The Most Important Ways to Teach Your Kids About Healthy Boundaries

It’s natural for any child to test limits, whether it’s touching a hot stove that you repeatedly told them not to, or refusing to clean their room after multiple asks. This behavior is normal and should be expected from kids as they grow and evolve. And it’s also an important part of their development, as pushing boundaries is a way your child can become more independent and learn from their mistakes. But teaching them early on how to test their limits respectfully, without being defiant, is an important skill to build as a parent. 

“Of course, the level of understanding and communication will vary depending on the child’s age, but introducing the concept of boundaries early on lays a foundation for healthy relationships and self-respect later in life,” says Lindsay Adams, an LCSW based in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Teaching kids about boundaries is an important aspect of their social and emotional development. By understanding boundaries, children learn how to respect their own boundaries and those of others. 

What type of boundaries are there?

Boundaries can come in a variety of forms, and Carrie Jackson, a child psychologist in San Diego, California, says it’s important for parents to teach kids that boundaries work both ways. “For example, teaching kids that every person is in charge of their own boundary is an important boundary to set,” she says. 

Generally, when it comes to teaching and setting boundaries for children, it can be broken down into the following four major categories:

  • Physical boundaries. This involves teaching children about personal space and the importance of respecting other people’s bodies. “Children should be taught that they have the right to say ‘no’ to physical touch that makes them uncomfortable, and that they should respect others’ boundaries as well,” says Adams.
  • Emotional boundaries. This involves teaching children about their own emotions and the emotions of others. This includes teaching children to recognize and honor their own feelings, as well as those of others.
  • Time boundaries. This involves teaching children about the importance of managing their time and respecting others’ time. This can look like prioritizing their own activities and commitments, as well as respecting the schedules and commitments of others.
  • Material boundaries. This involves teaching children about the importance of respecting other people’s property and belongings. Adams says that children should be taught to ask for permission before using or borrowing someone else’s things, and to take care of their own belongings as well.

Why empathy matters

Setting healthy boundaries requires children and parents to be able to recognize their own emotions, what they need, and what they would like in different situations. Empathy involves understanding other people’s feelings, which is essential for respecting their boundaries. When children are taught about boundaries, they learn to recognize and honor the needs and feelings of others.

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Jackson says that parents can help build empathy in their children by asking them questions such as, ‘How does that make you feel?’ or ‘Why do you think you felt that way?’ in a variety of situations, including when someone crosses their boundaries or when they cross someone else’s boundaries.

By teaching children about boundaries and empathy, they can learn how to communicate effectively, build strong relationships and show respect for others.

Practice setting boundaries

There might be no better way to teach boundaries than to practice setting them. Children learn best by seeing what their parents do, and modeling healthy boundary-setting and then boundary-practicing is a great way for children to learn. 

“When practicing, emphasizing to children that just saying no and not giving a reason is a sufficient way to set a boundary,” says Jackson. “You can help kids explore how they feel when setting boundaries and also ask how they might feel if the roles were reversed.”

Making boundary practicing a normal part of your day to day life is a great way to make the task feel more simple and less of a chore. By showing your child that setting and following through with boundaries is healthy and routine, they’ll feel more confident setting their own boundaries. Adams recommends the following ideas:

  • Respect your child’s boundaries: Just as you expect your child to respect your boundaries, it’s important to respect your child’s boundaries as well. For example, if your child doesn’t want to be hugged or kissed in a particular instance, don’t force them to do so.
  • Set clear expectations: Let your child know what behaviors are acceptable and what behaviors are not. Be consistent in enforcing these rules and boundaries.
  • Encourage open communication: Create a safe and open environment where your child feels comfortable expressing their feelings and needs. Listen to them without judgment and validate their emotions.
  • Practice assertiveness: Teach your child how to assert themselves in a respectful way. Encourage them to use “I” statements to express their needs and feelings.
  • Be a positive role model: Model healthy boundaries in your own relationships and interactions. Show your child how to set boundaries in a calm and respectful manner.

Boundaries serve as guardrails, guiding children towards healthy development and responsible decision-making. By establishing clear expectations and limitations, boundaries provide a foundation for children to thrive emotionally and socially.

Before you go, take a look at these ways to inspire healthy attitudes about eating:

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