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 limits; it seems to be something all kids are born knowing how to do, like breathing or reaching for something that they shouldn't. 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

There are many reasons why it's important for children to have boundaries.

Knowing Who's the Boss

Kids feel insecure when they don't have clear limits. Just as children need predictable routines to keep them healthy, and rules—such as not crossing the street without an adult—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 they can usually convince their parents to do whatever they want, they will feel like they are more powerful than their parents, Whether the child realizes it or not, that uncertainty and sense of being able to dominate people who are supposed to be in charge will make them feel anxious and insecure. The bottom line: In a power struggle, the parent has to be a clear winner.

Having a Solid Sense of Self

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

Reducing Conflict

Setting limits removes—or at least greatly reduces—arguments, backtalk, and discussion. It doesn't mean kids won't try to get their way. However, 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 your child will create as they try to convince you to give them what they want.

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

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

Establish Effective Communication

Teach kids to express their opinions and needs in a 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 they do something wrong or you don't agree with them.

Have Family Rules

Be clear about what is in the "absolutely no-go zone." Go over clear rules with your children. Let them know that you are open to hearing them out if they feel like a rule is unfair—as long as they speaks to you respectfully. But there are some rules, like riding a bike with a helmet, that are non-negotiable and must always be followed.

Keep Instructions Brief

Don't have a long discussion with your young child. Yes, it's important for a child to feel like their thoughts and emotions are being heard and that their parents care about them.

But going into a long explanation with a 5-year-old about why they need to go to bed early or why they shouldn't suddenly let go of your hand and run in a parking lot isn't going to serve any purpose. Developmentally, 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 them a consequence. For example, running in the parking lot might mean that you won't be able to get them a favorite snack at the store. Remind them what to do instead: "You will hold my hand when we walk from the car to the store."

Or remind your child that since they didn't get ready for bed on time, they will not have time for a 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

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 them healthy and happy.

Have Patience

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 they do not want. Practice makes perfect, and boundaries, like anything else, may need to be given a few tries before your child remembers what they are supposed to do.

A Word From Verywell

Bad or undesirable behaviors in children are not often intentional. Keep in mind that as a parent, you are building healthy, positive, and respectful habits toward the self and others. These lessons require a ton of practice and repetition, which is exhausting as a parent. However, this is how kids learn and integrate important lessons for future reference and use.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus. Adolescent development.

  3. Kavan MG, Saxena SK, Rafiq N. General parenting strategies: practical suggestions for common child behavior issuesAm Fam Physician. 2018;97(10):642–648.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Essentials for parenting toddlers and preschoolers: creating rules.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Essentials for parenting toddlers and preschoolers: why are discipline and consequences so important?

By Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.