8 Steps for Setting Gentle Boundaries With Your Children
Gentle boundaries are an important element in forming trust with our children. Trust and respect grow when we hold our boundaries and respect other’s boundaries.
This is why consistency is talked about so much in child development. Consistency builds trust and security, and boundaries are one of the ways to do this. (Read this to dive deeper into what gentle boundaries are and why they are so important to your relationship with your children.)
If we show our children we honor ourselves and our own boundaries, as well as honoring and respecting their boundaries, they can trust us.
- Stephanie Aberlich
Modeling is one of the most important tools we have as parents, this is why modeling boundaries helps our children realize they are worthy of having their own boundaries honored, and ways in which to go about asking for them.
If we show our children we honor ourselves and our own boundaries, as well as honoring and respecting their boundaries, they can trust us. And even more than that, they learn how to take care of themselves, hold their own boundaries, and trust themselves.
Ultimately, the specific boundaries you choose to hold are your decision and will vary by family. However, I believe there is a spectrum of beneficial and not beneficial to keep in mind when setting those boundaries. Read this post to find out how to determine what is beneficial and what isn't in boundary setting.
How to Make & Hold Gentle Boundaries
Here are my steps for setting and holding gentle boundaries with your children:
1. Decide What’s Truly Important
Sit down and find out what's truly important to you and your family. Literally make a list if you need to, but know things will come up you never dreamed of, and you'll need to make decisions on the fly often.
Asking yourself why you need to hold a boundary can help you determine if it's needed or not. "Because I said so." is not a viable reason to hold a boundary. You need to know the underlying reason - the safety reason or the need reason for the boundary. Not only is it important to know the reason for yourself, it's important to share the reason with your children so they can learn from it.
2. Fill Up Your Children's Choice Bucket
To make gentle boundaries work, to keep connection, and to encourage an environment that works for everyone in the family, it's important to give your children choices as often as you can. Remember, they are people like you and I, and all people who don't have choices over their everyday activities are bound to get ornery.
But when we are given choices throughout our days, not getting to choose every once in a while becomes no big deal. It's the same with our children. If they have had plenty of chances to make their own choices today, getting in the car seat without fighting it becomes a lot more likely.
3. Gently Enforce the Boundaries
This does not mean screaming at the top of your lungs "NOOOOO!!!!" I'm laughing as I write this because we've all done this. Especially when it comes to safety, sometimes yelling "NOOO!" will be inevitable, your first instinct, and completely necessary if it's a dire situation where you have no time to think before you speak.
Enforcing boundaries in a mindful way means using kind words instead of threatening or shaming words, and instead of disconnecting methods like time outs and physical violence.
Even if this isn't how you grew up or how you know how to parent, the good news is you can learn how to make these changes by following the techniques I'll go over in the rest of this post.
It starts with words. Use concrete and specific wording so your young child will understand what you mean. We use the word "danger" in our family to let our son know when something isn't safe. It's much more specific to what could happen if say, my son reaches to grab a sharp knife off the counter or goes to jump off a high playground structure before he's able to understand his limits.
4. Patiently Reinforce the Boundaries Over & Over
Humans, especially little humans who are just learning about this world, take consistency and repetition to learn. Don't expect your children to get it the first time, or even the 20th time in some cases. However, pay close attention if they are not understanding your boundaries over a long period of time, it could mean you need to change your approach.
Instead of intentionally trying to piss you off by not holding the gentle boundaries you've set, chances are much more likely you didn't explain it in terms they understand, so sometimes it's necessary to change your wording. Believe the best about your children. Believe first and foremost that they are struggling to learn, not that they are intentionally trying to make you angry.
5. Use “Could you… please?” Language
When we are respectful to our children, they learn how to respect others. I am more polite to my child then probably anyone else on the planet because he is learning how to be polite and ask for things, by how I ask him for things.
When he is crossing a boundary, I often use "Could you... please?" language, and it works about 99.9% of the time. An example of this would be if he was standing on the dining room table, I would reinforce the gentle boundary we have about not standing on tables we eat on by saying something like this: "Could you get down off the table please? We don't stand on the dining room table."
6. Use Redirection
Redirection is a tried and true way to keep boundaries without yelling "NOOO!!!", and it is a great learning tool. It takes a bit of practice, so be patient with yourself as you retrain your mind. To use redirection, focus on what your child can do, instead of what they can't do.
If a toddler was throwing blocks inside, you may redirect by saying "We don't throw blocks inside because they can break things or hurt people, but you can throw this ball down the hallway." This holds the boundary of physical safety for those in the room and for your decor, and teaches your child what objects are ok to throw inside and where.
7. Have Patience as They Test You
Do children test their caregivers? Absolutely, but not in the way you think. Again, they are not testing these things out to get a rise out of you, they are testing things out to better understand the boundary completely.
Testing is learning.
Try to get into their brains for a second. Say your 12 month old has started hitting. She hits you in the face and you hold the boundary & redirect, "It's not ok to hit me in the face, but you can throw this ball."
A half hour later she hits you on the arm and you hold a boundary & redirect again, "It's not ok to hit me, but you can hit the xylophone."
Ten minutes later she hits you again on the arm and now you are frustrated and thinking, "Why hasn't she learned already?"
It's because children learn by repetition. Even though these scenarios seemed almost the exact same to you, they were very different scenarios to your child.
In the first scenario she started to learn hitting your face wasn't ok, and also that she could throw a ball as an alternative. In the second scenario she started learning hitting your arm wasn't ok and an acceptable alternative could be playing the xylophone.
I say started, because hearing this once does not form the connections in her brain that are necessary for her to remember this boundary, it only starts to form those connections.
On top of that, she still hasn't learned whether hitting your knee, or nose, or ear is ok... not to mention dad's face or arm or knee or nose or ear... or big brother's face or arm or knee or nose or ear... or the dog's face or arm or nose or ear. Plus, what even constitutes as an ear or a nose? And if we change locations, do the same boundaries still apply?
Do you get the picture? You're children are taking in so much information constantly and trying to interpret it the best they can.
8. Reassess Your Boundaries Periodically
Reassess your expectations and need for boundaries periodically as your children grow. After certain boundaries are learned, you'll find there is little need to reinforce them any longer, and new boundaries will be needed instead.
Also, reassess whether the boundaries are truly necessary or if they were made out of people-pleasing, anger or power struggles.
Want to learn more about gentle boundaries?
Check out these posts.
Awareness Over Perfection
You will not do this perfectly, and that's ok. Building trust and connection takes time, and being an imperfect parent is part of what will help you to connect with your children, as long as you are honest and authentic with them when you make a mistake. Remember, your children don't need a perfect parent, they just need someone who is aware and trying to learn.
Tell Your Story
What gentle boundaries do you use? How have you used language and redirection to encourage them? What changes in your children's behavior have you noticed since using gentle boundaries?