Teaching Children to Set Boundaries

Jan 31, 2024 | Adult Toolbox, Counselor's Corner, Newsletters

Courtney Oliver, LMHC
BYS Executive Director

When children are young, it can be easy to set basic boundaries such as no hitting, no interrupting, etc, but it becomes more complex as they grow up. As children start to grow, it is important to teach them not only to advocate for themselves and their needs but also to understand and respect others’ differences and feelings. When children can navigate their own feelings and those of others, it increases empathy and self-awareness which will be substantial assets for future development.

Teaching boundaries starts with empathy. Using empathy as a tool to discuss particular situations and asking children how others might feel will provide them with a better understanding of the importance of everyone’s feelings. In addition, asking children how they feel is essential as it leads to them knowing that their feelings are valid and heard. Using a child’s feelings as a mirror to understanding others can help create perspective — and give them a chance to link actions to the feelings they cause.

It is also vital for children to understand that boundaries work both ways. Children are more likely to continue to respect boundaries if they see them as reciprocal. When your child’s boundaries are respected, it would be helpful for them to have a plan as to how they will respond. Conversely, giving them examples and walking them through scenarios when their boundaries are disrespected will help them in future situations. Pointing out examples of good and bad behavior from television, films, books, etc., and asking what that person might be feeling can develop empathy and compassion. Interacting and discussing boundaries with empathy will also help children learn how to predict how their parents might respond. Modeling good boundaries is a large predictor of healthy boundaries. Remember, if we want children to respect boundaries generally, then we need to respect their boundaries whenever possible.

A key piece of instilling empathy in children is making sure they are engaging regularly with people who are different from them. This encourages acceptance of differences and opportunities to learn more about other perspectives. Learning that how we feel might not be the way others feel is a skill that can require lots of practice and examples.

In summary, to help children develop healthy boundaries we need to model good boundaries ourselves. We want to encourage our children to express themselves by first helping them understand what they might be feeling and letting them know that their feelings are valid and heard. We want to help them develop empathy, compassion, and respect for other perspectives. And, we want children to learn to be confident in their emotions and needs and how to express them in a healthy manner. Personal boundaries are key to healthy relationships at all stages of life. Let’s start early with age-appropriate lessons and support.