People talk a lot about the need for “boundaries,” but what does this word really mean? As a parent, you can think of a boundary as the line you draw around yourself to define where you end and where your child begins. This isn’t always easy. And let’s face it, kids push the boundaries every day, all the time. They are wired to test us and see how far they can go; it’s in their nature. As parents, we sometimes cross boundaries ourselves in our attempts to fix things for them. Understand that one of our most important jobs as parents is to stay loving and separate from our children. We do this by clearly defining our principles, staying in our role as a parent, and sticking to our bottom lines.
“Think of a boundary as the line you draw around yourself to define where you end and where your child begins.”
How do you know if your child is pushing boundaries? Here are some examples:
How does it feel when boundaries are crossed? Sometimes we get clear indications that it’s happening, while other times, it’s more subtle. You might feel anxious or uncomfortable, angry, tense, embarrassed, resentful, or put upon. Other times, you could react by feeling diminished, as if a rug has been pulled out from under you, or simply put in a position that doesn’t feel right. You might also see your child stepping in to a place he doesn’t belong, by giving you dating advice, for example, or acting as if he’s the one in charge. (We’ll talk more later about how to establish healthy boundaries, and how to step back into your respective roles.)
When we get anxious about our kids, we often over-function for them and that’s when boundaries can get blurred. This means that we do too much for them, and “get in their box” instead of staying in our own. When this happens, we’ve forgotten where we end and where our child begins.
At the root of all this is anxiety. When you become nervous about your child’s success or ability to handle things in life (whether it’s in school, with friends, in sports, or with his or her ability to behave appropriately), it might feel as if you’re alleviating stress by jumping in and taking control instead of letting your child work things out for himself.
Believe me, I understand that it’s painful to see our kids struggle in life; we love them and feel responsible for them, so we naturally want to make things better for our kids and “fix things.” But know that when you aren’t able to let your child work through obstacles on her own, you’re denying her an important experience—the experience of how to overcome disappointment, how to deal with an argument with a friend, or how to talk to her teacher about a grade. I’m not saying that we should never help, guide, coach and teach our kids; of course we should—that’s a huge part of what it means to be a parent. What I’m saying is that we need to let them try to fight their own battles when possible and appropriate, rather than taking on their battles for them. Letting your child work through things is a way to respect them by observing their boundaries—and your own.
How do you know if you might be blurring boundaries as a parent? Here are some signs:
How does it feel for you as a parent when this is happening? Sometimes, it might not feel bad. For example, you might feel like you’re simply sharing with your child even though you’re over-sharing. An important thing to ask yourself in this case is, “Is it my child’s role to listen to this particular problem or story? Is this too much for her? Would this be something more appropriate to share with my mate or a friend?” If your child is giving you advice on your dating life, you may have “invited them in.” If, on the other hand, you’re worried you might be living through your child vicariously, ask yourself, “Am I relying too much on my child’s successes to feel good? Do I need to start focusing more on my own goals?” And if your child is controlling the house with his moods, behavior or demands, sit down and ask yourself, “Am I playing the role of a parent who’s in charge, or am I giving up control of the house to my child out of fear or anxiety?” What parents might not be aware of, in all these instances, is that they’re operating from anxiety in some way. The best advice here is to try not to react from your emotions, but instead, stay in your parental role and respond from your principles. This is the best way to recognize those parent-child boundaries and honor them.
It’s easy for parents to over-empathize with their kids and project their own feelings on to them. “I feel so bad that Shari can’t go out with her friends – she must feel worried that she won’t be included next time. Maybe just this once I will let her off the hook even though she didn’t finish her homework.” Instead of worrying that your child will fall apart, have faith that she can manage her own disappointments, pain, and hurt. Know what your pain is and what it is not. Letting your child experience these difficult feelings with your empathy, not your over-empathy, will help her learn from experience and face reality.
Before we go any further, I want to assure you that we all cross boundaries with our kids at one time or another—we’re only human! The important thing is to be aware of it when it happens and to refrain from making it a fixed pattern or a way of life.
So how can you set good solid boundaries with your kids? Here are some tips that will help you get there:
To develop boundaries for yourself, you have to know what you value, think and where you stand. This is not always easy to define, but it’s so important that your child knows who you are and what you believe. This doesn’t mean you should be rigid; it means you communicate your personal values and stick to them. If your value is to be honest, for example, then talk it and walk it. Kids are guided in life by watching what you do, which often makes more of an impression than what you say.
Make a list of what you expect for yourself in relation to your kids. Think about what you can and can’t live with; think through what matters most to you. Is it responsibility, loyalty, respect? If it’s helpful for you, write it out. Tell your kids what your guiding principles are. Notice in coming up with this list that you are not attempting to control your child but rather, you are taking charge of yourself. If one of your principles is “respect” and your son is frequently rude to you and calls you names, let him know the consequence he can expect from you each time that happens. Let him see that you respect yourself and will follow through. This is different than trying to “make him” speak the way you want him to. You’re giving him the choice, but you’re holding him accountable.
When your child is acting poorly and not listening to you, think about how you can more clearly communicate what you expect—and hold her accountable when she doesn’t listen. Try to say things in a way that conveys that you mean business; expect to be listened to and taken seriously. As difficult as it is to look at yourself openly and honestly, it will help you to stop doing the impossible—which is like hitting your head against the wall as you try in vain to control your child. Instead it will open you to the possibility of taking charge of yourself. By doing this, you will be continuing your own growth. Your own self-knowledge and maturity will help lead your kids to find theirs.
Help your kids experience the impact of crossing boundaries so that it becomes part of their reality. Admit when you have crossed someone else’s boundary and apologize for it. And when your kids cross one, let them know and hold them accountable. Let’s say you promise your child that you’ll drive him to the movies after he does his chores—but he plays video games instead. If you follow through by not driving him, your child will experience the consequences, and will come to understand on a deep level what you expect for yourself. He will know that you respect yourself and mean what you say. Eventually, he will learn good boundaries for himself and how to respect others, as well.
Sometimes parents have a hard time holding on to themselves and their boundaries even though they know it’s in their kids’ best interest. This can happen because we are simply worn out. You’re having a difficult time staying “separate” from your child. We all have hard times, moments when we give in. Nobody—and no parent—is perfect. Instead of beating yourself up for this, you might have to let yourself off the hook for letting them off the hook. Simply try your best not to make it a pattern. You may have inadvertently programmed your kids to get you to finally give in out of exhaustion. Or you may have to consider that you are so wiped that it’s not possible for you to hold on to yourself. In that case, you may have to work on building up your resilience through exercise, getting more sleep, and getting more involved in your own life and goals.
Final word: When you know where you stand, you’ll know what you will and won’t put up with from your child. Define your boundaries and try to stick to your principles rather than reacting to your moment-to-moment emotions. If you let your thoughts and principles drive you, you won’t be so apt to let your emotions determine your parenting—and both you and your child will be happier for it.
For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.