Setting and Maintaining Boundaries:

Boundaries for children: Children are more likely to feel more secure and to behave better when they experience consistency and routine. As the summer holidays kick in and school time routine goes out the window, this is a timely topic for many parents!

As parents, it is our job to take charge, whenever necessary. Predictable routines and firm boundaries allow children to know what to expect and who they can rely on so they then have the confidence to explore the world around them and develop new skills. Sometimes, to avoid conflict, parents feel unable to set boundaries and rules and follow them though and this puts the child in charge. This can be frightening for children as they are not developed cognitively enough to manage being in charge.

Putting boundaries and rules in place can be difficult, especially if children have gotten used to life without many boundaries or without hearing “no” very often. However, we must remember that it is never too late to make a change. It is also important to keep our boundaries and rules realistic. For example, it is not realistic to try to implement a boundary that our children must never disagree with each other. It is more realistic to set the boundary that we can disagree with our siblings but we must never hit or that we must always try to resolve our disagreements with words.

In trying to maintain some house rules and boundaries for our children we must try the same approach. It is not realistic to suggest that if a house rule is broken, we remove all gaming devices for the rest of the week. Rather, if a house rule is broken, we might reduce the time spent on gaming that evening by 15 minutes.

When your child breaks a rule or a boundary, it can be helpful to respond to this behaviour promptly, sensitively and assertively. A helpful technique for this is The Broken Record technique. If for example, your child breaks the house rule of tidying their bedroom on a Saturday morning. Try to keep your voice calm and soft in dealing with the matter. Here is an example:

Parent: “our rule is that you tidy your bedroom on a Saturday morning”,

Child: “But he didn’t tidy his bedroom either!”

Parent: “I understand that and I’ll speak to him next, the rule is that you too tidy your bedroom on a Saturday morning”.

Child: “you’re always picking on me!”

Parent:  “I understand that you are annoyed with me and we can discuss that later if you like. Right now, I need you to tidy your bedroom, thank you.”

By the third instruction, most children will see we are being firm and will comply. So it is best to end by thanking them and then praise for when the task is complete. However, if our young person still argues or refuses, we can move to a consequence. It is important that we stay calm, choose a consequence that is manageable and not too drastic. For example, “I would rather you did not lose 10c of your pocket money, so I need you to tidy your room, thank you.” Making it seem as though you don’t want to implement this consequence is better than something that sounds more threatening such as “Tidy up or you’ll lose 10c of your pocket money.” Children can feel as though both parties have something to gain from completing the task.

Try to allow them time in between each instruction to change their mind and complete the task. Once the task has been completed, it is important to thank and to praise and not to comment any further on the task as it is helpful to end the interaction positively.

If the consequence has to be implemented, try to do so calmly and matter-of-factly. It is important to follow through on the consequences if they are mentioned and so the child learns to pay attention to the instruction as they know the consequence will come. Try to do this as privately as possible to reduce the potential embarrassment and/or defensiveness your child might experience if this happens in front of others.

Top Tips:

  1. Remain Consistent: It is confusing for children if we stick to rules and boundaries one day and do not the next day.
  1. Try to Encourage Decision Making, Where Possible: For example, “we have to tidy our room now, do you want to make the bed first or put away the clothes”.
  1. Keep Empathy With Boundaries: For example, “I can see that you are upset that you cannot go out to play, but it is too late now. Tomorrow we can talk about going out to play when it is earlier and safer.” 
  1. Move On After: When the interaction about the boundary/rule is over, let it be over. Whether the child completed the task or the consequence is implemented, do not dwell on the interaction or let it become a bigger issue.
  1. Small Reasonable Consequences: Try to implement small reasonable consequences that can be carried out shortly after the incident to increase the likelihood of the child remembering why this consequence has occurred.
  1. Have fun too: When implementing a new boundary, it can feel like a lot of difficult change for a child. Although in the long run the benefits of the boundaries will be apparent, it is helpful to also remember to have fun and silly time when we are not setting and implementing boundaries. During the week of starting the new boundary, try do something fun with your child so their focus is not entirely on the difficult boundary.

This article written by HSE Primary Care Child and Family Psychology Services, a member of Parenting Limerick.