I’ve interviewed various experts about boundaries, and one of the running themes is that most of us aren’t taught how to set boundaries as kids.
That’s because our parents didn’t know how to set boundaries, and they didn’t know because their parents didn’t know either, said Fran Walfish, Psy.D, a child and family psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, Calif. “This is really a generational repetition of patterns.”
Teaching your child to set boundaries is important because “every one of us must learn to self-advocate as part of our independent process. Our moms and dads won’t always be there to take care of us.
A parent’s job is to equip kids with coping skills to self-advocate,” said Walfish, also author of the book The Self-Aware Parent.
Below, Walfish shared how parents can help their kids set boundaries.
Get clear on your own boundaries.
Work on setting effective boundaries with your kids. This affects their behavior and conveys the right way to create their own boundaries.
For instance, if a father sets boundaries harshly — he screams and even slaps his kids — then that child is likely to behave harshly or aggressively with other kids, Walfish said. “And [they] might even become the bully.”
(Here’s more on setting boundaries with your kids.)
Help them honor themselves.
Walfish also suggests parents reflect out loud to their kids about what feels and doesn’t feel comfortable.
For instance, if you have a shy child, avoid “rubbing it in” — or pressuring them to talk to others — “which will make them embarrassed and self-conscious and maybe shame the child.”
Instead, in an empathic tone of voice say, “You know, I think you’re the kind of person who likes to take time and warm up to someone before you feel comfortable talking, and that’s fine,” she said.
This way, you’re helping your child define a boundary. You’re helping them figure out what works for them and what doesn’t — and to honor that.
Talk about it.
Teach your kids about what it means to be a good friend, and how to deal with bullying or exclusion from the schoolyard. “If kids say, ‘you can’t play with us,’ teach your kids to say ‘you’re not being a good friend,’” Walfish said.
Help them understand that kids who reject them aren’t nice kids — “and who wants to hang out with mean kids anyway? Most of us pursue those who reject us, and that’s the wrong pursuit.” Be sure to talk to your child on their level, depending on age, she added.
“Ask your kids to play what-if scenarios,” Walfish said. Ask them what they might say in certain situations. Avoid feeding them the answers, because this “facilitates dependency.” And it’s key to “praise every increment toward your child’s autonomy.”
It is helpful to give your kids several key phrases they can use to self-advocate, and to teach them to use their words, not their hands, she said.
Walfish also stressed the importance of helping your kids develop a good value system and build their character — and to choose friends who, too, have good ethics.
She also noted that parents shouldn’t take sides in sibling fights or rivalry.
“Don’t position yourself to blame, judge or criticize, but rather position yourself as a mediator.” You’re simply there to let the kids take turns == “each one having a chance to talk and listen without interrupting.”
This not only helps kids learn how to maintain their boundaries but also how to resolve conflict.