21 Mar Attitudes that make it difficult to set boundaries for your kids
Setting boundaries for your child is one of the core skills of parenting. While we can have good intentions in setting appropriate, consistent boundaries, it is easy to fall short of this goal. In this article we will discuss unhelpful attitudes that can block your ability to set boundaries for your children. We will explore practical ways to overcome these obstacles.
Beliefs about our child that can get in the way of setting boundaries
Our attitudes tend be so ingrained that we can forget that they may not be entirely true or helpful in all situations. One such attitude may be the belief that our child is intentionally trying to disrespect or irritate us when they misbehave.
My child is pushing my buttons on purpose
Boundary testing is a normal behaviour throughout childhood. It involves resisting instruction or rules given by parents and other authority figures. Toddlers will test the limits of their environments through tantrums, and defiant behaviour continues right through to teenage years where adolescents will explore their emerging adulthood by challenging their parents.
Boundary testing can involve inaction (not listening) or can be loud and aggressive. So why does boundary testing occur? Children are more egocentric (self-focussed) than adults, which is due to their developmental stage. This means they want what they want and are not able to use higher order thinking to reason why they should wait for or forego enjoyable activities. This is because the frontal lobes, the parts of the brain that are involved in logical thinking and impulse control, are not fully developed in children.
Another reason boundary testing can occur is attention seeking (parents tend to react to misbehaviour, and even getting in trouble is a form of attention). Regular boundary testing tends to be achieving some sort of result for the child. This may be attention, as mentioned, but could also be the other incidental benefits that come with battling parents. For example, testing boundaries might lead parents to give in (so the child gets what they want), or fighting might help the child to avoid a task they don’t want to do (e.g. doing homework, brushing teeth).
Testing boundaries also occurs when strong emotions are at play. Children are still learning to regulate their emotions so can respond to discipline with anger and resistance. Sometimes your child may want to anger you, which is not them being out to get you, but more an underdeveloped ability to handle emotions. Trouble handling emotions may be especially prevalent when your child is feeling more vulnerable than usual (e.g. when tired, teething, or due to hormonal changes in adolescence).
Lastly, boundary setting is a way that children move through developmental stages appropriately. A teenager should start asking parents for more freedom, as they are establishing their individual identity and taking on additional responsibility.
When we explore the reasons for boundary testing it helps us to view the behaviour as natural and to depersonalise the experience. Rather than thinking our child is out to get us or dislikes us, we should remember that every child tests the limits of their environment. Keeping this attitude while misbehaviour is occurring can help us to stay calm and to act out the parenting response we aim to (rather than becoming emotional and impulsive yourself). Be gentle on yourself however, as even with this information it can be hard to disengage when your child or adolescent expresses anger or even dislike towards you.
My kids shouldn’t have difficult emotions
Another attitude we may have about our children is that they should not experience difficult emotions. This belief seems natural and adaptive, but if taken to the extreme it can get in the way of boundary setting. Some people have unhealthy views about emotions themselves. Some emotions are more painful to experience, but try to remember that all emotions are useful and a part of life.
For example, whilst you may not want your child to feel frustrated, it is important for them to learn to experience and adaptively cope with this feeling. There are times in life where we will and even should feel upset, angry or worried, and we cannot shield our child from these feelings.
Misled attempts to protect your child’s feelings can actually increase painful emotions and create other difficulties down the track. The example below illustrates this point:
Emily is trying to set the boundary of appropriate screen time. Her daughter cries and says she is sad when the iPad is removed. Emily doesn’t like to see her daughter crying, both for her daughter’s and her own sake, so she lets her have another half an hour on the iPad.
In this example, Emily’s daughter is not really being shielded from emotions because eventually the iPad will still have to go away. It is important for a child to learn to experience disappointments and not getting their way, and giving in on a regular basis means that the child does not learn to accept and weather these emotions.
H1: Beliefs about parenting that can get in the way of setting boundaries
In the above example it may not only be Emily’s beliefs about her child that make it difficult to enforce boundaries, but also her views on parenting. A parenting belief that can make it difficult to discipline a child is the view that being firm equals being mean.
Being firm is mean
What makes a good parent? The response to this question will be personal and influenced by our own childhood, our culture, our experiences and the situation. Modern parenting in the Western world promotes respect for children and softer discipline than in previous generations. But how do we reconcile our kind, supportive view of ourself when we are limiting a child’s behaviour?
Does being firm trigger your own memories of being a child, or does it make you feel like a ‘bad’ parent or guardian? If you have the underlying belief that being firm is mean or unnecessary then you may feel confused about how to set boundaries. A knowledge of children’s needs can help you integrate firmness into your view of healthy parenting. Children need understanding, appropriate freedoms and shared joy. However, they also thrive on security, predictability and management of their emotions and behaviour. Children’s brains are still developing so we need to step in and set limits to help children act in appropriate ways and to regulate their body/emotions.
If we follow the example above, Emily may think being firm on the iPad situation is mean, but helping our child to deal with frustration and to balance their energy and time appropriately is part of being a parent. A good question to ask to ascertain whether you are being firm and fair, or reactive and harsh is, “What is my motivation for this action, and are my actions reasonable?” If your motivation is to set appropriate boundaries then you’re on the right track. If your motivation has changed to include goals like expressing anger, or if you don’t have logical reasons for your actions (e.g. yelling when you know this won’t be effective), then take a break. Keep in mind that sometimes you will have just motivations and actions and it will still feel mean to enforce a boundary. Try to remember the long-term benefits of boundary setting in this case and that your child may be emotional because they are in fight or flight. Once a child’s physiological response has calmed down, they may later accept the boundary or move on. This leads on to another erroneous parenting belief, the idea that calm and rational talking should always work as a parenting strategy.
Calm and rational talking should work when setting boundaries
If we want to set a boundary for a child one thing we could do is calmly and logically explain why a particular behaviour is needed. This might work at times, but if our child strongly disagrees with the imposed limit they will likely push back. This can then lead into a debate in which we feel compelled to justify the boundary to the child repeatedly, leading to frustration on both sides.
The problem with this communication is that a parent and child are not equal in the relationship. It is a parent’s job to set some hard limits which are designed to help regulate your child (e.g. bedtimes to ensure adequate sleep) and help them learn the rules of society (e.g. no physical aggression). Children do not have the brain development nor experience to think as logically as adults. Impulse control is also still developing so even if they see your point, they may want to continue a behaviour because it is enjoyable in the short term.
The parenting program 123 Magic provides further discussion about how treating children like ‘mini adults’ causes problems in boundary setting.
Calm and rational discussions about boundaries can also fail because children and parents become emotional (making it difficult to be reasonable). Thinking that this parenting approach should work will make you feel frustrated and like you have failed. A more adaptive belief might be:
I like to explain my reasoning for decisions to my children, but sometimes they may not have the capacity to understand or agree with appropriate boundaries.
If this is the case then setting the boundary anyway is what is needed.
In summary, we have discussed some beliefs about children and parenting that can get in the way of setting effective boundaries for your kids. Feeling like our kids are purposely pushing our buttons can lead to big emotions that impair boundary setting. Similarly, our emotions about shielding our child from pain can make it more difficult to be consistent with discipline. Feeling that being firm is mean, or mistakenly thinking that being calm and rational will always work are common parenting misconceptions. Letting go of these beliefs can help us to stay calmer and more consistent when we set the necessary rules and limits children need in life. If you find you need more assistance in this area you can call us on 3857 0074 or fill out our online form.