The one thing to never say when setting a boundary

In this podcast (episode #506) and blog, I talk about the importance of teaching your child about boundaries. This is part 2 of my series on parenting, boundaries, and mental health. Part one can be found here.

Whenever you, as a parent or caregiver, set a boundary, make sure that you always explain why in a way that your child will understand. Use the moment to model healthy boundaries for your child and teach them what a healthy boundary looks like, using language that encourages your child to think about the situation and what it means. Avoid using language that shuts them down such as saying “because I said so,” which will make the boundary feel more like a punishment than a teaching opportunity. 

“Because I said so” responses also teach children that overriding someone else’s questions is okay if you think you are wiser or older than someone else, which can affect their social development. I know this can be hard for many parents because, yes, we are older and know a lot more than our children. However, we want to share this knowledge with our children to help them develop and grow as human beings. We need to remember that our children are individuals who are observing and learning about the world around them. When we tell our children to do something (or to not do something) and they ask why, this is one of the best opportunities for us as parents and caregivers to help our children learn and help them develop important life skills that will build up their resilience and support their wellbeing. 

Say, for example, your child wants your attention and you are busy on a Zoom meeting, doing the dishes or housework, or on a phone call. Rather than pushing them away or getting angry at them, explain to them that right now you are busy and let them know that you will play with them, cuddle them or pick them up when you are finished. Even if they get frustrated, let them try to work out that frustration by themselves (another great life-skill!), perhaps by encouraging them to play with their toys or draw/color while they are waiting for you. (If you want to be proactive, it could be helpful to make sure there are toys or things to occupy your child nearby when you know you will be busy with another task). When you explain to them what is happening and that you will come play with them or love them when you are done, you are assuring your child that you will take care of their needs, but that you need to address your own first, which is a perfect example of a healthy boundary: setting your own individual limits while letting the other person know you are willing to take care of their needs as well. 

Why are boundaries so important when it comes to children? Many times, parents and caregivers feel overworked and burnt out because they feel the need to be “on” all the time for their child. Of course, it can be difficult to say “no”, especially if your child is young. It is often hard to see where the line is between raising your child and attending to their needs without wearing yourself out. 

Yet the level of stress caused by being “on” all the time is not beneficial to you or your child, and can affect your relationship with your family. If you consistently experience high levels of stress without taking steps to manage or reduce it, exhaustion will eventually take over, leaving you emotionally and physically burned out. You will begin to feel less motivated, since it seems like nothing you do matters, while even the smallest tasks can leave you feeling overwhelmed and broken. Acting to address toxic stress burnout is essential, since it will only get worse if you just leave or suppress it. This can literally create biological chaos in the brain and body, which can result in you snapping at your child and impacting their mental health. 

So, even though it may be hard to set a boundary, it is a necessary part of managing our own mental health as parents. By not setting boundaries, we are more likely to get angry at our children or feel resentment towards them, which will affect our relationship with our children. Setting boundaries with our children is actually better for our children than trying to be present all the time and always “on” to meet their needs, which will drain us and affect our ability to show up for our kids when they truly need us.  

However, one of the most important things to remember about setting boundaries with our children is that we can both simultaneously set boundaries with them while respecting and validating their experience and emotions (and this applies to adults as well!). A boundary does not give us permission to dismiss what the other person needs or feels as inconsequential; rather, it is about balancing these needs with our own. We can do this by using phrases like: 

  • “I can see that it makes you upset to wait until I'm finished what I am doing. I’m sorry that you are not happy, but it is important that I get this done right now. Why don’t you go play/draw while you wait for me?” 
  • “I can see that you are mad that I am turning off the TV. I know it can be frustrating to wait to watch your show/movie, but it is bedtime now, and you will be very tired tomorrow if you don’t get enough sleep.” 
  • “I can see you’re frustrated that I want to watch my show for a bit, but I also need to do things that make me happy, just like it is important for you to do things that make you happy. Is there something else you can do now that will make you happy while you wait for me?” 

When you are setting boundaries, be sure to give your child clear rules and explanations. Be consistent and follow through with consequences, while also remembering to notice and reward your children when they respect your boundaries.

For more on teaching your child about boundaries, listen to my podcast (episode #506). If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).       

Preorder my new book How to Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Mess before August 8th, 2023 to receive exclusive bonuses, including access to a 1-hour webinar + Q&A session on back-to-school tips and strategies to help your child mentally prepare for the year ahead! You can preorder here.   

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Podcast Highlights

1:00, 5:00 How to help your child clean up their mental mess 

7:25 How to set boundaries with your child 

8:20 Why it is always important to explain the “why” behind a boundary 

9:40 Why we should avoid “Because I said so!” statements 

12:00, 17:48 How to use boundaries as a learning experience for your child 

19:00 What happens when we don’t set boundaries with our children 

22:45, 25:02 How to validate what your child is feeling while setting boundaries 

This podcast and blog are for educational purposes only and are not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional. 

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