Why teaching kids to set healthy boundaries is a 'real gift'

·6-min read
Teaching a child to set boundaries is a
Teaching a child to set boundaries is a "real gift," says a child psychologist. (Photo: Getty Creative)

No in the New Year is Yahoo Life’s series about the power of saying no, establishing boundaries and prioritizing your own physical and mental health.

For many people, protecting our mental health and relationships with others means setting healthy boundaries — whether that means establishing a firm work-life balance or making clear with others what sort of touchy topics, such as your weight or love life, are off-limits. Holding boundaries can give us agency, and a sense of peace and safety. But what's often overlooked is how boundaries can benefit those who are typically given little agency at all: children.

Whereas adults are celebrated when they stand up for themselves or walk away from toxic or unsatisfying situations, children who do the same can be seen as defiant or undisciplined. They may be labeled as "picky" or "fussy," or be criticized for "quitting." An adult who says "no" is empowered; a child who does it is a brat. And yet, says Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of adolescents, there's real value in, as a parent, modeling boundary-setting for children while encouraging them to pinpoint what makes them feel comfortable and safe, and what doesn't.

"By teaching your kids to say no and let go of things that no longer serve them, you're actually encouraging growth," Greenberg tells Yahoo Life. "By teaching kids to set boundaries, you're actually encouraging emotional growth and confidence and learning skills, so it's a win-win."

In her intake sessions with new patients, Greenberg will ask not only about their strengths and challenges, but also "what is serving them and what's not serving them these days," explaining that helping kids identify the things (or people) that trigger stress or hurt feelings can lead to creating helpful workarounds. Ahead, she highlights common areas in which boundaries are often called for and shares how parents can help.

Understand what boundaries can look like for a kid

Boundaries can vary greatly but tend to center on a child's interactions with others. Maybe it means distancing oneself from a friendship group that makes them feel sad or excluded or setting limits with a pal who demands too much of their time. It could mean telling the adults in their lives that they're uncomfortable fielding questions about their physical appearance, or that they prefer to initiate physical contact versus having their cheeks squeezed by grandma. Maybe they've outgrown bathtime and prefer to have more privacy. And just as adults strive to set boundaries to help them maintain a healthy work-life balance, a kid may need to scale back their own commitments (piano lessons, extracurricular clubs, playdates) or adjust their schedules if they're feeling depleted and overwhelmed.

As Greenberg says, "you don't always say no by just saying no." Creating distance from an unpleasant situation can have the same effect without actually using the word "no."

Teach kids about their emotions

Knowing what boundaries are needed can be tricky when a child is too young to fully express why they feel upset. Teaching children how to label their feelings — or giving them what she calls "the language of emotions" — is Greenberg's first step in helping them process uncomfortable situations, and setting any appropriate boundaries around those situations.

"Number one is teach them to label what feels hurtful," she says. "What makes them feel good? What makes them angry? What makes them feel peaceful?"

Once a child has gotten a better grasp at labeling those feelings, parents can discuss with them how to act on those emotions. If someone is feeling mad because a friend didn't return their toy, they could react with anger — or they could rely on a boundary, such as setting limits on what they loan out, to help resolve future conflicts.

That's not to say that a child can only engage in things that make them feel good; balking at doing homework or eating broccoli, for example, isn't a red flag. But if something is unnecessarily upsetting or taxing — like, having so many extracurricular commitments that a child is stretched thin — implementing reasonable boundaries will help them feel heard.

Model boundaries yourself

Parents are used to saying "no" a thousand times a day — but it's usually directed at a child trying to jump off the kitchen counter, or feeding the dog Skittles or begging to stay up on a school night. When it comes to our interactions with others, however, many are bound to people-please and be as amenable as possible. That could mean agreeing to host relatives who just announced their last-minute travel plans, taking on extra tasks even though you don't have the bandwidth or not shutting down your neighbor's invasive questions. That compulsion to please and say "yes" despite your misgivings can be "problematic," Greenberg says, and telegraph to your kids that it's wrong to prioritize your own needs.

Instead, parents should let kids see them setting their own boundaries, even if it's as basic as switching off your phone at night, carving out time for yourself or not volunteering to chaperone another field trip. Explaining your motivation for setting these boundaries and saying "no" to something can help drive the point that prioritizing yourself and avoiding burnout is crucial.

Help them handle friendship flare-ups

According to Greenberg, one of the most common sources of stress and conflict is our relationships with others, and that's true at any age. While adults often assure themselves that kids are resilient, conflict with a classmate or friend can be hard to get over, whether it involves actual fighting or just feeling emotionally drained or uneasy about someone. But as a parent, Greenberg advises treading carefully rather than rushing to fix the problem.

Say a child is upset that a classmate has been mean to her. Greenberg recommends talking to the child about how she feels, then asking what she is comfortable doing to resolve the situation. Both parent and child can brainstorm suggestions, but, Greenberg warns, "the last thing you want to do is to tell the child what to do [if] the child doesn't feel confident doing it — then you make the child feel worse." A parent can suggest changing seats so she's not near that classmate, or telling the classmate that she's not comfortable be talked to that way, but ultimately the right solution and boundary is about what the child feels confident implementing.

Respect the boundaries your child has set

Respecting boundaries isn't about relinquishing control to your offspring; each parent will have their own firm rules about things like school, bedtime, meals and so on. But listen when a child asks for something to change. Maybe they need space after a hard day, or no longer want to be quizzed about which classmates they have crushes on. Maybe they prefer to high-five you at bedtime instead of a hug. If they're dreading going to a friend's birthday party, or don't want to sign up for ballet in the spring, talk to them about how they're feeling and discuss what boundaries might be appropriate. You are their parent, yes, but also their advocate, and respecting their boundaries can help them feel confident and protected.

Says Greenberg, "If parents teach us at an early age that we can set boundaries and parameters around ourselves, that's a beautiful thing. It's a real gift."

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