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How to set boundaries with children

I start a new job today 🙂

One where I feel I can offer the most of my knowledge and skills…

I’ll be helping parents who have kids that struggle with feeling safe so they have learned strategies to deal with the adults in their lives… Like demanding closeness and punishing you if you don’t give it… Or just remain distant despite all of your efforts to show they are loved… Acting out, refusing to listen, ignoring your requests or directions and exploding unexpectedly (such as at bedtime or bath time).

These kids have learned these strategies even before these parents have come along… They are in the out of home foster care system.

For most of us, we are able to set boundaries and children listen and respect them, but when the child’s boundaries are ignored or there is no boundaries for them to understand so the world seems constantly unsafe and crazy, then we, as a society need to help them learn how to be in this world and co-exist with everyone else. Otherwise they grow up and struggle, have PTSD, anxiety, depression and loads of physical health problems. Childhood trauma is not only linked to mental and physical health problems but also crime. There would not be many instances of a person incarcerated who was not treated appallingly as a child. So foster carers do an important preventative role not only for the child but for society.

My role will be to help carers through understanding how boundaries can really help children get a sense of safety and how to best set these for a child who suffers from attachment and trauma related problems. Attachment is defined as the quality of the relationship between parent and child and is based on the child feeling safe and secure to both explore the world and also have a safe haven to retreat to when they need emotional support. It doesn’t require the parent to be perfect or to sleep with, be physically attached or breastfeed (if that’s not possible). It requires you to be available, attentive to their needs (both physical and emotional) and to be the stable guiding influence and calm support person when their emotions get the better of them… Because children are made to be emotional and the more trauma they experience, the more emotions they hold! They learn how to regulate their emotions through the relationship with their parents, carers and significant adults in their lives.

So setting boundaries is very much a part of being that stable, secure, guiding influence.. And to do that you need to be stable in yourself.. You need to be the bigger, stronger, wiser and kind one – that’s your job! And by fulfilling these 4 attributes, you help teach your child how to grow into that for themselves. Let’s look at how you can do that…

How to set boundaries

1. Be calm.

If you’re angry, frustrated, hurt or scared by your child’s behaviour, best not set the boundary at this point. Calm down first… Never set a boundary whilst in the midst of your emotions because you will often do or say something you’ll regret. Just put it off by saying “We’ll talk about this later when I feel calmer”.

2. Have realistic expectations

Is it possible that they child did not know what they were doing was a problem? Many kids don’t realise that their actions are a problem… For example, I remember having an absolutely amazing time painting the washing machine and some of the walls in the laundry with Vegemite… My mother didn’t appreciate my artistic side was evolving at that point. So if it’s possible they didn’t understand it was a problem, then first ask them “What’s happening here?” And gain and understanding of their thinking first before correcting them… “We don’t paint anything other than paper and sometimes special made painting boards… How about you help me clean this up and we set you up somewhere else to continue your painting?”

3. Know that emotions rule

Many adults have a hard time containing their own emotions so why do we expect children to? They will melt down and sometimes even hit out because their emotional brain rules way more than any little voice of reason. The best way of avoiding this is anticipation… Learn what sets your child off and prepare them ahead for what you expect of them… “In 20 minutes it will be time to pack up the toys and sit down for dinner, so would you like 10 minutes or 5 minutes of warning to get you ready?” “Today we’re going to the supermarket as we need to get somethings to prepare meals for this week, what would you like to be in charge of? The shopping list or would you like to take a toy to play with will we get that done?”

4. Set the boundaries together where possible

Not even grown up like being forced to comply to someone else’s seemingly arbitrary rules. One of the best way to avoid arguments and one of the skills we all need to develop is the art of negotiation. You should start this as early as possible and encourage your child to negotiate what works for them. For example, bed time is often a struggle… “I get frustrated when you get up over and over again and ask for water or to go to the toilet because I know you’re tired and I am also tired and need some time to relax… What do you think we could do to fix this problem?” This is a real example that happened in my family and the way we negotiated it was that my daughter and I agreed that she could read until she was ready to go to sleep, she also had a drink of water on her side table, she could also go to the toilet if she needed to without asking me. So the routine turned into something very pleasurable where I read her a story and she then continued to read until she fell asleep, then later I came in and turned off the light and ensured she was covered up. I never had the struggle again. I let her come up with solutions and also offered my own. Some kids need your presence at the time they fall asleep, so that may also mean you’re in the room with them but not talking… What ever works, just ensure you both continue to work together to find solutions.

5. Review the boundaries, especially when they don’t comply with them

When boundaries are not respected, then look for reasons why. For example, recently I worked with two parents who are struggling with their teenager who despite negotiating and agreeing on the morning ritual, when it came time to get up, refused and pushed back on going to school at all.  They had done all the right things as parents should, tried negotiating and a little tough love but kept having the same problem every morning (which just wears you down!). Just this information was enough for me to inquire about his anxiety levels. All behaviour is a result of an underlying need. This young teen was anxious about school and had a particular teacher he struggled to keep up with. If you’re waking up dreading your day, then it turns on your fight and flight system. So you need to look for the underlying causes as to why the behaviour persists and generally it’s emotional, fear based and we need to find solutions to the fear and not punish the child for having those fears.

If however, there doesn’t seem to be a mental block to actually following through on the agreed boundary and your child is just continually testing you, then first question… Look at their age… They younger they are 2-4 years old, the harder it is to not act out of their emotions and you will need to be patient and consistent in your teaching (or teach the boundary in a different way … I.e play it out with toys, make a story/metaphor up to talk through the boundary). The older they are, then look for the underlying need… Chase the why… Why is it hard for them to respect that boundary? Put yourself in their shoes and really see the issue from their side… Get curious and have and open discussion where they know you’re not judging but are seeking to understand their world. Then re-negotiate something they can agree to!

If they are not respecting the boundary then YOU do not understand their need!  Kids naturally want to please their parents, so if they just can’t do that, then find out why first instead of using punishments.

Are you starting to realise why you need to be the bigger, stronger, wiser and kind one?

6. Avoid punishments wrapped up in “Natural consequences”

This concept of “natural consequences” irks me…

Natural consequences is when a child understands fully the impact of their behaviour through observation and calm discussion and sharing of emotions and naturally moves to make amends or displays shame and you respond appropriately and encourage them to do something different next time.

When people tell their child that “as a consequence of your behaviour you won’t be able t0….” Then that’s actually a punishment… It’s really just adults trying to force kids to doing it our way and we’ve missed and opportunity to understand their needs, teach them about our/others needs and how to emotionally regulate and find solutions that work for everyone.  Punishments can also be fear based (“I’m afraid I’m failing as a parent, I need to reel this child in!”).

Again, bigger, stronger, wiser and kind are the attributes that help in teaching true natural consequences.

Kids need to learn how to be in this world and in relationships – we teach them how to do that either with love or out of fear.

I know it’s hard.  It’s easy to slip into old patterns.

It’s easy to return to punishment and authoritarian approaches because we were brought up that way… But if we want to raise children into people who are open to understanding others, considerate, respectful and who can problem solve and work as a team, then we need to be that ourselves.

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