"

Model calmness and model deep breathing by saying:

"you know when I feel angry, I find it helpful to…"

Try to stay with the child until they are feeling better (unless they ask for space). Do not give in as next time they will take it to the next level and may think there is a chance you will give in as you have in the past.

Other tips to ensure success with boundaries

  • Involve all children in boundary settings. This can be done by having family meetings and developing some house rules.
  • Ensure you positively state the rules such as "speak nicely to each other" rather than "don't yell at each other"
  • Catch them when they are being good and provide praise particularly when they are following rules they would normally dispute.
  • Preach what you teach. Children look up to adults and copy their actions so the more you can model appropriate behaviours the better. E.g. if you want your child to learn to regulate and express their anger appropriately, it is important that you demonstrate this to your child as children do not learn to regulate on their own, they do this initially through co-regulation and observing others.
  • Avoid labelling children as "naughty". – it will do little to improve behaviour and a lot to create a negative self-image.
  • Parents should be consistent with boundary setting. Avoid any good cop/bad cop situations.

Things to consider when out in the community with your child

Putting in boundaries in the community can be difficult as we often feel all eyes are on us as parents when our children are crying. We may be worried about what people might think of us if we decide to give in to our child's request or stick to our boundary.

Here are some helpful tips to consider when out in the community and your child decides to have a meltdown over something he or she would like:

  • Stay calm and cool in your response as this will attract less attention from others around you. Remember that all children display these behaviours from time to time (some more than others) so many of the people around you would be more empathetic towards your situation rather than judgmental.
  • Try to avoid places or areas where you know are most likely to trigger your child if you can e.g. (toy section in the grocery store). If your child regularly displays difficult behaviours in certain places/situations try to avoid taking them there if you can e.g. doing the grocery shopping when your partner is home and going alone.
  • Have discussions with the child before going out into the community advising them where you are taking them, what are the expectations (e.g. "I would like you to listen to mummy), compromises (if possible) and consequences for not following through. E.g. "we are going to the grocery shop, you can't have any toys but you can buy some of your favourite biscuits to have after dinner". "If you don't listen to mummy then we will go straight home and you won't get your biscuits". Avoid using negative language such as "you better not be naughty, or you will get nothing". This impacts the relationship negatively and is not clear about what the expectations are. It also creates a negative self-image for the child as previously mentioned.

Remember, we always need to aim to be wise and kind instead of mean and weak. This will help improve our child's behaviour. Changes do not happen overnight however daily consistency in being Bigger, Stronger, Wiser and Kind from both parents will lead to quicker changes in your child's behaviour.

What if I struggle to be a wise and kind parent sometimes?

There is no such thing as perfect parenting. We all have days where we give in to our children or feel we were mean in our response. Don't beat yourself up over this. Children are very forgiving. Talk to your child about what happened taking responsibility for your part of being mean/weak. It is important that our children see us experience difficult times and human emotions. As long as we reflect on our own emotions/actions, accept responsibility and work to rebuild relationships, you are teaching children that it is ok to make mistakes and take responsibility for their actions.

Written by Yasmina lees
Clinical Leader/Senior Psychologist

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