Having healthy boundaries is important whether you are a parent or not, for many however it is very challenging to establish them and maintain them. We learn how to make and keep boundaries from our care givers when we are children. If you were, like many of us, raised by parents that believed that children should be seen not heard, that children’s needs come after those of adults and that expected you to obey without complaint or hesitation, you are unlikely to have learned how to form boundaries that respect your autonomy. If you were raised by permissive parents then you might not even have concept of boundaries and might find it difficult to keep yours as well as those of others. Fortunately, it is never too late and I with some inner work and perhaps some help from a professional, you can still learn how to make sure that your space is respected as well as to respect the boundaries of others without taking them personally, this includes the boundaries of your children.
To start with, you need to establish what your boundaries are, you can do this through journalling, chatting to a friend or discussing it with your coach or therapist. It is important to have clarity on what the boundaries are and that they are coming from your needs and values, as arbitrary lines are more likely to get crossed and cause issues unnecessarily. We also sometimes take on beliefs and boundaries that do not come from within but from our parents, peers or even social media. If our boundaries are nor aligned with our needs and values, we often end up with an inner conflict, which is uncomfortable to say the least. If you are not sure what boundaries look like, here are few examples of good boundaries to have. No violence should be used against you. Not one should call you names, be demeaning or rude to you you. No one should take your things without permission. No one should touch you in a sexual way without our your consent. You are seeing the pattern here I am sure, these are applicable to all humans (and some would argue animals too) and we have formed social rules and criminal laws to preserve these boundaries, despite of them we still often cross them to some level, especially with our children. When you look at it from this perspective, spanking is no longer ok, neither is calling your child silly or worse, nor tickling them when they said stop. All these things are teaching the child that their boundaries do not matter and that especially people that say they love them are not only allowed but entitled to cross them. If this child grows up without positive intervention on the subject of boundaries, they’ll struggle to keep them and often end up in abusive relationships of some kind. A friend constantly taking advantage of your kindness, never returning your books or partner calling you names or being demeaning counts as abuse, not just outright violence. On the other hand, if the child is brought up by parents with no boundaries they do not learn to respect them and can end up recklessly albeit unintentionally abusive.
Many of my clients were clear on what their boundaries were, but struggled to enforce them and let people cross them repeatedly. It is relatively easy to stand strong against strangers, however if the person is in a position of power, we might let them get away with infractions for fear of consequences. This might be a boss at work or even a more experienced colleague that make fun of you, where you’d fear losing your job, it might be a partner, who is violent (and then apologetic), who you are afraid would leave you, it might be a parent who puts you down or behaves inappropriately in front of your children, but you are afraid of their anger. We therefore worked on realising their autonomy, on growing their confidence and ability to say ‘no’ or ’stop’. Funnily enough, once they decided that they and their boundaries mattered, most people started to respect them without any of the feared consequences coming true. Unfortunately, in few cases they had to cut the perpetrators off and remove them from their lives to preserve their and their family’s well being. Remember, we are talking of consequences here, not punishment. Silent treatment, violence, abusive behaviours, demands for apology etc are not consequences, they are punishments. Withdrawing yourself from their presence until they are able to change their behaviour in a way that feels safe to you is a consequence.
When it comes to keeping boundaries with our children, the principle is the same, however a withdrawal is not a possible consequence while they are in our care. When setting boundaries with your kids make sure they are not arbitrary or catering to your convenience. They should be mainly about their safety (we have to hold hands when crossing the road) or your autonomy (you cannot hit mum, call names your brother, climb on the dining table). Because we are teaching them, we must be showing them what they can do instead, i.e. can hit a pillow, throw a ball, climb on the sofa instead. We also teach them by respecting their boundaries, as long as they are safe and their basic needs taken care off, we should not be touching them against their will, tickling them when they say stop, making them hug/kiss relatives or asking them to perform ‘tricks’ for friends (say ’hi’, show how you can dance).
People who are able to keep healthy boundaries, have good relationships, are respectful, are able to say no without feeling guilty about it, are confident and know their own worth. Remember that we all have different values and priorities, so boundaries will look different for different people, they still should be respected even if we don’t agree with them. Parents with healthy boundaries are respectful of their children, treat them as fully human, not less than, and are firm with their own boundaries. If you were not brought up this way, it might be hard to get to that stage by yourself, it might be advisable to reach out for help from a trained professional.