It has long been said that the first place that children develop their inner “working model” of how relationships function is based on their attachment to their parents. The early relationships that we have with our parents informs the way in which we relate to important people in our lives as we get older, including siblings, friends, romantic partners, and our own future children. The parent-child relationship is also the setting in which we learn how to take responsibility and recognize when something is the responsibility of another. This process is otherwise known as setting boundaries. What are boundaries? They are lines that define where one person ends and another begins, which delineate what a person can be expected to take control of and be responsible for. We are not born with an innate sense of what boundaries are between ourselves and people, and as such, it is necessary that this be taught.
In order for children to learn boundaries, they must be supplied external boundaries and discipline from their parents. If a child grows up confused about what they are responsible and what others are responsible for, they will grow up struggling with difficulties with self-control and possibly try to control others or look to others to determine their own boundaries. Conversely, according to Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, a child who is raised with clear boundaries can develop the following: a well-defined sense of self; knowledge of their own responsibilities; ability to say “yes” and “no;” recognition that they have choice; and the ability to love others based in freedom and not in expectation.
So, what can parents do to teach boundaries? Early on, this is done through a short, succinct and powerful tool: “No.” For young children, it is easy to say and, very often, one of the first ways in which they learn to set boundaries. It is also something that they often hear from parents, teachers and other authority figures. Early on in life, setting boundaries is communicated in this way, for both parents and children: “No hitting.” “No, that’s my toy.” “No, I don’t want to play.” As children get older, parents can set boundaries based in core principles, such as safety, respect, responsibility, etc. Additionally, parents should emphasize that physical and emotional boundaries should always be respected, both for others and for the child. This enables healthy separation between the parent and child, and prevent enmeshment (i.e., a relationship between two or more people in which personal boundaries are permeable and unclear).
Regular family meetings provide a format for parents to discuss house rules and the principles behind said rules. This setting also allows children the opportunity to play a role in establishing the family boundaries. Children who feel as though they have a voice and a choice in the establishment of “family rules” are more likely to respect them. These rules should have consequences that are known in advance, connected to the offense and kept consistently. It is essential that expectations and consequences be followed through on so children can learn that they cannot push the boundaries in order to get what they want. Boundaries are dynamic and will change as your children grow and they mature. Keep the conversation open and allow them to communicate their feelings, wants, needs and thoughts. This is essential for healthy relationships.