Parental Roles: How to Set Healthy Boundaries with Your Child

Parental Roles: How to Set Healthy Boundaries with Your Child

People talk a  lot about the need for “boundaries,” but what does this word  really mean? As a  parent, you can think of a boundary as the line you draw  around yourself to  define where you end and where your child begins. This isn’t  always easy. And  let’s face it, kids push the boundaries every day, all the  time. They are wired  to test us and see how far they can go; it’s in their  nature. As parents, we  sometimes cross boundaries ourselves in our attempts to  fix things for them. Understand  that one of our most important jobs as parents  is to stay loving and separate  from our children. We do this by clearly  defining our principles, staying in  our role as a parent, and sticking to our  bottom lines.

“Think  of a boundary as the line you draw around yourself to define where you end and  where your child begins.”


Related:  Child pushing your buttons?

How do you  know if your child is pushing boundaries? Here are some  examples:

  • Your  13-year-old walks into your room  without knocking on the door and doesn’t  respect your privacy.
  • Your  10-year-old interrupts your  conversations with other adults without saying “excuse  me” or waiting politely  for a chance to get your attention.
  • Your  teen tells you how to run your life  after your divorce.
  • Your  young child tells you what to do and  throws tantrums if you don’t do what she  says.

How does it  feel when boundaries are crossed? Sometimes we get clear  indications that it’s  happening, while other times, it’s more subtle. You might  feel anxious or  uncomfortable, angry, tense, embarrassed, resentful, or put  upon. Other times, you  could react by feeling diminished, as if a rug has been  pulled out from under  you, or simply put in a position that doesn’t feel right.  You might also see  your child stepping in to a place he doesn’t belong, by  giving you dating  advice, for example, or acting as if he’s the one in charge.  (We’ll talk more  later about how to establish healthy boundaries, and how to  step back into your  respective roles.)

Related:  Does your child act out and  try to control the house?

Over-functioning for Our Kids

When we get  anxious about our kids, we often over-function for them and  that’s when  boundaries can get blurred. This means that we do too much for  them, and “get  in their box” instead of staying in our own. When this happens,  we’ve forgotten  where we end and where our child begins.

At the root  of all this is anxiety. When you become nervous about your  child’s success or  ability to handle things in life (whether it’s in school,  with friends, in  sports, or with his or her ability to behave appropriately),  it might feel as  if you’re alleviating stress by jumping in and taking control  instead of  letting your child work things out for himself.

Believe me, I  understand that it’s painful to see our kids struggle in life;  we love them and  feel responsible for them, so we naturally want to make things  better for our  kids and “fix things.” But know that when you aren’t able to let  your child work  through obstacles on her own, you’re denying her an important  experience—the  experience of how to overcome disappointment, how to deal with  an argument with  a friend, or how to talk to her teacher about a grade. I’m not  saying that we  should never help, guide, coach and teach our kids; of course we  should—that’s  a huge part of what it means to be a parent. What I’m saying is  that we need to  let them try to fight their own battles when possible and  appropriate, rather  than taking on their battles for them. Letting your child  work through things  is a way to respect them by observing their boundaries—and  your own.

Related:  How to stop yelling and start  parenting calmly.

How do you  know if you might be blurring boundaries as a parent? Here are  some signs:

  • Doing  for your child what he can (or  should) do for himself.
  • Constantly  asking questions; interrogating  your child over everything.
  • Letting  your child invade your boundaries  as a couple—making your kids the center focus  at all times.
  • Over-sharing  with your child about your  life; treating them like a friend rather than your  child.
  • Giving  up your parental authority and  allowing your child to take control of the  household.
  • Living  through your child vicariously;  feeling as if their achievements are yours, and  their failures are yours as  well.
  • Your  child is upset, and you fall  apart.

How does it  feel for you as a parent when this is happening? Sometimes, it  might not feel  bad. For example, you might feel like you’re simply sharing with  your child  even though you’re over-sharing. An important thing to ask yourself  in this  case is, “Is it my child’s role to listen to this particular problem or  story? Is  this too much for her? Would this be something more appropriate to  share with  my mate or a friend?” If your child is giving you advice on your  dating life,  you may have “invited them in.”  If, on  the other hand,  you’re worried you might be living through your child  vicariously, ask  yourself, “Am I relying too much on my child’s successes to  feel good? Do I  need to start focusing more on my own goals?” And if your child  is controlling  the house with his moods, behavior or demands, sit down and ask  yourself, “Am I  playing the role of a parent who’s in charge, or am I giving up  control of the  house to my child out of fear or anxiety?” What parents might  not be aware of,  in all these instances, is that they’re operating from anxiety  in some way. The  best advice here is to try not to react from your emotions, but  instead, stay  in your parental role and respond from your principles. This is  the best way to  recognize those parent-child boundaries and honor them.

Related:  How to take back parental  authority.

Over-Empathizing with Your Child?

It’s easy for  parents to over-empathize with their kids and project their  own feelings on to  them. “I feel so bad that Shari can’t go out with her  friends – she must feel  worried that she won’t be included next time. Maybe  just this once I will let  her off the hook even though she didn’t finish her  homework.” Instead of  worrying that your child will fall apart, have faith that  she can manage her  own disappointments, pain, and hurt. Know what your pain is  and what it is not.  Letting your child experience these difficult feelings with  your empathy, not  your over-empathy, will help her  learn from  experience and face reality.

Before we go  any further, I want to assure you that we all cross boundaries  with our kids at  one time or another—we’re only human! The important thing is  to be aware of it when  it happens and to refrain from making it a fixed pattern  or a way of life.

Related:  How the cycle of anxiety  works in families.

So how can  you set good solid boundaries with your kids? Here are 4 tips  that will help  you get there:

  1. Define your boundaries. To develop boundaries for yourself,  you have to know what you value,  think and where you stand. This is not always  easy to define, but it’s so  important that your child knows who you are and what  you believe. This doesn’t  mean you should be rigid; it means you communicate  your personal values and  stick to them. If your value is to be honest, for  example, then talk it and  walk it. Kids are guided in life by watching what you  do, which often makes  more of an impression than what you say.
  2. Make your expectations  known. Make a list of what you expect for yourself  in relation  to your kids. Think  about what you can and can’t live with;  think through what matters most to you.  Is it responsibility, loyalty, respect?  If it’s helpful for you, write it out.  Tell your kids what your guiding  principles are. Notice in coming up with this  list that you are not attempting  to control your child but rather, you are  taking charge of yourself. If one of  your principles is “respect” and your son  is frequently rude to you and calls  you names, let him know the consequence he  can expect from you each time that  happens. Let him see that you respect  yourself and will follow through. This is  different than trying to “make him” speak  the way you want him to. You’re  giving him the choice, but you’re holding him  accountable.
  3. Get your focus on yourself instead  of  your child. When your  child is acting poorly and not  listening to you, think about how you can more  clearly communicate what you  expect—and hold her accountable when she doesn’t  listen. Try to say things in a  way that conveys that you mean business; expect  to be listened to and taken  seriously. As difficult as it is to look at  yourself openly and honestly, it  will help you to stop doing the  impossible—which is like hitting your head  against the wall as you try in vain  to control your child. Instead it will open  you to the possibility of taking  charge of yourself. By doing this,   you will be continuing your own growth. Your own self-knowledge and maturity   will help lead your kids to find theirs.
  4. Let your child feel the impact of a   crossed boundary. Help  your kids experience the impact of  crossing boundaries so that it becomes part  of their reality. Admit when you  have crossed someone else’s boundary and  apologize for it. And when your kids  cross one, let them know and hold them  accountable. Let’s say you promise your  child that you’ll drive him to the  movies after he does his chores—but he plays  video games instead. If you follow  through by not driving him, your child will  experience the consequences, and will  come to understand on a deep level what  you expect for yourself. He will know  that you respect yourself and mean what  you say. Eventually, he will learn good  boundaries for himself and how to  respect others, as well.

Related:  How to give consequences that  really work.

Don’t Beat Yourself up Sometimes  parents have a hard  time holding on to themselves and their boundaries even  though they know it’s  in their kids’ best interest. This can happen because we  are simply worn out.  You’re having a difficult time staying “separate” from  your child. We all have  hard times, moments when we give in. Nobody—and no  parent—is perfect. Instead  of beating yourself up for this, you might have to  let yourself off the hook  for letting them off the hook. Simply try your best not to make it a  pattern. You may have inadvertently  programmed your kids to get you to finally  give in out of exhaustion. Or you  may have to consider that you are so wiped  that it’s not possible for you to  hold on to yourself. In that case, you may  have to work on building up your  resilience through exercise, getting more  sleep, and getting more involved in  your own life and goals.

Final word: When  you know where you stand, you’ll know what you will and  won’t put up with from  your child. Define your boundaries and try to stick to  your principles rather  than reacting to your moment-to-moment emotions. If you  let your thoughts and  principles drive you, you won’t be so apt to let your  emotions determine your  parenting—and both you and your child will be happier  for it.


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