How to Set Healthy Boundaries for Kids

Young boy playing with his food at the dinner table

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Any parent knows that it's in kids' nature to test their limits; it seems to be something all kids are born knowing how to do, like breathing or reaching for something that they shouldn't that's high up on a counter. The upside to this challenging behavior is that pushing boundaries is an important part of growing up and becoming more independent, and one day, thinking for themselves and (hopefully) making good choices. Kids need to flex their boundary-pushing muscles now, and sometimes challenge you and disagree with you so that they can assert their individuality more and more as they grow.

Your mission—and as a parent, you've already chosen to accept it—is to teach kids how to test their limits respectfully, without being angry or defiant, and to know that ultimately, you, the parent, are in charge.

Why Children Need Boundaries

Who's the boss? Kids feel insecure when they don't have clear limits. Just as children need a regular bedtime, plenty of sleep, a healthy diet, and other, predictable routines to keep them healthy, and need rules—such as not crossing the street without an adult or never sharing personal information on the internet—to keep them safe, they need boundaries to give them a sense of security. When parents do not provide clear boundaries, or allow their kids to have control over what gets decided in their home, the balance of power shifts toward the child, which is harmful to both parents and kids.

For example, if a child feels like she can usually convince her parents to do whatever she wants, she will feel like she's more powerful than her parents, and whether she realizes it or not, that uncertainty and sense of being able to dominate people who are supposed to be in charge will make her feel anxious and insecure.

The bottom line: In a power struggle, the parent has to be a clear winner.

Lack of boundaries skews kids' sense of themselves. Here's a clear difference between good self-esteem and narcissism. Not having limits sows the seeds of narcissism and entitlement, and encourages a child to think about the people and things around him as things that exist to meet his needs and give him what he wants. Kids without boundaries or discipline will get a rude awakening when they don't always get what they want.

Setting limits removes—or at least greatly reduces—arguments, backtalk, and discussion. It doesn't mean kids won't try to get their way, but knowing what the boundaries are, and being reminded of them when they try to test you, helps cut down the amount of back and forth and wiggle room your child will create as he tries to convince you to give him what he wants.

Boundaries are like consequences—once you establish that there are rules, and consequences for not following those rules, there will gradually be less and less pushback as kids learn to modify their behavior to what's expected of them.

How to Establish Boundaries for Kids

Here are some ways parents can gently guide kids in the right direction when they test limits:

Teach them to express their opinions and needs in a nice and respectful manner. One important way you can do this is by modeling the behavior you want. Speak to your child in a kind tone, be firm but friendly when you discipline, and never yell at or belittle your child when he does something wrong or you don't agree with him.

Be clear about what is in the "absolutely no-go zone." Go over clear rules with your child and let her know that while you are open to hearing her out if she feels like a rule is unfair—as long as she speaks to you respectfully—there are some things, like riding her bike with a helmet, that is non-negotiable and must always be followed.

Don't have a long discussion with your young child. Yes, it's important for a child to feel like her thoughts and emotions are being heard and that his parents care about him. But going into a long explanation with a 5-year-old about why he needs to go to bed early or why he shouldn't suddenly let go of your hand and run in a parking lot isn't going to serve any purpose, and developmentally-speaking, your child won't really be able to fully listen, absorb the rule, and remember this information the next time.

The more effective thing to do is to give him a consequence (running in the parking lot will mean that he won't get to help you run errands anymore, or you won't be able to get him his favorite snack or toy or whatever he wants at the store since he did this dangerous thing in the parking lot that you told him not to do). Or remind him that since he didn't get ready for bed on time, he will not have time for his favorite bedtime story or an extra snuggle with you. These tactics are much more likely to be effective with both younger and older school-age kids.

Be consistent. Don't flip-flop on what the boundaries are. If you're saying no TV right before bed one night only to cave in the next evening, you are sending a clear message to your child that the rules don't mean much, don't need to be respected, and can easily be changed.

Follow through on the consequences of bad behavior. Don't be afraid to discipline or worry that your child will be upset or angry with you. That's par for the course, and in the long run, your child will benefit from the boundaries you establish to keep him healthy and happy.

Don't expect kids to get it right away. You may have to give your child a few friendly reminders before it sinks in that bad or unsafe behavior will lead to a consequence he does not want. Practice makes perfect, and boundaries, like anything else, may need to be given a few tries before your child "masters" and remembers what he's supposed to do, and not supposed to do.

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