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Teaching Kids About Personal Boundaries

I’ve been thinking a lot about healthy relationships lately, and as often happens when I’m really focused on something, I’m seeing it pop up everywhere around me. Right now that thing is personal boundaries.

What are boundaries? Personal boundaries are the ability to take responsibility for your own emotions, and to not take responsibility for the emotions of others. My husband sent me this article about boundaries, and it’s a great overview of what boundaries look like in adult relationships such as a partnership, friendship or work relationship. It really started the wheels turning in my head and got me thinking about my own ability to maintain healthy boundaries.

But you know what? Kids can have healthy or unhealthy boundaries too. They learn this implicitly, of course, by being in relationship with their parents and other adults of influence in their lives.


The other day I got a crash course in my own kids’ personal boundaries. I came upstairs to ask the girls to turn off their computer games, and this request triggered intense screaming and anger from my youngest, who is 6. I mean, yes, I understand that she’d rather keep playing Minecraft or Crayon Physics, but this was life-or-death shrieking and rage. I also know that extreme over-reaction = a pretty good clue that something deeper is at play, but at this point my willingness to stay and find out what was really going on was low. Like pretty much non-existent. I closed the door and let her rage for a few minutes while I rode through my own emotions: (frustration, anger, violent thoughts, desire to check out and do something else, guilt at leaving her alone in her big emotions). When I was ready I went back to her and checked in to see what was going on.

Turns out that Claire had followed Bea’s suggestions of what game to play and which things to do while she was playing, and then handed over her game to her sister for a considerable amount of their allotted screen time so that Bea could help her get through some tricky levels. “Bea is being mean!” she screamed. “I didn’t really want to play that game but I said yes because she asked me! I thought she would be mad if I didn’t let her play! AHHHHHHHHH!”

Hello, opportunity to learn about boundaries.

In order to not allow others to overstep your boundaries you need a few things:

  1. to actually know what you want
  2. to believe that you are allowed to choose for yourself and that it’s safe and OK to get what you want
  3. to be able to check in and see if a request from someone else matches up with your own wishes, or if it is something you can freely give with joy

This is what Claire needed to be able to do. She gave in to her sister’s request because she wanted to “be nice”, but then she was ultimately disappointed that she didn’t get her full amount of time to play her own game. Sound familiar?? I’ve been here myself for sure.

The flip side of boundaries is knowing how to find your own power without overstepping the boundaries of others. This requires a few things too:

  1. to actually know what you want
  2. to believe that everyone has the right to self-determination and is entitled to make their own decisions
  3. to be able to take responsibility for fixing your own problems and owning your own feelings, without trying to fix others or getting them to fix you

Once you start looking, you might see blurry boundaries in all kind of relationships. They often come in pairs:

  • the victim and the fixer
  • the giver and the taker
  • the controller and the doormat
  • whenever you get sucked into being “guilt-tripped”

Blurry boundaries can be cultural, and can also be inherited from our own families of origin. If you notice this kind of intergenerational pattern, be gentle with yourself. When we are small we adapt to fit what our family expects of us, and this is something our brains do to protect us. It keeps us safe when we are small, but can be stifling when we grow up and then feel stuck in those same patterns. In order to break the pattern we need to be able to notice that it’s safe to make different choices now, and then practice doing that in a safe environment with supportive people.

It can feel somewhat cold or uncaring to think about setting good boundaries, but unless we are truly giving out of joy and receiving with gratitude, resentment and a feeling of dis-empowerment can build up in our relationships over time. Good boundaries are a source of personal strength and self-esteem, and help us take responsibility for the direction of our lives. Goodness knows those are things I want for my kids, and things I’m working towards for myself too.